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Against Insurance Groups [AIG]

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Photo Credit: Mindy Georges || The umbrella belongs to Travelers

This is a bug in my bonnet, and I have written about this for at least 13 years, and maybe as long as 16 years, but insurance conglomerates don’t work well. After suggesting at least three times that AIG should break itself up, we are finally to the last stage of it doing so.

There is a saying in the industry “Life Insurance is sold, P&C Insurance is bought.” They are different markets, and there is no reason for shareholders to own a company that does both. But some companies diversify. Who does that benefit?

The main beneficiary is the management, as it gives them cover for underperformance. They can always blame transitory factors for underperformance of one division or another.

And much as Hank Greenberg blamed his successors for the failure of AIG, the main cause of longer-term underperformance stemmed from the purchases of SunAmerica and American General at high prices.

AIG was highly profitable in 1989 with its foreign and domestic P&C operations, and its foreign life operations. What should it have done with its profits?

It should have paid a higher dividend, bought back stock, and shrunk the company as many other successful insurers have done. Companies is mature industries should return capital to shareholders.

Big companies develop a culture, and it makes them less willing to change. That was true of AIG. Hank Greenberg should have eliminated all life companies early on, and run a domestic P&C company with high underwriting standards. Then maybe it would not have had to rely on Berkshire Hathaway to reinsure them.

Just as GE has suffered, so has AIG. Both CEOs were lionized, then despised. The main idea to take away from this is conglomerates where businesses have different sales models don’t work.


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