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The FSOC is Full of Hot Air

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

I’ve written about this before, but if the FSOC wants to prove that they don’t know what they are doing, they should define a large life insurer to be a systemic threat.

It is rich, really rich, to look at the rantings of a bunch of bureaucrats and banking regulators who could not properly regulate banks for solvency from 2003-2008, and have them suggest solvency regulation for a class of businesses that they understand even less.

And, this is regarding an industry that posed little systemic threat during the financial crisis.  Yes, there were the life subsidiaries of AIG that were rescued by the Fed, and a few medium-large life insurers like Hartford and Lincoln National that took TARP money that they didn’t need.  Even if all of these companies failed, it would have had little impact on the industry as a whole, much less the financial sector of the US.

Life insurance companies have much longer liability structures than banks.  They don’t have to refresh their financing frequently to stay solvent.  It is difficult to have a “run on the company” during a time of financial weakness.  Existing solvency regulation done by actuaries and filed with the state regulators considers risks that the banks often do not do in their asset-liability analyses.

Systemic risk comes from short-dated financing of long-dated assets, which is often done by banks, but rarely by life insurers.  I’ve written about this many times, and here are two of the better ones:

MetLife and other insurers should not have to live with the folly of “Big == Systemic Risk.”  Rather, let the FSOC focus on all lending financials that borrow short and lend long, particularly those that use the repurchase markets, or fund their asset inventories via short-term lending agreements.  That is the threat — let them regulate banks and pseudo-banks right before they dare to regulate something they clearly do not understand.

The Art of Extracting Large Commissions From Investors

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

The dirty truth is that some investments in this life are sold, and not bought.  The prime reason for this is that many people are not willing to learn enough to save and invest on their own.  Instead, they rely on others to corral them and say, “You ought to be saving and investing.  Hey, I’ve got just the thing for you!”

That thing could be:

  • Life Insurance
  • Annuities
  • Front-end loaded mutual funds
  • Illiquid securities like Private REITs, LPs, some Structured Notes
  • Etc.

Perhaps the minimal effort necessary to avoid this is to seek out a fee-only financial planner, and ask him to set up a plan for you.  Problem solved, unless…

Unless the amount you have is so small that when look at the size of the financial planner’s fee, you say, “That doesn’t work for me.”

But if you won’t do it yourself, and you can’t find something affordable, then the only one that will help you (in his own way) is a commissioned salesman.

Now, to generate any significant commission off of a financial product, there have to be two factors in place: 1) the product must be long duration, and 2) it must be illiquid.  By illiquid, I mean that either you can’t easily trade it, or there is some surrender charge that gets taken out if the contract is cashed out early.

The long duration of the contract allows the issuer of the contract the ability to take a portion of its gross margins over life of the contract, and pay a large one-time commission to the salesman.  The issuer takes no loss as it pays the commission, because they spread the acquisition cost over the life of the contract.  The issuer can do it because it has set up ways of recovering the acquisition cost in almost all circumstances.

Now in some cases, the statements that the investor will get will explicitly reveal the commission, but that is rare.  Nonetheless, to the extent that it is required, the first statement will reveal how much the contractholder would lose if he tries to cash out early.  (I think this happens most of the time now, but it would not surprise me to find some contract where that does not apply.)

Now the product may or may not be what the person buying it needed, but that’s what he gets for not taking control of his own finances.  I don’t begrudge the salesman his commission, but I do want to encourage readers to put their own best interests first and either:

  • Learn enough so that you can take care of your own finances, or
  • Hire a fee-only planner to build a financial plan for you.

That will immunize you from financial salesmen, unless you eventually become rich enough to use life insurance, trusts, and other instruments to limit your taxation in life and death.

Now, I left out one thing — there are still brokers out there that make their money through lots of smallish commissions by trading a brokerage account of yours aggressively, or try to sell you some of the above products.  Avoid them, and let your fee-only planner set up a portfolio of low cost ETFs for you.  It’s not sexy, but it will do better than aggressive trading.  After all, you don’t make money while you trade; you make it while you wait.

If you don’t have a fee only planner and still want to index — use half SPY and half AGG, and add funds periodically to keep the positions equal sized.  It will never be the best portfolio, but over time it will do better than the average account.

One final note before I go: with insurance, if you want to keep your costs down, keep your products simple — use term insurance for protection, and simple deferred annuities for saving (though I would buy a bond ETF rather than insurance in most cases).  Commissions go up with product complexity, and so do expenses.  Simple products are easy to compare, so that you know that you are getting the best deal.  Unless you are wealthy, and are trying to achieve tax savings via the complexity, opt for simple insurance products that will cover basic needs.  (Also avoid product riders — they are really expensive, even though the additional premiums are low, the likely benefits paid are lower still.)

