The big news has been the $165 million bonuses AIG gave its executives after receiving $170 billion in taxpayer bailouts. It’s disgusting, outrageous, and shows how short-sighted these bailouts have been.
The government has claimed AIG and other financial and car companies are just too big too fail, so we have to give them money. But this rewards companies that expand, even if unsustainable. If a company gets big enough, no matter their mistakes, the government and taxpayers will save them. AIG just makes mistake after mistake because free money doesn’t teach anyone a lesson on how to run a better business.
Mike Masnick proposed my favorite idea that bailed out companies should be broken up so they are small enough to fail. The new, smaller companies have less baggage and can focus on a fresh start. James Moore points out, even with $170 billion, AIG is closer to death than a fresh start. Moore writes:
AIG’s predicament will be studied for years to come in marketing and communications classes. When the company decided to pay out millions of dollars in retention bonuses after seeking billions in bailouts from taxpayers, there was probably nothing the greatest crisis communications expert in history might have ever done to manage the situation. AIG’s first step was to insist that it had contractual obligations to pay and this is factually correct. The company had signed deals to keep critical employees in the competitive financial products division. However, the people getting these bonuses are precisely the same individuals who created the nonsensical derivatives that turned America’s economy into a stick of butter in a microwave.
Financial mistakes are one thing. A company can reclaim the public’s trust even after bankruptcy or other major missteps. But AIG has harmed the public’s good faith so much, it’s impossible to see a realistic scenario where AIG becomes a force for good business in the United States and the world. So with $170 billion of taxpayer’s money, what is AIG to do next?
There isn’t much. One argument could be the government is bailing out AIG just so companies can get their insurance payouts and not default themselves. After everyone’s paid, AIG can collapse under its own incompetence. But can AIG remain? I don’t think a name change will be enough to build back trust. The company name and image is so tainted and untrustworthy, Moore says “AIG is dead.” We, the taxpayers, own a dead company – a company with no viable future.
Trust for a company or person is one of their most valuable commodities. Without trust, products, services, and marketing are ignored because no one can believe them. AIG could make every reform possible, and there would be questions about what are they hiding.
I’m a believer (and practicer) of the magic of community-building and know Americans have a high capacity for forgiveness (we haven’t lynched anyone…yet). But at some point, we have to cut our losses and realize these too big to fail companies eventually have to be successful on their own. How do we accomplish that? Rewarding incompetency or outright manipulation don’t seem like winning strategies. Companies, from banking to insurance to cars have to rebuild trust in their brands, otherwise we’re just bailing out lost causes.