WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US government’s emergency actions in the financial crisis went on trial Monday as lawyers accused it of having illegally seized teetering insurance giant AIG in September 2008.
David Boies, the lawyer for Hank Greenberg, the former chairman of American International Group, sought to make a case that there was no need for the government to take the company over even if it appeared insolvent as the financial system was melting down.
Providing AIG with liquidity, as was done with banks at the time, was all that was necessary to stabilize the situation, Boies argued.
But instead the government took a step further, injecting $85 billion into the company for a nearly 80 percent share of ownership, erasing much of the value of the equity of existing shareholders.
Boies accused the government of “illegal exaction” that was backed up and justified by efforts to “demonize” the company, which Greenberg, 89, had built into the world’s largest insurer.
The government had already made a fully-secured loan to the insurer, Boies said as the trial opened.
“They had a loan that they charged extortion interest rates on… and yet they reached out to grab 79.9 percent of the AIG shareholders’ equity,” he said.
“There was especially no justification of the taking of equity.”
But government attorney Kenneth Dintzer defended the takeover, saying a collapsed AIG would have cause much more damage.
“The goal was not to save AIG. It was to save the world from AIG,” he said.
AIG shareholders were in fact helped by the rescue, he argued.
“No one can pretend they would be better off without the government’s intervention… 20 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.”
Greenberg is suing the government via his Starr International Company, which was the largest single shareholder in AIG at the time of the government rescue.
Starr still holds about 1.3 percent of the company and is seeking $40 billion for its losses.
Key witnesses expected in the six-week trial include former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke and ex-New York Federal Reserve Bank President Timothy Geithner, who later became treasury secretary.
Both were instrumental in the takeover of the company, which as a privately owned insurer was not regulated by the Federal Reserve.
The trial will force Bernanke and Geithner to rehash the events of 2008, when they had to orchestrate the rescues of investment bank Bear Stears, housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and brokerage Merrill Lynch before letting Lehman Brothers collapse and then seizing AIG.