Business bookshelf: 'The AIG Story'

  • Updated: February 2, 2013 - 4:43 PM

Maurice R. Greenberg and Lawrence A. Cunningham,

Wiley, 328 pages, $29.95

If you're among the U.S. taxpayers who watched in horror as $182 billion of your money made its way to the collapsing insurance giant American International Group during the financial crisis, it might come as a surprise to learn that your forced munificence didn't make much of a difference.

In his new book, "The AIG Story," former chief executive Maurice "Hank" Greenberg offers his take on what kept the company alive: "It was saved only by the loyalty and tenacity of its valiant work force." It's just one of many parallel-universe moments in this part-vanity, part-vendetta work, which Greenberg co-wrote with law professor Lawrence A. Cunningham.

Greenberg was forced out of AIG in 2005 amid regulatory probes that targeted him and the company. The version of the story he tells in his book is pretty much what he's been saying since then: He was a brilliant businessman, an alert risk-taker and a victim of overzealous regulators. All the bad things that happened at AIG began after he was shown the door.

It's a shame we couldn't have learned more from this very smart business leader who, through acquisitions and an ability to spot opportunities where his competition didn't, built AIG into the biggest insurance company in the world. Instead, we get 328 pages of finger-pointing and self-congratulation.

It was AIG's Financial Products subsidiary that concocted the derivatives that were nearly the firm's undoing. When a Drexel Burnham Lambert executive pitched the idea of setting up a derivatives business in 1986, AIG director Dean Phypers assessed it as an "exotic" business and described a presentation supporting it as "complex and confusing." They launched the operation anyway, with Phypers saying the unit would work "if kept on a tight leash."

Until then, Greenberg's AIG had stuck to businesses whose risks it understood intimately. But he can't escape the fact that he's the guy who gave the OK to set up the operation that, without a taxpayer bailout, could have brought the financial system down.

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