Martin Sullivan Deathwatch: It’s All Over Now

Liam Pleven, in the WSJ, seems almost sorry for AIG CEO Martin Sullivan, now he’s being fired:

It’s not clear what a new chief executive, interim or permanent, can do to solve those problems amid ongoing upheaval in the mortgage and credit markets. No new CEO can cure what ails American real estate…

A new CEO could be confronted with other serious challenges and hurdles, too. It would be the second time since 2005 that a new leader has taken over essentially on the fly.

Mr. Sullivan spent his first year or so on the job merely trying to steady the ship…

A successor who came from outside the company would have to tackle that stabilizing job again, most likely without Mr. Sullivan’s long-standing relationships with the leaders of many of those varied businesses, or detailed knowledge of their operations.

The irony here is that Pleven himself is in large part responsible for Sullivan’s ouster. He wrote the May 14 article which kicked off the Martin Sullivan Deathwatch, and also the front-pager on June 9 which supercharged it. Yes, Sullivan might have been ousted even without the press coverage, but Pleven’s articles essentially made his position untenable.

I do agree with Pleven that Sullivan’s replacement is going to have a very, very tough job. AIG is still very much Hank Greenberg’s baby, and it’s far from clear that anybody else can run it effectively – especially seeing as how Greenberg is a vocal and major shareholder, more than willing to publicly criticize his successors.

I’m increasingly feeling, these days, that bottom-fishing is a fool’s game in the financial services industry. Yes, there are great and storied names like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and MBIA and Bill Miller and AIG. All of them were strong enough to be able to recover from the occasional stumble. But once they do a spectacular face-plant, it’s all over.

For me, the decline of AIG is the saddest of all, because it really was an incredibly inventive and special insurance company. I hope that many of its subsidiaries will have long and fruitful futures as stand-alone companies. But the holdco, I think, is doomed.

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