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Google parent should buy AIG: An 'audacious' idea from Citigroup

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(Bloomberg) — It’s an “audacious” idea, and Citigroup Inc. acknowledges as much.

Google’s parent, Alphabet Inc., should buy American International Group Inc. (AIG) to expand into financial services, and turn the insurer into a laboratory for innovation, the New York- based bank’s analysts said in a note Monday.

“We realize it is a very low-probability event, while maintaining that it is still a very good idea,” analysts led by Todd Bault wrote. “There is a perfect convergence of reasons why it might be exactly what AIG and the insurance industry needs. And the tech community could help solve what could well be one of the most challenging problems it could tackle.”

Google changed its name and structure last year to help highlight ventures beyond its search engine. Alphabet has been investing in artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and health technology, while dipping its toes into insurance with a price-comparison site for auto coverage. Insurance startups globally lured about $2.65 billion in venture and equity funding last year, a more-than-threefold increase from 2014, according to research firm CB Insights.

AIG Chief Executive Officer Peter Hancock likened his company in January to Alphabet when he announced the creation of nine “modules” to improve accountability for managers and add visibility for investors. He said the effort may help AIG eventually sell or spin off some of the units. Hancock applauded the technology giant for separating operations and targeting areas of investment.

‘Greater obligation’

“It’s just interesting that a young company like Google would go that way,” Hancock said in a Jan. 26 interview. “I think a mature company has an even greater obligation for transparency to make sure that investors know that their capital is being invested wisely.”

Hancock’s company has been investing in technology, data and startup companies to improve operations. The insurer has struggled for more than a decade with higher-than-expected claims costs and an exodus of senior executives. AIG has shrunk by more than half since its peak as the insurer sold assets to repay a U.S. bailout, and is now being pressured by activist investors Carl Icahn and John Paulson to further narrow its focus.

Shareholders of the Mountain View, California-based tech company would be frustrated by the volatility that comes with billions of dollars in insurance liabilities, the analysts wrote. The solution, they said, could be to team with an investment bank in an arrangement that would allow Google to control strategic development and also data, which is used to set insurance prices.

‘Needs a shakeup’

“Many investors think AIG needs a major shakeup. We think insurance as a whole needs a shakeup. Neither AIG nor insurers generally seem to want to take the big steps needed, except incrementally,” the analysts wrote. “The time is right to attempt something big, and the candidates are here.”

They didn’t identify which bank would make the ideal partner in such a venture, but said “there are many fine choices available.”

Jon Diat, a spokesman for New York-based AIG, declined to comment. Google didn’t immediately respond to a message at its media office.

– With assistance from Selina Wang and Lily Katz.

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