WASHINGTON — Insurance giant American International Group will award hundreds of millions of dollars in employee bonuses and retention pay despite a confrontation Wednesday between the firm's chief executive and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
But the company agreed to revise some executive payments after what chief executive Edward Liddy called a "difficult" conversation.
The bonuses and other payments have been exasperating government officials, who have committed $170 billion to keep the company afloat — far more than has been offered to any other financial firm.
The issue came to a head when Geithner called Liddy and told him the payments were unacceptable and had to be renegotiated, an administration official said.
In a letter to Geithner Saturday, Liddy agreed to restructure some of the payments. But Liddy said he had "grave concerns" about the impact on the firm's ability to retain talented staff "if employees believe that their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury."
Lawyers at both the Treasury Department and AIG have concluded that the firm would risk a lawsuit if it scrapped the retention payments at the AIG Financial Products subsidiary, whose troublesome derivative trading nearly sank AIG. The company promised before the government started bailing out the firm in September that employees would be awarded more than $400 million in retention pay this year and next.
"I do not like these arrangements and find it distasteful and difficult to recommend to you that we must proceed with them," Liddy wrote.
At the same time, the company said in documents provided to the Treasury, any steps that encourage specialists at AIG Financial Products to leave could open the U.S. government to further risk because of the hazards still posed by the $1.6 trillion portfolio of complex derivatives these employees are working to dispose.
AIG's top seven executives, including Liddy, already agreed in November to forgo their bonuses through this year. The next 43 highest ranking officers at the company are now to receive half of their bonuses, which total $9.6 million. Another quarter of that would be disbursed on July 15 and the rest on Sept. 15. But these last two payments would depend on whether the company makes progress in restructuring its business and paying back taxpayers.
Federal officials plan to recoup some of this bonus and retention pay in restructuring the company, an administration official said.
Officials at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve took over AIG in the fall, fearing one of the world's most successful conglomerates had grown so intertwined with the global economy that the firm's impending failure could have disastrous consequences.
In return for the bailout, the government took an 80 percent ownership stake in the company. Since then, the rescue package has ballooned. But both the Bush and Obama administrations have been reluctant to completely and explicitly nationalize the company, though this could have avoided the current flap over bonus payments, first reported by The Washington Post.
AIG officials said debate over the bonuses and retention pay has been simmering for months. During the past year, the company has repeatedly disclosed these payments in public financial filings. But as lawmakers increasingly clamored for details of their size, outrage grew in Congress and beyond.
Although the AIG Financial Products unit is proceeding with the payments, Liddy said the company would try to reduce future retention pay by at least 30 percent. In addition, the 25 highest-paid employees at Financial Products have agreed to reduce their salary to $1 for the remainder of 2009, Liddy wrote. Salaries for the rest of the firm's employees will be cut by 10 percent.
The Obama administration has been sensitive to how companies receiving government bailout money indulge their employees. Spending on jets, extravagant office furniture and bonus checks — while not always a significant portion of corporate spending — sours the public's view of the financial rescue effort at a time when the administration is considering asking Congress for billions of dollars more to help banks.
AIG officials say that some of upcoming bonuses are relatively modest once they are divided among employees. About 4,700 people in the company's global insurance units are receiving $600 million in retention pay. In addition, about $121 million in corporate bonuses will go to more than 6,400 people, for an average payout of about $19,000, according to AIG.
"These are not Wall Street bonuses," said one AIG executive, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "This is an insurance company." That executive also noted that the retention bonuses were put in place in early 2008 at a time when AIG Financial Products hadn't yet melted down. "They knew that the book was running into trouble," the executive said. "They thought they could weather the storm. But they thought they needed to keep people in their seats. They were worried."
Then, of course, everything changed. Financial Products kept posting bigger and bigger losses, burying AIG under a cash crunch from which it has not recovered.
Since that collapse, companies officials say, many Financial Products employees have lost nearly two-thirds of their compensation under the firm's deferred payment plan, in which bonuses are doled out over several years based on the firm's profitability.
The new cutbacks raise the risk that more employees will depart before the firm can be wound down and closed.
"These employees are highly specialized and/or are part of businesses that control billions of dollars of revenue and value that will be needed to repay the U.S. taxpayer," Liddy wrote in a letter last month. "Our competitors understand how valuable our top executives are, and we are acutely aware that they would like to siphon off our most talented leaders."
Over time, both the amount of retention pay and the number of recipients have grown.
Since taking over the rescue effort of AIG, the Obama administration has imposed stricter compensation rules, banning golden parachute payments for executives leaving firms and barring executive compensation above $500,000, except in the form of stock that cannot be cashed in until the government's loans are paid back.
But the government could not revoke bonuses promised before the government's rescue efforts began, officials said.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a leading critic of excessive executive compensation, backed a measure earlier this year to curb the practices but it included an exception for bonuses agreed to before Feb. 11, 2009.