Friday, February 19, 2010

Buffett’s ‘Dangerous Business’ Ensnares Municipal Bond Insurers (ABK; AGO; BRK-A; BRK-B; MBI)

A major piece, worth the read or a bookmark for the weekend.
Plus the headline actually says something rather than being a mess of keywords.*
I'll copy out Warren's disquisition on Muni insurance after the jump.
From Bloomberg:
Forewarned bankruptcies linked to infrastructure projects from Las Vegas to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, may prove Warren Buffett’s conclusion that insuring municipal bonds is a “dangerous business.”

Ambac Financial Group Inc., the second biggest bond insurer, faces as much as $1.2 billion in claims if a judge in Nevada allows Las Vegas Monorail Co., which runs a train connecting the city’s casinos, to reorganize in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The City Council of Pennsylvania’s state capital shelved a plan to sell taxpayer-owned assets to meet payments on $288 million of debt used for an incinerator funded in part with bonds insured by a unit of Bermuda-based Assured Guaranty Ltd. Harrisburg is weighing a possible bankruptcy filing.

With state tax collections last year through September showing the biggest drop since at least 1963, as measured by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, New York, local governments are seeking concessions from creditors of public projects, including bond insurers. The moves further threaten companies backing $1.16 trillion of public debt that already face $11.6 billion of claims on collapsed securities backed by mortgages.

“It is a worst-case scenario if the dynamics of the municipal bond market change,” said Rob Haines, an analyst who covers the bond insurance business at CreditSights Inc., an independent research firm in New York. “The companies have modeled in virtually no losses.”

Insurer Reserves

Ambac, MBIA Inc. and Assured Guaranty, the three largest bond insurers, have set aside 0.04 percent of the total public finance debt they insure, or $520 million, to pay claims on municipal securities, according to regulatory filings by the companies.

Local governments are struggling with depressed property values and sales, 9.7 percent unemployment and a slowdown in consumer spending that has cut tax revenue.

Last year, 183 tax-exempt issuers defaulted on $6.35 billion of securities, according to Miami Lakes, Florida-based Distressed Debt Securities Newsletter. That’s up from 2008, when 162 municipal borrowers failed to meet obligations on $8.15 billion of debt. In 2007, 31 of them defaulted on $348 million of bonds.

“In the past, things had a way of getting worked out,” said Jim Ryan, an insurance analyst with Morningstar Inc. in Chicago. “States might have stepped up and helped out, but bottom line is that the states are in trouble.”>>>MORE

*Here's The Economist's Buttonwood blog on the subject of Bloomberg's headlines:

IT is not easy writing headlines but Bloomberg seems to have adopted a strategy of cramming as many nouns as possible into a sentence. The result can be mind-boggling. A few weeks ago, I was baffled by the following:

"Sleep-At-night Money Lost in Lehman Lesson Missing $63 Billion".

But that was topped by two of today's efforts:

"Geithner Saying Be Like Bullish Buffett Can't Make J P Morgan Boost Lending" and "Japan Tops China Buying Treasuries as Lost Decade Survivors Debunking Pond".

I rather like the idea of a "debunking pond" into which we should tip the authors of all ridiculous theories, but what does it all mean?

Before critics of my errant typing jump in, I don't think these are errors; merely an attempt by the website to include "stopwords" that will get noticed by search engines and ensure the story gets more exposure. Any more ridiculous examples welcome.

From the 2008 Chairman's Letter (emphasis mine):

...Tax-Exempt Bond Insurance
Early in 2008, we activated Berkshire Hathaway Assurance Company (“BHAC”) as an insurer of the tax-exempt bonds issued by states, cities and other local entities. BHAC insures these securities for issuers both at the time their bonds are sold to the public (primary transactions) and later, when the bonds are already owned by investors (secondary transactions).

By yearend 2007, the half dozen or so companies that had been the major players in this business had all fallen into big trouble. The cause of their problems was captured long ago by Mae West: “I was Snow White, but I drifted.”

The monolines (as the bond insurers are called) initially insured only tax-exempt bonds that were low-risk. But over the years competition for this business intensified, and rates fell. Faced with the prospect of stagnating or declining earnings, the monoline managers turned to ever-riskier propositions. Some of these involved the insuring of residential mortgage obligations. When housing prices plummeted, the monoline industry quickly became a basket case.

Early in the year, Berkshire offered to assume all of the insurance issued on tax-exempts that was on the books of the three largest monolines. These companies were all in life-threatening trouble (though they said otherwise.) We would have charged a 11⁄2% rate to take over the guarantees on about $822 billion of bonds. If our offer had been accepted, we would have been required to pay any losses suffered by investors who owned these bonds – a guarantee stretching for 40 years in some cases. Ours was not a frivolous proposal: For reasons we will come to later, it involved substantial risk for Berkshire.

The monolines summarily rejected our offer, in some cases appending an insult or two. In the end, though, the turndowns proved to be very good news for us, because it became apparent that I had severely underpriced our offer.

Thereafter, we wrote about $15.6 billion of insurance in the secondary market. And here’s the punch line: About 77% of this business was on bonds that were already insured, largely by the three aforementioned monolines. In these agreements, we have to pay for defaults only if the original insurer is financially unable to do so.

