Blurring the Bailouts

March 4th, 2009 by Phil Mattera

This is the time of year when most U.S. public companies file their 10-K annual reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which in turn makes them available to the public through its IDEA web page (formerly EDGAR). These reports include sections in which management discusses the firm’s performance over the past year and tries to put the best face on the financial results.

Many companies are, of course, reporting disappointing results this time around, but perhaps the most awkward filings are the ones being made by companies that had to get bailed out by the federal government to get through the year. Let’s take a look at how they are talking about being wards of the state.

We don’t yet know how General Motors is dealing with this challenge, since it notified the SEC that its 10-K will be late. So let’s focus on two of the other biggest supplicants: Citigroup and AIG. The first lesson, apparently, is not to use the term “bailout” when talking about being bailed out. The term appears nowhere in either firm’s 10-K.

Citi instead employs the bland statement that “the Company benefited from substantial U.S. government financial involvement.” Substantial, indeed. Citi matter-of-factly describes the capital infusions, loss-sharing agreements and loan guarantees through which the feds have made a commitment potentially costing several hundred billion dollars to keep the giant bank holding company afloat. With all the references to UST and USG, a casual reader might think Citi was referring to conventional investors rather than the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. Government.

AIG adopts a more narrative approach, writing that: “By early Tuesday afternoon on September 16, 2008, it was clear that AIG had no viable private sector solution to its liquidity issues. At this point, AIG received the terms of a secured lending agreement that the NY Fed was prepared to provide.” This does not quite capture the gravity of events that the New York Times, for example, reported on in a front-page story headlined: FED IN AN $85 BILLION RESCUE OF AN INSURER NEAR FAILURE; U.S. GETS CONTROL; POLICY REVERSAL ARISES FROM GROWING FEAR OF GLOBAL CRISIS.

Aside from downplaying the gravity of their bailouts, the Citi and AIG 10-Ks are less than lucid on what led up to their troubles. In describing conditions in 2008 that led to a $27 billion net loss, Citi takes no responsibility. The causes, instead, are said to have been “continued losses related to the disruption in the fixed income markets, higher consumer credit costs, and a deepening of the global economic slowdown.” Contrast this to its 10-K of two years ago, which stated: “We enter 2007 with good business momentum, as we expect to see our investment initiatives generate increasing revenues, and are well-positioned to gain from our balanced approach to growth and competitive advantages.” In other words, when things are going well, management strategy gets the credit; when the red ink begins to gush, impersonal market forces are to blame.

AIG, which reported an astounding $99 billion net loss for the year, also paints itself as a victim of conditions outside its control, saying “the 2008 business environment was one of the most difficult in recent decades.” The difference with Citi is that AIG’s management is blunter about the continuing dismal prospects for the company. The notes to its financial statements include a section entitled “Going Concern Considerations” that raises the possibility that the company may need yet more government assistance and that, even then, its survival is far from a sure thing.

Perhaps the most telling parts of the reports are the sections in which the companies have to disclose significant legal proceedings in which they are involved. It takes more than 7,000 words for AIG to summarize all of its legal problems, including about a dozen securities fraud class action cases. Citi engages in a similar recitation.

While the two companies are still in a state of denial about their responsibility both for their own circumstances and for the larger financial crisis (as illustrated in the image above from Citi’s website), the existence of these legal proceedings may see to it that they are eventually held accountable for their financial misdeeds.

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