Ranking P&C Reserving Conservatism

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

6791185245_9cb9b5ccc1_zAbout 1 1/2 years ago, I wrote a seven-part series on investing in insurance stocks.  It is still a good series, and worthy of your time, because there aren’t *that* many writers freely available on the topic.

This particular article deals expands on part 4 of that series, which deals with insurance reserving.  I wanted to do this at the time, but I was short on time, and wrote out the general theory there, while not actually doing the time-consuming job of ranking the conservativeness of P&C insurers reserving practices.

Let me quote the two most important sections from part 4:

 

When an insurance policy is written, the insurer does not know the true cost of the liability that it has incurred; that will only be known over time.

Now the actuaries inside the firm most of the time have a better idea than outsiders as to where reserve should be set to pay future claims from existing business, but even they don’t know for sure.  Some lines of insurance do not have a strong method of calculating reserves.  This was/is true of most financial insurance, title insurance, etc., and as such, many such insurers got wiped out in the collapse of the housing bubble, because they did not realize that they were taking one big nondiversifiable risk.  The law of large numbers did not apply, because the results were highly correlated with housing prices, financial asset prices, etc.

Even with a long-tailed P&C insurance coverage, setting the reserves can be more of an art than science.  That is why I try to underwrite insurance management teams to understand whether they are conservative or not.  I would rather get a string of positive surprises than negative surprises, and you tend to one or the other.

and

What is the company’s attitude on reserving?  How often do they report significant additional claims incurred from business written more than a year ago?  Good companies establish strong reserves on current year business, which depress current year profits, but gain reserve releases from prior year strongly set reserves.

So get out the 10K, and look for “Increase (decrease) in net losses and loss expenses incurred in respect of losses occurring in: prior years.”  That value should be consistently negative.  That is a sign that he management team does not care about maximizing current period profits but is conservative in its reserving practices.

One final note: point 2 does not work with life insurers.  They don’t have to give that disclosure.  My concern with life insurers is different at present because I don’t trust the reserving of secondary guarantees, which are promises made where the liability cannot easily be calculated, and where the regulators are behind the curve.

As such, I am leery of life insurers that write a lot of variable business, among other hard-to-value practices.  Simplicity of product design is a plus to investors.

P&C reserving_14389_image002Today’s post analyzes Property & Casualty Insurers, and looks at their history of whether they consistently reserve conservatively each year.   Repeating from above, management teams that reserve conservatively establish strong reserves on current year business, which depress current year profits, but gain reserve releases from prior year strongly set reserves.  This should give greater confidence that the accounting is fair, if not conservative.

So, I went and got the figures for “Increase (decrease) in net losses and loss expenses incurred in respect of losses occurring in: prior years,” for 67 companies over the past 12 years from the EDGAR database.  Today I share that with you.

When you look at the column “Reserving by Year,” that tells you how the reserving for business in prior years went over time.  A company that was consistently conservative of the past twelve years would have “12N’ written there for twelve negative adjustments to reserves.  Using Allstate as an example, the text is “5N, 1P. 3N, 3P” which means for the last 5 years [2013-2009], Allstate had negative adjustments to prior year reserves.  In 2008, it had to strengthen prior year reserves.  2007-2005, negative adjustments.  2004-3, it had to strengthen prior year reserves.

Now, in reserving, current results are more important than results in the past.  Thus, in order to come up with a score, I discounted each successive year by 25%.  That is, 2013 was worth 100 points, 2012 was worth 75, 2011 was worth 56, 2010 was worth 42 points, etc.  Since not all of the companies were around for the full 12 years, I normalized their scores by dividing by the score of a hypothetical company that was around as long as they were that had a perfect score.

Now, is this the only measure for evaluating an insurance company?  Of course not.  All this measures in a rough way is the willingness of a management team to reduce income in the short-run in order to be more certain about the accounting.  Consult my 7-part series for more ways to analyze insurance companies.

As an example, imagine an insurance company that consistently writes insurance business at an 80% combined ratio.  [I.e. 20% of the premium emerges as profit.]  I wouldn’t care much about minor reserve understatement.  Trouble is, few companies are regularly that profitable, and companies that understate reserves tend to get into trouble more frequently.

Comments and Surprises

1) Now, it is possible for a company to game this measure in the short run, where the management aims to always release some reserves from prior year business whether it is warranted or not.  That may have happened with Tower Group.  Very aggressive in growth, after their initial periods, they consistently released reserves for eight years, before delivering huge reserve increases for two years.