We wrote this “second-to-pay” insurance for rates averaging 3.3%. That’s right; we have been paid far more for becoming the second to pay than the 1.5% we would have earlier charged to be the first to pay. In one extreme case, we actually agreed to be fourth to pay, nonetheless receiving about three times the 1% premium charged by the monoline that remains first to pay. In other words, three other monolines have to first go broke before we need to write a check.

Two of the three monolines to which we made our initial bulk offer later raised substantial capital. This, of course, directly helps us, since it makes it less likely that we will have to pay, at least in the near term, any claims on our second-to-pay insurance because these two monolines fail. In addition to our book of secondary business, we have also written $3.7 billion of primary business for a premium of $96 million. In primary business, of course, we are first to pay if the issuer gets in trouble.

We have a great many more multiples of capital behind the insurance we write than does any other monoline. Consequently, our guarantee is far more valuable than theirs. This explains why many sophisticated investors have bought second-to-pay insurance from us even though they were already insured by another monoline. BHAC has become not only the insurer of preference, but in many cases the sole insurer acceptable to bondholders.

Nevertheless, we remain very cautious about the business we write and regard it as far from a sure thing that this insurance will ultimately be profitable for us. The reason is simple, though I have never seen even a passing reference to it by any financial analyst, rating agency or monoline CEO.

The rationale behind very low premium rates for insuring tax-exempts has been that defaults have historically been few. But that record largely reflects the experience of entities that issued uninsured bonds. Insurance of tax-exempt bonds didn’t exist before 1971, and even after that most bonds remained uninsured.

A universe of tax-exempts fully covered by insurance would be certain to have a somewhat different loss experience from a group of uninsured, but otherwise similar bonds, the only question being how different. To understand why, let’s go back to 1975 when New York City was on the edge of bankruptcy. At the time its bonds – virtually all uninsured – were heavily held by the city’s wealthier residents as well as by New York banks and other institutions. These local bondholders deeply desired to solve the city’s fiscal problems. So before long, concessions and cooperation from a host of involved constituencies produced a solution. Without one, it was apparent to all that New York’s citizens and businesses would have experienced widespread and severe financial losses from their bond holdings.

Now, imagine that all of the city’s bonds had instead been insured by Berkshire. Would similar belttightening, tax increases, labor concessions, etc. have been forthcoming? Of course not. At a minimum, Berkshire would have been asked to “share” in the required sacrifices. And, considering our deep pockets, the required contribution would most certainly have been substantial.

Local governments are going to face far tougher fiscal problems in the future than they have to date. The pension liabilities I talked about in last year’s report will be a huge contributor to these woes. Many cities and states were surely horrified when they inspected the status of their funding at yearend 2008. The gap between assets and a realistic actuarial valuation of present liabilities is simply staggering.

When faced with large revenue shortfalls, communities that have all of their bonds insured will be more prone to develop “solutions” less favorable to bondholders than those communities that have uninsured bonds held by local banks and residents. Losses in the tax-exempt arena, when they come, are also likely to be highly correlated among issuers. If a few communities stiff their creditors and get away with it, the chance that others will follow in their footsteps will grow. What mayor or city council is going to choose pain to local citizens in the form of major tax increases over pain to a far-away bond insurer?

Insuring tax-exempts, therefore, has the look today of a dangerous business – one with similarities, in fact, to the insuring of natural catastrophes. In both cases, a string of loss-free years can be followed by a devastating experience that more than wipes out all earlier profits. We will try, therefore, to proceed carefully in this business, eschewing many classes of bonds that other monolines regularly embrace.
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The type of fallacy involved in projecting loss experience from a universe of non-insured bonds onto a deceptively-similar universe in which many bonds are insured pops up in other areas of finance. “Back-tested” models of many kinds are susceptible to this sort of error. Nevertheless, they are frequently touted in financial markets as guides to future action. (If merely looking up past financial data would tell you what the future holds, the Forbes 400 would consist of librarians.)

Indeed, the stupefying losses in mortgage-related securities came in large part because of flawed, history-based models used by salesmen, rating agencies and investors. These parties looked at loss experience over periods when home prices rose only moderately and speculation in houses was negligible. They then made this experience a yardstick for evaluating future losses. They blissfully ignored the fact that house prices had recently skyrocketed, loan practices had deteriorated and many buyers had opted for houses they couldn’t afford. In short, universe “past” and universe “current” had very different characteristics. But lenders, government and media largely failed to recognize this all-important fact.

Investors should be skeptical of history-based models. Constructed by a nerdy-sounding priesthood using esoteric terms such as beta, gamma, sigma and the like, these models tend to look impressive. Too often, though, investors forget to examine the assumptions behind the symbols. Our advice: Beware of geeks bearing formulas.
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A final post-script on BHAC: Who, you may wonder, runs this operation? While I help set policy, all of the heavy lifting is done by Ajit and his crew. Sure, they were already generating $24 billion of float along with hundreds of millions of underwriting profit annually. But how busy can that keep a 31-person group?

Charlie and I decided it was high time for them to start doing a full day’s work.