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Bonuses overshadow foreign bank payments

By Andrew Ward in Washington

Published: March 16 2009 23:15 | Last updated: March 17 2009 01:05

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When it emerged on Sunday that foreign banks had received more than $50bn of US federal funds as part of the AIG bail-out, big beneficiaries such as Deutsche Bank and Société Générale must have braced themselves for an outcry in Washington.

Instead, the reaction has been muted as US politicians focus instead on revelations about the $165m of bonus payments to AIG employees in spite of the insurance group’s multi-billion dollar losses.

Andrew Cuomo, New York attorney-general, has issued subpoenas to the insurer for more information, including the names of those benefiting from the bonuses.

Barney Frank, chairman of the House financial services committee, said questions would be raised about the payments to foreign banks at a planned hearing on AIG on Wednesday.

But he acknowledged that anger about taxpayer money flowing overseas had been “displaced” by the bonus issue.

More than 20 banks in Canada and seven European countries benefited from the bail-out as counterparties to derivatives contracts and financial deals with AIG.

The biggest winners were French banks, with Société Générale receiving $11.9bn and BNP Paribas $4.9bn. Deutsche Bank of Germany received $11.8bn and Barclays of the UK $8.5bn.

Most prominent figures on Capitol Hill appeared to accept that the payments were unavoidable given how interwoven AIG was in the global financial system.

Mr Frank said it was “legitimate” to query why so much bail-out cash had ended up in foreign hands but said the US had to avoid measures that could “drive away foreign investment”.

Even Elijah Cummings, a Democratic congressman who has criticised AIG payments to Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank, which received $12.9bn, stopped short of condemning the foreign pay-outs.

He said: “We cannot afford to adopt a protectionist strategy when it comes to the global banking system, because taking actions against global banks would only speed the fall of the world economy in which we are all intricately linked”.

Société Générale said it acted “in full conformity with our counterparty agreements with AIG”. Deutsche Bank declined to comment.

UBS, the Swiss bank, received $5bn from US taxpayers via AIG – dwarfing the $780m it agreed to pay the US government last month after admitting to helping US clients avoid taxes.

Other beneficiaries included Calyon of France, HSBC of the UK and Banco Santander of Spain.

Additional reporting by James Wilson in Frankfurt

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