Now, someone watching carefully might have noticed a reserve strengthening for their non-reciprocal business in 2011, and then strengthenings in mid-2012, before the whole world realized the trouble they were in.

2) Notice in the red zone (scores of 40% and lower) the number of companies that did subprime auto insurance — Infinity, Kingsway, and Affirmative.  That business is very hard to underwrite.  In the short run, it is hard to not want to be aggressive with reserves.

3) Also notice the red zone is loaded with companies with much recent strengthening of reserves.  Many of these companies are smaller, with a few exceptions — the law of large numbers doesn’t apply so well with smaller companies, so they mis-estimate more frequently.  I won’t put companies with less than $1 billion of market cap into the Hall of Shame.  It’s hard to get reserving right as a smaller company.

4) As for larger companies, they can be admitted to the Hall of Shame, and here they are:

Hall of Shame

  • AIG
  • The Hartford
  • AmTrust Financial Services
  • Mercury General, and 
  • National General Holdings

AIG is no surprise.  I am a little surprised at the Hartford and Mercury General.  National General Holdings and Amtrust are controlled by the Karfunkels, who are aggressive in managing their companies.  Maiden Holdings, another of their companies is in the yellow zone.

Final Notes

I would encourage insurance investors to stick to the green zone for their investing, and maybe the yellow zone if the company has compensating strengths.  Stay out of the red zone.

This analysis could be improved by using prior year reserve releases as a fraction of beginning of year reserves, and then discounting by 25% each year.  Next time I run the analysis, that is how I will update it.  Until then!

Full disclosure: long TRV, ENH, BRK/B, ALL

The Shadows of the Bond Market’s Past, Part I

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Simulated Constant Maturity Treasury Yields 8-1-14_24541_image001

 

Source: FRED

Above is the chart, and here is the data for tonight’s piece:

DateT1T3T5T7T10T20T30AAABAASpdNote
3/1/713.694.505.005.425.705.946.01*7.218.461.25High
4/1/775.446.316.797.117.377.677.738.049.071.03Med
12/1/914.385.396.196.697.097.667.708.319.260.95Med
8/1/933.444.365.035.355.686.276.326.857.600.75Med
10/1/012.333.143.914.314.575.345.327.037.910.88Med
7/1/042.103.053.694.114.505.245.235.826.620.80Med
6/1/100.321.172.002.663.203.954.134.886.231.35High
8/1/140.130.941.672.162.523.033.294.184.750.57Low

Source: FRED   |||     * = Simulated data value  |||  Note: T1 means the yield on a one-year Treasury Note, T30, 30-year Treasury Bond, etc.

Above you see the seven yield curves most like the current yield curve, since 1953.  The table also shows yields for Aaa and Baa bonds (25-30 years in length), and the spread between them.

Tonight’s exercise is to describe the historical environments for these time periods, throw in some color from other markets, describe what happened afterward, and see if there might be any lessons for us today.  Let’s go!

March 1971

Fed funds hits a local low point as the FOMC loosens policy under Burns to boost the economy, to fight rising unemployment, so that Richard Nixon could be reassured re-election.  The S&P 500 was near an all-time high.  Corporate yield spreads  were high; maybe the corporate bond market was skeptical.

1971 was a tough year, with the Vietnam War being unpopular. Inflation was rising, Nixon severed the final link that the US Dollar had to Gold, an Imposed wage and price controls.  There were two moon landings in 1971 — the US Government was in some ways trying to do too much with too little.

Monetary policy remained loose for most of 1972, tightening late in the years, with the result coming in 1973-4: a severe recession accompanied by high inflation, and a severe bear market.  I remember the economic news of that era, even though I was a teenager watching Louis Rukeyser on Friday nights with my Mom.

April 1977

Once again, Fed funds is very near its local low point for that cycle, and inflation is rising.  After the 1975-6 recovery, the stock market is muddling along.  The post-election period is the only period of time in the Carter presidency where the economy feels decent.  The corporate bond market is getting close to finishing its spread narrowing after the 1973-4 recession.

The “energy crisis” and the Cold War were in full swing in April 1977.  Economically, there was no malaise at the time, but in 3 short years, the Fed funds rate would rise from 4.73% to 17.61% in April 1980, as Paul Volcker slammed on the brakes in an effort to contain rising inflation.  A lotta things weren’t secured and flew through the metaphorical windshield, including the bond market, real GDP, unemployment, and Carter’s re-election chances.  Oddly, the stock market did not fall but muddled, with a lot of short-term volatility.

