• Focusing on regulation can be ‘hugely distracting,’ CEO says
  • Hancock’s remarks are reassuring to bondholders, analyst says

American International Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Peter Hancock said he’s more focused on boosting returns than worrying about the government’s classification of his company as too big to fail.

“Of all of the strategic issues that we face as a leadership team, this doesn’t even make the top 10,” Hancock said Tuesday at a conference, when asked about the company’s status as a non-bank systemically important financial institution, a tag that can bring tighter capital rules. Seeking to reverse that label would be “hugely distracting to management and is based on a flawed premise that the binding constraint holding us back from returning more capital to shareholders is the regulatory framework that we have from the Federal Reserve.”

Hancock’s view differs with the approach of MetLife Inc. CEO Steve Kandarian who won a court battle in March to overturn the SIFI designation. MetLife has dropped 15 percent since Dec. 31 in New York trading, with the slump worsening after the company reported second-quarter results last week. AIG rallied after posting earnings last week, and its decline for the year was 4.5 percent as of 1:45 p.m. in New York.

‘Stick to Our Guns’

“Without naming names, the most recent court challenges and events have demonstrated staying focused on the fundamentals is perhaps the right thing to do,” Hancock said Tuesday at the conference, which was held by UBS Group AG in Chicago. “So we’re going to stick to our guns.”

Carl Icahn, the activist investor, challenged Hancock’s leadership in October and said that enhanced U.S. regulation is a “tax on size” that was draining value from the company. The CEO has cut jobs and sold assets to simplify operations, and AIG agreed in February to add a representative from Icahn’s firm to the insurer’s board. Hancock did say Tuesday that he’d be willing to reassess his position once capital rules are finalized.

While equity investors may prefer that Hancock fights the SIFI label, his remarks are “really reassuring for bondholders,” Rob Haines, an analyst at CreditSights Inc., said by e-mail.

General Electric Co. managed to exit SIFI status by selling assets such as finance operations and returning to its roots as an industrial company. Hancock said Tuesday that with insurance operations around the world, his New York-based firm will inevitably be closely monitored by a large group of government watchdogs.

“It’s not like you remove this label and suddenly you’re an unregulated company,” he said of the SIFI tag. “We’re constantly navigating these multiple constraints in a way that keeps us focused on our true north, which is being really well capitalized to serve our customers.”

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