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I am a fiduciary in my work that I do for my clients. I am also the largest investor in my own strategies, promising to keep a minimum of 80% of my liquid net worth in my strategies, and 50% of my total net worth in them (including my house, etc.).

I believe in eating my own cooking.  I also believe in treating my clients well.  I’ve treated part of this in an earlier post called It’s Their Money, where I describe how I try to give exiting clients a pleasant time on the way out.  For existing clients, I will also help them with situations where others are managing the money at no charge, no payment from another party, and no request that I manage any of those assets.  I do that because I want them to be treated well by me, and I know that getting good advice is hard.  As I wrote in a prior article The Problem of Small Accounts:

We all want financial advice.  Good advice.  And we want it for free.  That’s why we come to the Aleph Blog, where advice is regularly dispensed, and at no cost.

But… I can’t be personal, and give you advice that is tailored to your situation.  And in my writing here, much as I try to be highly honest, I am not acting as a fiduciary, even though I still make my writings hold to such a standard.

Ugh.  Here’s the problem.  Good advice costs money.  Really good advice costs a lot of money, and is worth it, if you have enough money to spread the cost over.

But when you have a small account, you have a problem in getting advice.  There is no way for someone who is fiduciary (like me) to make money addressing your concerns.  That is why I have a high minimum for investing: $100,000.  With that, I can spend time on clients, even helping them with assets from which I make no money.

What extra things have I done for clients over time?  I have:

  • Analyzed asset allocations.
  • Analyzed the performance of other managers.
  • Advised on changing jobs, negotiating salary, etc.
  • Explained the good and bad points of certain insurance companies and their policies, and suggested alternatives.
  • Analyzed chunky assets that they own elsewhere, aiding them in whether they keep, sell, or sell part of the asset.
  • Analyzed a variety of funky and normal investment strategies.
  • Advised on buying a building, and future business plans.
  • Told a client he was better off reinvesting the slack funds in his business that needed financing, rather than borrow and invest the funds with me.
  • Told a client to stop sending me money, and pay down his mortgage.  (He has since resumed sending money, but he is now debt-free.)

I take the fiduciary side of this seriously, and will tell clients that want to put a lot of their money in my stock strategy that they need less risk, and should put funds in my bond strategy, where I earn less.

I’ve got a lot already.  I don’t need to feather my nest at the expense of the best interests of my clients.

Over the last six years, around half of my clients have availed themselves of this help.  If you’ve read Aleph Blog for awhile, you know that I have analyzed a wide number of things.  Helping my clients also sharpens me for understanding the market as a whole, because issues come into focus when the situation of a family makes them concrete.

So informally, I am more than an “investments only” RIA [Registered Investment Advisor], but I only earn money off of my investment fees, and no other way.  Personally, I think that other “investments only” RIAs would mutually benefit their clients if they did this as well — it would help them understand the struggles that they go through, and inform their view of the economy.

Thus I say to my competitors: do you want to justify your fees?  This is a way to do it; perhaps you should consider it.

Postscript

Having some people in an “investment only” shop that understand the basic questions that most clients face also has some crossover advantages when it comes to understanding financial companies, and different places that institutional money gets managed.  It gives you a better idea of the investment ecosystem that you live and work in.

Photo Credit: eflon || The title of the article comes from a comment Greenberg supposedly made to Buffett when AIG was much bigger than Berkshire Hathaway — times change…

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The title of the article comes from a comment Greenberg supposedly made to Buffett when AIG was much bigger than Berkshire Hathaway [BRK] — times change…

It’s come to this: AIG has sought out reinsurance from BRK to cap the amount of losses they will pay for prior business written.  It’s quite a statement when you are willing to pay $10 billion in order to have BRK pay 80% of claims over $25 billion, up to $20 billion in total.  At $50 Billion in claims AIG is on its own again.

So what business was covered?  A lot.  This is the one of the biggest deals of its type, ever:

The agreement covers 80% of substantially all of AIG’s U.S. Commercial long-tail exposures for accident years 2015 and prior, which includes the largest part of AIG’s U.S. casualty exposures during that period. AIG will retain sole authority to handle and resolve claims, and NICO has various access, association and consultation rights.