December 1991

This yield curve is the second most like today’s yield curve.  It comes very near the end of the loosening that the FOMC was doing in order to rescue the banks from all of the bad commercial real estate lending they had done in the late 1980s.  A wide yield curve would give surviving banks the ability to make profits and heal themselves (sound familiar?).  Supposedly at the beginning of that process in late 1990, Alan Greenspan said something to the effect of “We’re going to give the banks a lay-up!”  Thus Fed funds went from 7.3% to 4.4% in the 12 months prior to December 1991, before settling out at 3% 12 months later.  Inflation and unemployment were relatively flat.

1991 was a triumphant year in the US, with the Soviet Union falling, Gulf War I ending in a victory (though with an uncertain future), 30-year bond yields hitting new lows, and the stock market hitting new all time highs.  Corporate bonds were doing well also, with tightening spreads.

What would the future bring?  The next section will tell you.

August 1993

This yield curve is the most like today’s yield curve.  Fed funds are in the 13th month out of 19 where they have been held there amid a strengthening economy.  The housing market is doing well, and mortgage refinancing has been high for the last three years, creating a situation where those investing in mortgages securities have a limited set of coupon rates that they can buy if they want to put money to work in size.

An aside before I go on — 1989 through 1993 was the era of clever mortgage bond managers, as CMOs sliced and diced bundles of mortgage payments so that managers could make exotic bets on moves in interest and prepayment rates.  Prior to 1994, it seemed the more risk you took, the better returns were.  The models that most used were crude, but they thought they had sophisticated models.  The 1990s were an era where prepayment occurred at lower and lower thresholds of interest rate savings.

As short rates stayed low, long bonds rallied for two reasons: mortgage bond managers would hedge their portfolios by buying Treasuries as prepayments occurred.  They did that to try to maintain a constant degree of interest rate sensitivity to overall moves in interest rates.  Second, when you hold down short rates long enough, and you give the impression that they will stay there (extended period language was used — though no FOMC Statements were made prior to 1994), bond managers start to speculate by buying longer securities in an effort to clip extra income.  (This is the era that this story (number 2 in this article) took place in, which is part of how the era affected me.)

At the time, nothing felt too unusual.  The economy was growing, inflation was tame, unemployment was flat.  But six months later came the comeuppance in the bond market, which had some knock-on effects to the economy, but primarily was just a bond market issue.   The FOMC hiked the Fed funds rate in February 1994 by one quarter percent, together with a novel statement issued by Chairman Greenspan.  The bond market was caught by surprise, and as rates rose, prepayments fell.  To maintain a neutral market posture, mortgage bond managers sold long Treasury and mortgage bonds, forcing long rates still higher.  In the midst of this the FOMC began raising the fed funds rate higher and higher as they feared economic growth would lead to inflation, with rising long rates a possible sign of higher expected inflation.  The FOMC raises Fed fund by 1/2%.

In April, thinking they see continued rises in inflation expectation, they do an inter-meeting surprise 1/4% raise of Fed funds, followed by another 1/2% in May.  It is at this pint that Vice Chairman McDonough tentatively realizes [page 27] that the mortgage market has now tightly coupled the response of the long end of the bond market to the short end the bond market, and thus, Fed policy.  This was never mentioned again in the FOMC Transcripts, though it was the dominant factor moving the bond markets.  The Fed was so focused on the real economy, that they did not realize their actions were mostly affecting the financial economy.

FOMC policy continued: Nothing in July, 1/2% rise in August, nothing in September, 3/4% rise in November, nothing in December, and 1/2% rise in February 1995, ending the tightening. In late December 1994 and January of 1995, the US Treasury and the Fed participated in a rescue of the Mexican peso, which was mostly caused by bad Mexican economic policy, but higher rates in the US diminished demand for the cetes, short-term US Dollar-denominated Mexican government notes.

The stock market muddled during this period, and the real economy kept growing, inflation in check, and unemployment unaffected.  Corporate spreads tightened; I remember that it was difficult to get good yields for my Guaranteed Investment Contract [GIC] business back then.

But the bond markets left their own impacts: many seemingly clever mortgage bond managers blew up, as did the finances of Orange County, whose Treasurer was a mortgage bond speculator.  Certain interest rate derivatives blew up, such as the ones at Procter & Gamble.  Several life insurers lost a bundle in the floating rate GIC market; the company I served was not one of them.  We even made extra money that year.

The main point of August 1993 is this: holding short rates low for an extended period builds up imbalances in some part of the financial sector — in this case, it was residential mortgages.  There are costs to providing too much liquidity, but the FOMC is not an institution with foresight, and I don’t think they learn, either.

This has already gotten too long, so I will close up here, and do part II tomorrow.  Thanks for reading.

On Genworth

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Another letter from a reader:

Hi David

Hope you are having a good summer.

