Will we ever know who got the AIG bonuses?

Published 2:05 pm Thursday, March 19, 2009

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has given AIG a subpoena for the names of the 400 or more people who are getting bonuses despite the fact that their company, in fact the division of the company in which most of them work, contributed mightily to the financial crisis this nation and the world now finds itself in.

There is an outside chance that despite the subpoena we will never know the names because AIG reportedly is “resisting” giving up that information.

“Bonuses for incompetence” is the term I apply to them, though AIG calls them “retention” bonuses. Personally, I wonder why any company would want to keep such a group of incompetents.

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Here’s the real kicker, though. Cuomo, in a letter he reportedly sent to Rep. Barney Frank, says that 73 of the incompetents received bonuses of $1 million or more and that 11 of those people receiving “retention” bonuses no longer work for AIG.

Yes. I, too, did a double-take when I read that 11 of those paid $1 million or more to stay have already left the employ of AIG. If they have left the employ of AIG, why did they get money intended to “retain” them? To use a term my mother used when I would tell her some excuse or the other that made no sense, I’m “bumfuzzled.”

I find it interesting that Edward M. Liddy, appointed by President Bush’s Treasury Secretary to takeover AIG wrote the current Treasury Secretary that he finds paying the bonuses “distasteful” and something that the company was doing only because the contracts requiring them were already in place when he was appointed to the job. Liddy reportedly is not receiving a bonus.

Even more telling about this monstrous company is what is included in an essay he wrote that was published in the Washington Post.

Liddy wrote that he found the “… overall structure (of AIG) is too complex, too unwieldy and too opaque for its component businesses to be well managed as an entity …”

If ever there was an indictment of being big just for the sake of being big, that statement is it. If ever there was cogent call for not allowing such monstrosities of businesses to form in the first place, Liddy’s essay is just that.

I think we had already seen just in the recent past where large, especially when coupled with greed, is a dangerous combination. Remember Enron and WorldCom, two massive companies that collapsed because of that fatal combination. Enron badly wounded the energy industry, but fortunately the wounds weren’t fatal, except to its customers’ pocket books, employees’ job security and employees and other poor investors retirement funds. WorldCom’s wounds also didn’t prove even close to fatal to the communications industry, though it also caused great damage to many lives.

AIG, though, grew so large that economists and governments deemed it “too large” to allow to fail, though it caused enormous damage to U.S. and world financial markets. It’s largeness is beyond belief.

With these examples in mind, and especially the last one, I hope the federal government, and other governments around the world, will take regulatory action to prevent such corporate obesity from occurring again.

Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, what has happened in the world of corporate obesity is proving to be the best argument for small business. When a small business collapses, it affects mostly just its employees and customers, and to some extent its suppliers, but it doesn’t affect the economy of the nation or the world. While maybe all businesses aren’t of a nature that they can survive as only traditional small businesses, I think we now see more clearly than ever that perhaps there are upper limits on how large a business should be allowed to grow.

These bonuses, though. I can’t imagine giving someone a bonus for failure or incompetence. I especially can’t imagine giving someone a bonus to “retain” him or her after that person has already left the company. Apparently, not only were the employees receiving the bonuses incompetent, but so were the lawyers who drew up the contracts. Do you suppose some sort of kickback scheme might also be at play here? That’s the most logical reason for the bonuses that I can think of, though I doubt if it would come with a legal or ethical explanation.

For a final note on these bonuses, Cuomo, in his letter to Frank, reportedly wrote that the bonuses range in amounts from $1,000 to $6.5 million. I suspect lowly secretaries, message runners and mailroom clerks received the $1,000 bonuses, while the people who designed and sold the financial products that caused all the damage got the really big ones, especially the million-dollar and multi-million-dollar ones. Isn’t that always the case?