Or as was said in the Wall Street Journal article:

The pact covers such product lines as workers’ compensation, directors’ and officers’ liability, professional indemnity, medical malpractice, commercial automobile and some other liability policies.

Now, AIG is not among the better P&C insurance companies for reserving out there.  2.5 years ago, they made the Aleph Blog Hall of Shame for P&C reserving.  Now if you would have looked on the last 10-K on page 296 for item 8, note 12, you would note that AIG’s reserving remained weak for 2014 and 2015 as losses and loss adjustment expenses incurred for the business of prior years continued positive.

For AIG, this puts a lot of its troubles behind it, after the upcoming writeoff (from the WSJ article):

AIG, one of the biggest sellers of insurance by volume to businesses around the globe, also said it expects a material fourth-quarter charge to boost its claims reserves. AIG declined to comment on the possible size. Its fourth-quarter earnings will be released next month.

For BRK, this is an opportunity to make money investing the $10 billion as claims on the long-tail business get paid out slowly.  It’s called float, which isn’t magic, but Buffett has done better than most at investing the float, and choosing insurance business to write and reinsure that doesn’t result in large losses for BRK.

I expect BRK to make an underwriting profit on this, but let’s assume the worst, that BRK pays out the full $20 billion.  Say the claims come at a rate of $5 billion/year.  The average payout period would be 7.5 years, and BRK would have to earn 9.2% on the float to break even.  At $3.75B/yr, the figures would be 10 years and 6.9%.  At $2.5B/yr, 15 years and 4.6%.

This doesn’t seem so bad to me — now I don’t know how bad reserve development will be for AIG, but BRK is usually pretty careful about underwriting this sort of thing. That said BRK has a lot of excess cash sitting around already, and desirable targets for large investments are few.  This had better make an underwriting profit, or a small loss, or maybe Buffett is ready for the market to fall apart, and thus the rate he can earn goes up.

All that said, it is an interesting chapter in the relationship between the two companies.  If BRK wasn’t the dominant insurance company of the US after the 2008 financial crisis, it definitely is now.

Full disclosure: long BRK/B for myself and clients

Credit: Bloomberg || Graph of Penn Treaty’s stock price 2002-2009

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I wrote about this last in October 2009 in a piece lovingly entitled: At Last, Death! (speaking of the holding company, not the insurance subsidiaries).  I’m going to quote the whole piece here, because it says most of the things that I wanted to say when I heard the most recent news about Penn Treaty, where the underlying insurance subsidiaries are finally getting liquidated.  It will be the largest health insurer insolvency ever, and second largest overall behind Executive Life.

Alas, but all good things in the human sphere come to an end.  Penn Treaty is the biggest insurer failure since 2004.  Now, don’t cry too much.  The state guaranty funds will pick up the slack.  The banks are jealous of an industry that has so few insolvencies.  Conservative state regulation works better than federal regulation.

Or does it?  In this case, no.  The state insurance regulator allowed a reinsurance treaty to give reserve credit where no risk was passed.  The GAAP auditor flagged the treaty and did not allow credit on a GAAP basis, because no risk was passed.  No risk passed? No additional surplus; instead it is a loan.  I do not get how the state regulators in Pennsylvania could have done this.  Yes, they want companies to survive, but it is better to take losses early, than let them develop and fester.

A prior employer asked me about this company as a long idea, because it was trading at a significant discount to book.  I told him, “Gun to the head: I would short this.  Long-term care is not an underwritable contingency.  Those insured have more knowledge over their situation than the insurance company does.”  He did nothing.  He could not see shorting a company that was less than 50% of book value.

It was not as if I did not have some trust in the management team.  I knew the CEO and the Chief Actuary from my days at Provident Mutual.  Working against that was when I called each of them, they did not return my calls.  That made me more skeptical.  It is one thing not to return the call of a buyside analyst, but another thing not to return the call of one who was once a friend.

Aside from Penn Treaty, the only other company that I can think of as being at risk in the long term care arena is Genworth.  Be wary there.  What is worse is that they also underwrite mortgage insurance.  I can’t think of a worse combo: long term care and mortgage insurance.