Would love to hear your thoughts on recent developments at Genworth.  My sense has always been that LTC care insurance is a really tough business for the underwriter.  How can one possibly know how LTC costs will trend in the future – yet that unknown is what the insurer is agreeing to cover.  And some states aren’t even allowing them to raise prices?  Why would I want any exposure to this!!

Dear Friend,

Yes, LTC [long term  care] is an ugly liability and it has been consistently underpriced for the last 25+ years.  This has lad to the demise of some small companies (like Penn Treaty), with many more exiting or limiting the business.  I try to avoid companies that don’t reserve conservatively, and that has been true of Genworth over the last ten years.  Both LTC and Mortgage Insurance produced more claims than anticipated.

I’m not saying that things will get worse from here, but I put this in my “too hard” pile.  I would need a lot more information before committing money to a stock like this.  There are companies that are easier to understand, that also offer good potential returns.

If you can’t understand it, don’t buy it.

Sincerely,

David

Understanding Insurance Float

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Warren Buffett has made such an impression on value investors and insurance investors, that they think that float is magic.  Write insurance, gain float, invest cleverly against the float, and make tons of money.

Now, the insurance industry in general has been a great place to invest, but we need to think about float differently.  Float is composed of two things: claim reserves and premium reserves.

  • Claim reserves are the assets set aside to satisfy all claims that likely will be made as of the current date.
  • Premium reserves are the assets set aside representing prepaid premiums that have not been earned yet.

Claim reserves can be long, short or in-between.  Last night’s article dealt with long claim reserves — asbestos, environmental, etc.  Those reserves can be invested in stocks, real estate, long bonds, etc.  But most claim reserves are pretty short, like a year or so for most personal insurance auto & home claims — those typically get settled in a year.

The there are classes of insurance business that are in-between — workers comp, D&O, E&O, commercial liability, business continuation, etc.  Investing the claim reserves should reflect the length of time it will take until ultimate payoff.

The premium reserves are very short.  If premiums are paid annually, the average period for the premium reserves is half a year.  If premiums are paid more frequently, the average period for the float falls, but the premiums rise disproportionately to reflect the insurance company’s desire to have the full year’s premium on hand.  It usually makes sense for policyholders to pay at the longest period allowed — thus, thinking about premium reserves as having a  duration of half a year on average makes sense.  Except auto — make that a quarter of a year.

Earnings financed by float should be divided into two pieces — non-speculative, and speculative.  The non-speculative returns on float reflect what can be earned by investing in high quality bonds that match the time period over which the float will exist.  Short for premium reserves, longer for claim reserves.  So, the value of float is this:

Present value of (investment earnings of high quality duration-matched assets plus underwriting gains [or minus losses]).

This is a squishy calculation, because we do not know:

  • the number of years to calculate it over
  • future underwriting gains or losses

The speculative earnings from float come from assuming that float will stay at the same levels or grow over many years, and so the insurer invests more aggressively, assuming that float will be a permanent or growing thing.  He speculates by financing stocks or whole businesses using the float that could reduce, or that could become more expensive.

How could that happen? P&C insurance often gets very competitive, and the cost of maintaining float in a soft underwriting environment is considerable.  Also note the claim reserves mean that the company took a loss.  That the company earns something while waiting to pay the loss does not help much.  Far better that there were fewer losses and less float.

Smart P&C insurance companies reduce underwriting in soft markets, and in such a time, float will shrink.  Let aggressive companies undercharge for bad business, and let them choke on it, while we make a little less money.

Well-run insurers let float shrink – they don’t depend on float being the same, much less growing.  If it does grow, great!  But don’t invest assuming it will always be there or grow forever.  That way lies madness.

Berkshire Hathaway has benefited from intelligent underwriting and intelligent investment over a long period.  That is not normal for insurance companies.  That is why it has done so well.  Float is a handmaiden to good results, but not worth the attention paid to it.  After all, all insurance companies have float, but none have done as well as Berkshire Hathaway.  Better you should focus on underwriting earnings rather than float.

Underwriting insurance produces premium float.  Underwriting bad business produces claim reserve float.  Float is not an unmitigated good.  Good underwriting is an unmitigated good.  So focus on underwriting, and not float.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-===-

Berkshire Hathaway has been in the fortunate position of having had wise underwriters, and and ability to expand into new markets for many years.  Guess what, that was AIG up until 2003 or so.  After that, they could not find more profitable markets to underwrite, and results began to deteriorate.  They ran up against the limits of their ecosystem.

Buffett is a brighter man than Greenberg; he can consider a greater realm of possibilities in how to run an insurance conglomerate, and the results have been better.  All that said, there is only so much insurance to underwrite in the world, and big insurers will eventually run out of places to write insurance profitably.

