American International Group, Inc. recently reached a $1.6 billion settlement with the SEC and New York state authorities after a year-long investigation into accounting improprieties at the company. But while government officials take bows for their apparent success, it is worth remembering that it was a journalist who first sounded the alarm about AIG.
Writing in The Economist in February 2002, correspondent Tom Easton noted that “Enron’s collapse…raised a whole raft of concerns about corporate America: conflicts of interest on Wall Street, impenetrable accounting, the offshore registration of corporate vehicles, large financial exposures, unhealthy deference given to celebrity chief executives, and high share valuations. Every one of these concerns is germane to AIG.”
CJR Daily spoke with Easton last week about the difficulties of going out on a limb, and the travails of taking on AIG and Hank Greenberg, the company’s famously aggressive ex-CEO.
Mark Mitchell: When you published your first story pointing to problems at AIG, virtually everybody believed it was one of the most successful companies around. Yet you published a story comparing AIG to Enron. That seems pretty extreme. How did you conclude that AIG was like Enron?
Tom Easton: You had all these issues of obscurity and impenetrability that you had at Enron.. All the clips and all the research reports were flattering. But then I spent a vacation reading AIG’s annual report and securities filings, and they were really hard to read. I looked at the proxy and tried to figure out what made this company so great, or even what Hank Greenberg’s income was, but I found it all impenetrable.
I put [the Enron comparison] in because I thought if it was happening there, it could be happening [at AIG]. But I would’ve written the story even if Enron had never happened. It was just a rhetorical device, a way of saying, “Let me characterize where AIG stands in the pantheon of other things.”
MM: Still, it was a bold call. How did you go about reporting the story?
TE: I just couldn’t justify the filings with everyone saying the company was good. You want to know why it was good. What was it’s sustainable advantage? What unique qualities did it have that made it so much more successful then everyone else? Did it have a rare genius? A unique network that was nonduplicatable? I started expecting to write a positive story, but I couldn’t write that story.
I began reading research reports in a different light. I thought, how do they know this company is doing so well? I thought they all must be really really smart, because I clearly did not get it. After I read all this stuff, I thought it was incredibly shallow. There was this general endorsement, but when I started calling these people and asking questions, their answers were incredibly unsatisfying.
I got The Economist to send me down to Bermuda to cover an insurance conference. The real reason I wanted to go to Bermuda was to check the filings for Star [International, a private offshore company owned by AIG managers]. I had to search though all these boxes of papers, and finally I found what I was looking for. And do you know what it said? It said, see Panama. I don’t think anyone before that had ever heard that Star was in Panama. They didn’t even allude to that in their U.S. filings.
The story took an incredible amount of time to write because it was confusing. I talked to more people than you can imagine. I went down to the NY state insurance office to get filings …. I talked to insurance brokers, risk managers, other companies. I talked to headhunters to see why they hired from AIG, what sort of people worked there. I had heard that Star was so secretive that even divorce lawyers couldn’t get access to it. Spouses [of AIG managers] wanted to know how much their husbands and wives were worth, but they couldn’t get the information. So, strangely, I ended up talking to divorce lawyers too.