Did Treasury leave money on the table with AIG?

May 8, 2012, 8:05 PM UTC

FORTUNE — On the surface, it seemed like highway robbery: The U.S. Treasury sold off almost $6 billion worth of AIG shares yesterday at $30.50 each — a whopping 7% discount to AIG’s stock price before the weekend.

By day’s end, the stock had climbed right back up. After shares dipped to the offering price Monday morning, they traded above $32 in the after-hours. Do the math and if Treasury had sold its shares at AIG’s market price, it would have pocketed an extra $375 million. Of course, anything above $28.72 is gravy for the Treasury — that’s the price at which it breaks even on its AIG (AIG) investment. But almost $400 million is a good chunk of money, especially for a government still defending its decision to bail out the insurer. Was the sale price really necessary?

It’s hard to know exactly because as Treasury points out, just about every underwriting bank on Wall Street joined the stock offering, scouring the world for buyers and eventually concluding that $30.50 is the best price they could get. Eleven banks in all joined the party, including Goldman Sachs (GS), UBS (UBS) and Morgan Stanley (MS). “We priced it at what the market would bear,” says a Treasury official. “We don’t dictate the price, the market does.”

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True enough. But if Treasury has to put sales stickers on AIG, and it really wants to maximize its profit — already the Government Accountability Office says the government can expect to earn $15 billion on its AIG bailout — why not try another route?

One option is to forego offerings and sell directly to the investors AIG already has. People like Bruce Berkowitz, AIG’s largest private shareholder, have talked about offering rights to existing shareholders. His Fairholme Fund, which has nearly 30% of asset in AIG’s common stock, might be maxed out on the insurer. But other large institutions with considerable stakes already include firms like Tradewinds Global Investors, Franklin Templeton Investments, and Wellington Management.

How about offering them a smaller stock discount? Treasury could effectively rip off AIG’s sales sticker. And it shouldn’t have to worry about those investors flipping the stock. The plan rewards investors who have taken the largest risk by investing in a company whose stock is effectively controlled by the government.

To some extent this is Monday morning quarterbacking. Treasury’s offering wasn’t a disaster, and criticizing it is like pointing out flaws in the 1972 Miami Dolphins. But since Treasury still owns 63% of AIG, or about $39 billion worth, it’s worthwhile to ask if it will always be forced to resort to sale prices. And if so, maybe there’s a way around it.