All that said — float is a sideshow.  Focus on profitable underwriting — that is what drives the best insurers.

 

 

On Berkshire Hathaway and Asbestos

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Recently, a friend of mine from Canada came to stay with me.  We talked about a wide number of things, but when we talked about investing, I described insurance investing to him, giving my usual explanation on reserving.

Classical life insurance reserves are a science.  Death happens with regularity, it is only a question of when.  Short-tail P&C, health, etc, are almost a science — the claims come quickly, and the reserves get adjusted rapidly.  Long-tail Casualty and Liability is a dark art at best.  Mortgage, financial, and title insurance reserving is not even an art; there is no good theory behind them, as is true of life insurance products with secondary guarantees, particularly those dealing with variable products.

As an example of long-tail P&C, I told my friend about Berkshire Hathaway and asbestos — I mentioned to him how BRK has become the reinsurer of choice for insurers with uncertain asbestos liabilities.  Buffett has reinsured White Mountains, AIG, CNA, Equitas. and many others, the most recent being Liberty Mutual, which happened after the talk with my friend.

This is retroactive reinsurance, where an insurer purchases insurance from a reinsurer to cover business previously written.  This is an uncommon form of insurance, and most commonly used when the amount of claims is very uncertain.

Quoting from the Bloomberg article:

Liberty Mutual Group Inc. issued $750 million of bonds to help finance a payment to a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK/B) for covering the insurance company’s liabilities tied to asbestos.

The 4.85 percent, 30-year notes were sold to yield 160 basis points more than similar-maturity Treasuries, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Standard & Poor’s increased Liberty Mutual’s rating one level to BBB from BBB- after Berkshire’s National Indemnity Co. agreed last week to provide as much as $6.5 billion of coverage for the insurance company’s liabilities for asbestos, environmental and workers’ compensation policies.

“This agreement covers Liberty Mutual’s potentially volatile U.S. A&E liabilities and largely mitigates potential risks from future adverse reserve developments,” Tracy Dolin, an S&P analyst, said in a statement.

Berkshire, which has grown over the last five decades by investing insurance premiums in stocks and takeovers, has assumed billions of dollars in asbestos risk from insurers including American International Group Inc. and CNA Financial Corp.

Liberty Mutual paid Omaha, Nebraska-based National Indemnity about $3 billion for the coverage, according to a July 17 company statement.

This is similar to the other deals, where the premium paid is roughly half the amount of what BRK could have ot pay out at maximum.  Note that BRK has capped its exposure to the claims.   If asbestos claims against Liberty Mutual exceed $6.5 Billion, Liberty Mutual will have to pay the excess.

I don’t think there is another American insurance company with more asbestos exposure than BRK.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.  Let me quote from BRK’s recent 10-K:

We are exposed to environmental, asbestos and other latent injury claims arising from insurance and reinsurance contracts. Liability estimates for environmental and asbestos exposures include case basis reserves and also reflect reserves for legal and other loss adjustment expenses and IBNR [DM: Incurred But Not Reported] reserves. IBNR reserves are based upon our historic general liability exposure base and policy language, previous environmental loss experience and the assessment of current trends of environmental law, environmental cleanup costs, asbestos liability law and judgmental settlements of asbestos liabilities.

The liabilities for environmental, asbestos and other latent injury claims and claims expenses net of reinsurance recoverables were approximately $13.7 billion at December 31, 2013 and $14.0 billion at December 31, 2012. These liabilities included approximately $11.9 billion at December 31, 2013 and $12.4 billion at December 31, 2012 of liabilities assumed under retroactive reinsurance contracts. Liabilities arising from retroactive contracts with exposure to claims of this nature are generally subject to aggregate policy limits. Thus, our exposure to environmental and other latent injury claims under these contracts is, likewise, limited. We monitor evolving case law and its effect on environmental and other latent injury claims. Changing government regulations, newly identified toxins, newly reported claims, new theories of liability, new contract interpretations and other factors could result in significant increases in these liabilities. Such development could be material to our results of operations. We are unable to reliably estimate the amount of additional net loss or the range of net loss that is reasonably possible.

Long tail P&C reserves are roughly 20% of the total gross P&C reserves of BRK, and this deal with Liberty Mutual increases it.  Again, that’s not a bad thing, necessarily.  Given the premium paid, even if BRK pays out the maximum on average 10 years from now, the deal is a winner if BRK earns more than 8% per year.  If 15 years 5.3%.  If 20 years, 4%.  Given the long period before the ultimate payment of claims, BRK can make money in most scenarios.

