Ah, AIG (NYSE: AIG ) . What was once the epitome of destruction, failure, and stupidity is now the market's golden child, up several hundred percent for no apparent reason. The company that almost bankrupted the world is suddenly the easiest way to get rich quick.
And it's all purely speculative.
Before jumping on the bandwagon, it's important to know this about AIG: The only way it can ever be worth a dime is if the sum of its broken-up parts are sold for enough to repay taxpayers, and still have some scraps left over for current shareholders.
Here's what The Wall Street Journal recently reported about its conversation with CEO Robert Benmosche:
After analyzing all of AIG's businesses, Mr. Benmosche said, he determined the company wouldn't be able to repay the government even if it sold everything. But he suggested that if he can bolster the businesses before selling off units, the situation might improve.
He ain't kidding. AIG owes taxpayers more than $80 billion. Its current book value is about $58 billion. Break everything apart and sell it at carrying value, and AIG shareholders could still be wiped out. Easily.
Several unit sales have so far gone for less than book value. Bids for its crown-jewel aircraft leasing unit came in at around 34% below book value back in April. AIG's currently hoping to snag $2 billion for its Taiwanese life insurance unit, yet bids "may" come in between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion, according to Bloomberg. There's a reason banks like Citigroup (NYSE: C ) and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) are reluctant to dismantle their balance sheets as well: This isn't exactly a seller's market.
Benmosche insists he'll wait out the storm and refuse to sell assets for less than favorable prices, but let's be real: It isn't up to him. The U.S. government effectively owns 79.9% of the company. If the Treasury and Federal Reserve, under political pressure to put this episode behind us, want to be paid back quickly, you can count on fire sales. The real shareholders of this company -- taxpayers -- want to get paid back quickly, and couldn't care less about much else.
On that note, one has to wonder how the operating segments can gain much value in a world where the AIG brand name is now a symbol of utter failure, and economic growth, at best, slogs along dazed and confused.
There's nothing wrong with speculation. Just realize that even the optimists are betting on the idea that the economy is getting less bad. But for AIG to ever be worth a single penny, things have to suddenly get really, really good.