by Lucy Komisar
Now that it controls AIG, the U.S. should investigate the extent to which this giant corporation, with subsidiaries in major tax havens, has been using the offshore system to cook its books and dodge U.S. taxes. Evidence shows AIG has done so in the past.
The U.S. takeover of the world’s largest insurance conglomerate, AIG, puts it in a unique position to look into the inner dealings of a company that is a profligate user of tax havens. AIG has employed offshore shell companies to cook its books and dodge taxes. The new U.S. managers should investigate how they do it. AIG’s favorite offshore jurisdictions are Bermuda, Barbados, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, places immune from even the lax enforcement of America’s state insurance regulators and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). AIG’s offshore subsidiaries include American International Assurance Company Limited, Bermuda; American International Reinsurance Company, Ltd., Bermuda; AIG Life Insurance Company Ltd., Switzerland; and AIG Financial Advisor Services, S.A., Luxembourg. AIG in the past has used tax havens to evade regulations and hide insider connections in supposedly “arms-length” deals. This is especially significant as the company has moved into financial services and asset management. It has also used the offshore system to evade U.S. taxes. Here are two examples, the first reported exclusively by this writer. AIG helped Victor Posner, a notoriously crooked investor, set up an offshore reinsurance company so that Posner could evade U.S. taxes. The policy scam was discovered in the early 1990s, after the SEC prosecuted Posner for a fraudulent takeover scheme concocted with Wall Street thieves Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, ordered him to pay $4 million to fraud victims and banned him from serving as officer or director of any publicly-held company. New managers took over Posner’s NVF Corp., which ran a Delaware vulcanized rubber plant. An insurance agent charged with examining company policies discovered that NVF was paying AIG’s National Union Fire of Pittsburgh substantially over market for workmen’s compensation insurance. AIG reinsured the policy through Chesapeake Insurance, an offshore reinsurance company Posner owned in Bermuda. In essence, NVF, owned by Posner, was buying insurance from an AIG company which was buying reinsurance for the policy from an offshore company owned by Posner. Bermuda provided tax and corporate secrecy, so Chesapeake’s books were safe from the eyes of American regulators and tax authorities. AIG and Posner made out like bandits. AIG got a higher commission from the inflated NVF premium before sending the rest to Chesapeake. Posner wrote off the entire amount as a business expense and enjoyed the extra cash in Bermuda, tax free, stiffing the U.S. government. Reduced profits also meant smaller dividends and share prices for investors. The insurance agent cancelled the NVF policy with AIG, but the Delaware Insurance Department did not make the scam public or take any action against AIG. A former insurance department regulator told me, “This was not an isolated case with Vulcan [NVF]. AIG did that a lot. AIG helped companies set up offshore captive reinsurance companies.” A “captive” is owned by the company it insures. AIG, he alleged, “would then overcharge on insurance and pay reinsurance premiums to the captives, giving the captive owners tax-free offshore income.” AIG says that it “pioneered the formation of captives” and offers management facilities to run them in offshore Barbados, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Guernsey, Isle of Man, and Luxembourg — all places where corporate and accounting records are secret and taxes minimal or nonexistent. Another scam helped AIG dodge taxes and U.S. regulations. Insurance companies normally insure themselves by laying off part of their risk to reinsurance companies, so if a claim comes in above a certain amount, the reinsurance company will pay it. State laws also require them to keep a certain amount of capital available to pay out claims. If they have reinsurance, that amount can drop. Companies have to show losses — amounts they have paid out — on their books. If they have enough good reinsurance, they get a credit for that against their losses. The reinsurer, of course, has to be an independent company; the risk isn’t reduced if it’s just moved to another division of the same company. In the mid-1980s, two of AIG’s reinsurers failed. AIG would have had to curtail writing new business, since rules require a certain ratio of assets to risk. Finding new reinsurers was going to be difficult and expensive. CEO Maurice “Hank” Greenberg persuaded several of his business friends to set up a company into which he could “cede” AIG insurance. The company was launched with a private sale of shares organized by Goldman Sachs, then headed by Robert Rubin. Greenberg’s front men were loaned the money to “buy” risk-free shares in the new Coral Re, an allegedly independent offshore reinsurance company, to allow it to illegally move debt off AIG’s books and violate rules about maintaining minimum levels of reserves required to pay off claims. The company was registered in Barbados, where capital requirements and regulation are minimal, where American regulators couldn’t readily discover AIG’s involvement and where, as an added incentive, it could evade U.S. taxes. If Coral Re was an AIG affiliate, it would have to pay taxes on its income.
A Delaware Insurance Department regulator’s report in 1996 said that Coral Re “may be an affiliate” of AIG. It described how AIG played an integral role in the creation of Coral Re; that its purpose was to reinsure risks for AIG companies; that virtually all Coral Re’s business originated from AIG units; and that Coral Re was managed by an AIG subsidiary. It concluded that the arrangement did not transfer risk and had to come off the books. The insurance departments of New York and Pennsylvania agreed. But delays and stonewalling allowed AIG to use Coral Re for more than eight years. By the time it had to shut it down, it didn’t need it anymore. Cowed by AIG, none of the agencies levied a penalty.
It would be unthinkable for the U.S. to allow a business it controls to finesse regulations, evade taxes or help others to evade them. The turnover of AIG to the U.S. will involve extensive examinations by accountants. An analysis of the company’s offshore strategies should be part of the audit. What accountants learn could stop illicit practices by AIG and lead to laws to prevent other insurance companies from doing the same.