That said, if anything bad ever did happen to BRK, such that its solvency was impaired, there would be a lot of insurance companies hurting as a result.  BRK is critical to the payment of asbestos claims.  There is not a better company to entrust with this task.

Full Disclosure: Long BRK/B for myself and clients — we own the equivalent of one “A” share.

On Fixed Payment Annuities

Saturday, July 5th, 2014

Before I start, thanks to all those who e-mailed me over my “sorted weekly tweets.”  I am likely to continue doing them.  That will start next week, because I have had a flood of new clients, and other obligations.

On Fixed Payment Annuities

How often do you run into articles in quality publications talking about annuities that will pay a fixed sum over your life, or over your life if you live past a certain age?  Not often, right?  Right.  Well, today I got two articles on the same day:

Longevity insurance is an important topic, and everyone should consider getting an income that they can’t outlive.  That said, there are two problems with this:

  • Inflation, and
  • Credit risk (will the insurer survive to make the payments?)

It is possible to buy inflation-protected annuities, but at a cost of a lower initial payment.  With credit risk, consider what the state guaranty funds will cover in insolvency, and realize that any payments over that amount could be lost due to insurer insolvency.  If you have a large payment, only buy from strong insurers.

Then there are the deferred fixed payment annuities.   You are 50 years old, and you want a payment stream that kicks in when you are 80, should you live so long.  You can buy a lot of income that far out, which will help you if you survive, subject to the same two main risks: inflation and credit risk.  I am not aware of any deferred inflation-adjusted payment annuities.

Now, you can think of your annuity as a replacement for long-dated fixed interest bonds.  A portfolio of fixed payment annuities, cash, maybe some commodities/gold, and stocks could be very stable, balancing the risks of inflation and deflation, and of high and low real rates.

There is the added benefit of the regular income which is useful to average people, who are okay with budgeting, but really don’t understand investments.  Just beware inflation and credit risk.

One more note: most insurance agents will never suggest immediate annuities to you because when you buy one, that’s the last commission the agent ever gets.  They would rather you buy a deferred annuity, where they can gain another commission when the surrender charge period is up, and roll you to a new product.

Summary

Longevity insurance is good, but be sure you avoid credit risk, and have other assets to compensate for potential inflation risk.

But They are not Actuaries, nor CFAs

Friday, June 27th, 2014

I am grateful that risk managers inside banks have more clout these days.  That said, I want it to persist, and the best way to do it is to have risk managers beholden to an ethics code, like actuaries or CFAs.

This is valuable, because the risk manager can point to a body of ethics that says to his manager, “I am sorry, but those of my discipline say that this action is unethical,” when line managers complain that the risk manager is killing business by insisting that certain risk standards should be maintained.

Actuarial risk models cover the life of the business, unlike Wall Street models that measured risk in terms of days.  Cash flows mater, and the ability to meet the demand for cash matters.  Long-term risk models tend to surface risks better than short-term models because an intelligent businessman can ask what are the odds that we will have a crisis over the duration of our existing business?

Once on a task force of the Society of Actuaries, when discussing non-traditional actuaries going to Wall Street, I said, “Great idea, but the line managers will eventually kill anyone that gets in their way.  They don’t want people who have an ethics code.  It inhibits business.”  After that, there were some nervous chuckles on the phone, and the conversation moved on.

Ethics codes are needed when the disparity of knowledge between the designers and ultimate consumers/investors/regulators is so great that there are many ways that the consumers/investors/regulators could be cheated.

My view is controversial but simple.  Every professional in investing and finance needs to have an ethics code, making them more sensitive to their clients.  The easy solution is that every investment/finance professional needs to hold a CFA charter.  The three exams are pretty minimal, and can be passed by most people with some study.  Give the actuaries a pass, their exams are far harder — far, far, far harder.

But set some boundary for ethics and examinations of competence, to clean up finance and send the flim-flam men to the edges of the market, where they belong.

 

 

Avoid Illiquidity

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

There are several reasons to avoid illiquidity in investing, and some reasons to embrace it.   Let me go through both:

Embrace Illiquidity

  • You are offered a lot of extra yield for taking on a bond that you can’t easily sell, and where you are convinced that the creditor is impeccable, and there are no sneaky options that you have implicitly sold embedded in the bond to take value away from you.
  • An unusual opportunity arises to invest in a private company that looks a lot better than equivalent public companies and is trading at a bargain valuation with a sound management team.
  • You want income that will last for your lifetime, and so you take some of the money you would otherwise allocate to bonds, and buy a life annuity, giving you some protection against longevity.  (Warning: inflation and credit risks.)
  • In the past, you bought a Variable Annuity with some good-looking guarantees.  The company approaches you to buy out your annuity at a 10-20% premium, or a 20-30% premium if you roll the money into a new variable annuity with guarantees that don’t seem to offer much.  Either way, turn the insurance company down, and hold onto the existing variable annuity.
  • In all of these situations, you have to treat the money as money lost to present uses.  If there is any significant probability that you might need the money over the term of the asset, don’t buy the illiquid asset.

