Former AIG CEO's story is hard to read

Susan Antilla / Bloomberg News /

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,” he says.

That is just one of many parallel-universe moments in this part-vanity, part-vendetta work, which Greenberg co-wrote with law professor Lawrence A. Cunningham. It’s written in the third person but “is very much Greenberg’s story and a personal one at that,” we are told in the preface.

In an earlier affront to taxpayers, Greenberg sued the U.S. government in November 2011, seeking $25 billion based on allegations that the government, among other things, illegally seized stock from AIG in 2008 — stock he had a big interest in as CEO of Starr International, AIG’s biggest shareholder.

Greenberg pushed AIG to join the suit, but Jan. 9 the board said it was taking a pass.

Greenberg was forced out of AIG in March 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 the meltdown: He was a brilliant businessman, an alert risk-taker and a victim of overzealous regulators and ungrateful former colleagues. 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.

Surely, after a high-flying career befriending heads of state and moving AIG from insurance runt to worldwide behemoth, a man of 87 would have constructive insights about the near-collapse of the global economy. And, with a little luck, maybe even a bit of introspection about lessons he’s learned?

Instead, we get 328 pages of finger-pointing and self-congratulation.

But Greenberg 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.