Ever since Carl Icahn lit a fire to break up American International Group, analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein have been fanning the flames.
Granted, Bernstein's Josh Stirling and his colleagues want the fire to burn in a slightly different direction from Icahn's. They endorse shrinking AIG by selling off pieces one by one. Icahn, on the other hand, wants to split the insurer into three separate public companies.
But both share the common goal of making the company small enough to avoid designation as a systemically important financial institution, or SIFI, which requires greater regulatory scrutiny and larger amounts of capital to be reserved for a rainy day (or, you know, another global financial crisis).
The analysts on Tuesday dumped a bunch of fuel on that fire in a somewhat novel manner: They polled AIG shareholders among institutional investors that are Bernstein clients. The results do not bode well for Chief Executive Officer Peter Hancock, who plans to update investors regarding his strategy on Jan. 26.
Among the issues shareholders are unhappy about, according to the poll, are the pace and progress in fixing the property and casualty business, the decision to combine life and property and casualty into the multiline "OneAIG," and perhaps most important, the lack of "urgency and intensity of senior management and the board."
To be sure, it's perhaps prudent to reserve a little skepticism for all poll figures. And skeptics may latch onto the fact that the "Bernstein plan" devised by the same analysts conducting the poll met with 74 percent approval, more than double the support for Icahn's plan and almost eight times the number supporting the status quo.
Still, given the poll numbers, it's hard to imagine the margin of error being big enough to portray a vastly different sentiment among AIG shareholders: Only 4 percent said they support the status quo. Bernstein said the poll was "a sample that's balanced, statistically credible, and likely represents participation by owners of more than a third of AIG's shares."
From the cheap seats here, this seems like a smart use of an analyst's time, and it would be nice to see more analysts think outside the box like this. Many shareholders, for obvious reasons, may not want to play the role of activist, so it's a nice glimpse into what they're thinking. Hancock would be wise to take the results seriously before his strategy update.
Icahn's agitation and the apparent disgruntlement among AIG shareholders is interesting for another reason.
AIG's stock began outperforming indexes of other large insurance and financial companies well before Icahn began his activism. So CEOs of other SIFI companies take note: Even a well-performing stock price may not be enough to keep the barbarians on the right side of the gates.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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