The troubles at Penn Treaty are indicative of the future for those who fund long term care.  Be wary, because the troubles of the graying of the Baby Boomers will overwhelm those that try to provide long term care.  That includes government institutions.

Note that Genworth is down 60% since I wrote that, against a market that has less than tripled.  If their acquirer doesn’t follow through, it too may go the way of Penn Treaty.  (Give GE credit for kicking that “bad boy” out.  They bring good things to “life.” 😉 )

Okay, enough snark.  My main point this evening is that Pennsylvania should have had Penn Treaty stop writing new business by 2004 or so.  As I wrote to a reporter at Crain’s back in 2008:

On your recent article on Penn Treaty, one little known aspect of their treaty with Imagine Re is that it doesn’t pass risk.  Their GAAP auditors objected, but the State of Pennsylvania went along, which is the opposite of how it ordinarily works.
 
Now Imagine Re takes advantage of the situation and doesn’t pay, knowing that Penn Treaty is in a weak position and can’t fight back, partially because of the accounting shenanigans.
 
It is my opinion that Penn Treaty has been effectively insolvent for the past four years.  I don’t have any economic interest here, but I had to investigate it as an equity analyst one year ago.  Things are playing out as I predicted then.  What I don’t get is why Pennsylvania hasn’t taken them into conservation.

Another matter was that Imagine Re was an Irish reinsurer, and they have weak reserving rules.  That also should have been a “red flag” to Pennsylvania.  The deal with Imagine Re was struck in late 2005, leading to upgrades from AM Best that were reversed by mid-2006.

It was as if the state of Pennsylvania did not want to take the company over for some political reason.  Lesser companies have been taken over over far less.  Pennsylvania itself had worked out Fidelity Mutual a number of years earlier, so it’s not as if they had never done it before.

Had they acted sooner, the losses would never have been as large.  I remember looking through the claim tables in the statutory books for Penn Treaty because the GAAP statements weren’t filed, and concluding that the firm was insolvent back in 2005 or so.  Insurance regulators are supposed to be more conservative than equity analysts, because they don’t want companies to go broke, harming customers, and bringing stress to the industry through the guaranty funds.

The legal troubles post-2009 probably had a small effect on the eventual outcome — raising premiums might have lowered the eventual shortfall of $2.6 billion a little.  But raising premiums would make some healthy folks surrender, and those on benefit are not affected.  It would likely not have much impact.  Maybe some expenses could have been saved if the companies had been liquidated in 2009, 2012, or 2015 — still, that would not have been much either.

Some policyholders get soaked as well, as most state guaranty funds limit covered payments to $300,000.  About 10% of all current Penn Treaty policyholders will lose some benefits as a result.

Regulatory Policy Recommendations

Often regulators only care that premiums not be too high for the insurance, but this is a case where the company clearly undercharged, particularly on the pre-2003 policies.  For contingencies that are long-lived, where payments could be made for a long time, regulators need to spend time looking at premium adequacy.  This is especially important where the company is a monoline and in a line of business that is difficult to underwrite, like long-term care.

The regulators also need to review early claim experience in those situations (unusual business in a monoline), and even look at claim files to get some idea as to whether a company is likely to go insolvent if practices continue.  A review like that might have shut off Penn Treaty’s ability to write business early, maybe prior to 2002.  Qualitative indicators of underpricing show up in the types of claims that arrive early, and the regulators might have been able to reduce the size of this failure.

But wave goodbye to Penn Treaty, not that it will be missed except by policyholders that don’t get full payment.

Photo Credit: elycefeliz

Photo Credit: elycefeliz || Duck, it’s a financial crisis! 😉

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Should a credit analyst care about financial leverage?  Of course, the amount and types of financial claims against a firm are material to the ability of a firm to avoid defaulting on its debts.  What about operating leverage?  Should the credit analyst care?  Of course, if a firm has high fixed costs and low variable costs (high operating leverage), its financial position is less stable than that of a company that has low fixed costs and high variable costs.  Changes in demand don’t affect a firm as much if they have low operating leverage.