Avoid Illiquidity

  • Often the premium yield on an illiquid bond is too low, or the provisions take value away with some level of probability that is easy to underestimate.  Wall Street does this with structured notes.
  • Why am I the lucky one?  If you are invited to invest in a private company, be skeptical.  Do extra due diligence, because unless you bring something more than money to the table (skills, contacts), the odds increase that they are after you for your money.
  • Often the illiquid asset is more risky than one would suppose.   I am reminded of the times I was approached to buy illiquid assets as the lead researcher for a broker-dealer that I served.
  • Then again, those that owned that broker-dealer put all their assets on the line, and ended up losing it all.  They weren’t young guys with a lot of time to bounce back from the loss.  They saw the opportunity of a lifetime, and rolled the bones.  They lost.
  • We tend to underestimate how much we might need liquidity in the future.  In the mid-2000s people encumbered their future liquidity by buying houses at inflated prices, and using a lot of debt.  When everything has to go right, the odds rise that everything will not go right.
  • And yet, there are two more more reason to avoid illiquidity — commissions, and inability to know what is going on.

Commissions

Illiquid assets offer the purveyor of the assets the ability to pay a significant commission to their salesmen in order to move the product.   And by “illiquid” here, I include all financial instruments that carry a surrender charge.  Do you want to know how much the agent made selling you an insurance product?  On single-premium products, it is usually very close to the difference between the premium you paid, and the cash surrender value the next day.

Financial companies build their margins into their products, and shave off a portion of them to pay salesmen.  This not only applies to insurance products, but also mutual funds with loads, private REITs, etc.  There are many brokers masquerading as financial advisers, who do not have to act strictly in the best interests of the client.  The ability to receive a commission makes them less than neutral in advising, because they can make a lot of money selling commissioned products.  In general, it is good to avoid buying from commissioned salesmen.  Rather, do the research, and if you need such a product, try to buy it directly.

Not Knowing What Is Going On

There are some that try to turn a bug into a feature — in this case, some argue that the illiquid asset has no volatility, while its liquid equivalents are more volatile.  Private REITs are an example here: the asset gets reported at the same price period after period, giving an illusion of stability.  Public REITs bounce around, but they can be tapped for liquidity easily… brokerage commissions are low.  Some private REITs take losses and they come as a negative surprise as you find  large part of your capital missing, and your income reduced.

What I Prefer

In general, I favor liquid investments unless there is a compelling reason to go illiquid.  I have two private equity investments, both of which are doing very well, but most of my net worth is tied up in my equity investing, which has done well.  I like the ability to make changes as time goes along; there is value to being able to look forward, and adjust.

No one knows the future, but having some slack capital available to invest, like Buffett with his “elephant gun,” allows for intelligent investing when liquidity is scarce, and yet you have some.  Many wealthy people run a liquidity “barbell.”  They have a concentrated interest in one company, and balance that out by holding very safe cash equivalents.

So, in closing, avoid illiquidity, unless you don’t need the money, and the reward is very, very high for making that fixed commitment.

Disclaimer


David Merkel is an investment professional, and like every investment professional, he makes mistakes. David encourages you to do your own independent "due diligence" on any idea that he talks about, because he could be wrong. Nothing written here, at RealMoney, Wall Street All-Stars, or anywhere else David may write is an invitation to buy or sell any particular security; at most, David is handing out educated guesses as to what the markets may do. David is fond of saying, "The markets always find a new way to make a fool out of you," and so he encourages caution in investing. Risk control wins the game in the long run, not bold moves. Even the best strategies of the past fail, sometimes spectacularly, when you least expect it. David is not immune to that, so please understand that any past success of his will be probably be followed by failures.


Also, though David runs Aleph Investments, LLC, this blog is not a part of that business. This blog exists to educate investors, and give something back. It is not intended as advertisement for Aleph Investments; David is not soliciting business through it. When David, or a client of David's has an interest in a security mentioned, full disclosure will be given, as has been past practice for all that David does on the web. Disclosure is the breakfast of champions.


Additionally, David may occasionally write about accounting, actuarial, insurance, and tax topics, but nothing written here, at RealMoney, or anywhere else is meant to be formal "advice" in those areas. Consult a reputable professional in those areas to get personal, tailored advice that meets the specialized needs that David can have no knowledge of.

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