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March 4, 2011 > AIG's outlook murky as core business underperforms

AIG's outlook murky as core business underperforms

By Pallavi Gogoi, AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP), Feb 25 - Robert Benmosche, chief executive of the bailed-out insurance company AIG, isn't known to be shy.

On Friday's conference call to discuss earnings, a Goldman Sachs analyst baited him with a question: ``If pre-crisis you were the 800-pound gorilla, how much do you think you weigh now, 200, 400, 700?''

Benmosche fired back: ``I would say we are about 780 pounds, and on our way back.''

Despite his bravado at the company's first earnings call in two years, American International Group Inc. is hardly the giant it used to be. Its $69 billion market value is far below the $147 billion it commanded prior to the financial crisis. AIG's reputation took a beating after the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy in 2008 and had to be bailed out by the U.S. government.

AIG has recovered from that nadir. Last month it laid the groundwork to start repaying the American taxpayer and the company has raised a stockpile of cash from selling assets. Since 2008, AIG has sold 33 businesses and raised more than $57 billion in cash and securities.

A portion of those sales lifted AIG's net income to $11.2 billion in the fourth quarter. The company doesn't have much to sell any more and will have to rely on its core insurance businesses going forward. AIG consists predominantly of two businesses: property and casualty insurer Chartis, and life insurer SunAmerican Financial Group.

The signs so far, aren't that encouraging. Chartis just reported an operating loss of $4 billion in the fourth quarter, while SunAmerica's income of $1 billion was $43 million lower than the previous year. Investors were especially surprised when the company announced an addition of $4.2 billion to loss reserves at Chartis.

``It raises questions,'' said Cliff Gallant, analyst at Keefe Bruyette & Woods. ``This is not the first reserve charge they've taken - they took one in the fourth quarter the previous year - it seems like they are having trouble getting their estimates right.''

Gallant said he's even more worried that AIG is adding to its loss reserves when rivals Travelers Cos. and Chubb Corp. are doing the opposite, taking money out of reserves because of lower expected losses.

AIG stock fell $1.96, or 5 percent, to $38.47.

AIG's performance is also being closely watched by the U.S. government, which owns 92 percent of the company. Starting in a few weeks, the government plans to start selling those shares over the course of two years. The sales could be in jeopardy if AIG's performance falters.

AIG became a symbol of lax regulation and excess risk on Wall Street during the financial crisis that crested in late 2008.

AIG had written insurance on the value of hundreds of billions in mortgage investments held by financial institutions. When the investments lost value, AIG could not afford to make good on its contracts. Finally, it had to take the government's help to stay out of bankruptcy.

AIG has whittled down the division that wrote insurance on complex financial products and is now returning to its roots in the insurance business.

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