That might be fine for industrials and utilities, but what about financials?  Aren’t financials different?  Yes, financials are different as far as operating leverage goes because for financial companies, operating leverage is the degree of credit risk that financials take on in their assets. Different types of lending have different propensities for loss, both in terms of likelihood and severity, which are usually correlated.

A simple example would be two groups of corporate bonds —  one can argue over new classes of bond ratings, but on average, lower rated corporate bonds default more frequently than higher rated bonds, and when they default, the losses are typically greater on the lower rated bonds.

As such the amount of operating risk, that is, unlevered credit risk, is material to the riskiness of financial companies.

Credit analysis gets done on financial companies by many parties: the rating agencies, private credit analysts, and implicitly by financial regulators.  They all do the same sorts of analyses using similar underlying theory, though the details vary.

Regulators typically codify their analyses through what they call risk-based capital.  Given all of the risks a financial institution takes — credit, asset-liability mismatch, and other liability risks, how much capital does a financial institution need in order to stay solvent?  Along with this usually also comes cash flow testing to make sure that the financial companies can withstand runs on their capital structure.

When done in a rigorous way, this lowers the probability and severity of financial failures, including the remote possibility that taxpayers could be tagged in a crisis to cover losses.  In the life insurance industry, actuaries have worked together with regulators to put together a fair system that is hard to game, and as such, few life and P&C insurance companies went under during the financial crisis.  (Note: AIG went under due to its derivative subsidiary and that they messed with securities lending agreements.  The only failures in life and P&C insurance were small.)

Banks have risk-based capital standards, but they are less well-designed than those of the US insurance industry, and for the big banks they are more flexible than those for insurers.  If I were regulating banks, I would get a small army of actuaries to study bank solvency, and craft regulations together with a single banking regulator that covers all depositary financials (or, state regulators like in insurance which would be better) using methods similar to those for the insurance industry.  Then every five years or so, adjust the regulations because as they get used, problems appear.  After a while, the methods would work well.  Oh, I left one thing out — all banks would have a valuation actuary reporting to the board and the regulators who would do the cash flow testing and the risk-based capital calculations.  Their positions would be funded with a very small portion of money that currently goes to the FDIC.

This would be a very good system for avoiding excessive financial risk.  Dreaming aside, I write this this evening because there are other dreamers proposing a radically simple system for regulating banks which would allow them to write business with no constraint at all with respect to credit risk.  All banks would face a simple 10% leverage ratio regardless of how risky their loan books are.  This would in the short run constrain the big banks because they would need to raise capital levels, though after that happened, they would probably write riskier loans to get their return on equity back to where it was.

My main point here is that you don’t want to incent banks to write a lot of risky loans.  It would be better for banks to put aside the right amount of capital versus varying classes of risk, and size the amount of capital such that it is not prohibitive to the banking system.

As such, a simple leverage ratio will not cut it.  Thinking people and their politicians should reject the current proposal being put out by the Republicans and instead embrace a more successful regulatory system manned by intelligent and reasonably risk-averse actuaries.

Photo Credit: Renegade98 || What was it that Buffett said 'bout swimmin' naked?

Photo Credit: Renegade98 || What was it that Buffett said ’bout swimmin’ naked?

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It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.

— Warren Buffett, credit Old School Value

When I was 29, nearly half a life ago, Donald Trump was a struggling real estate developer.  In 1990, I was still trying to develop my own views of the economy and finance.  But one day heading home from work at AIG, I was listening to the business report on the radio, and I heard the announcer say that Donald Trump had said that he would be “the king of cash.”  My tart comment was, “Yeah, right.”

At that point in time, I knew that a lot of different entities were in need of financing.  Though the stock market had come back from the panic of 1987, many entities had overborrowed to buy commercial real estate.  The major insurance companies of that period were deeply at fault in this as well, largely driven by the need to issue 5-year Guaranteed Investment Contracts [GICs] to rapidly growing stable value funds of defined contribution plans.  Outside of some curmudgeons in commercial mortgage lending departments, few recognized that writing 5-year mortgages with low principal amortization rates against long-lived commercial properties was a recipe for disaster.  This was especially true as lending yield spreads grew tighter and tighter.

(Aside: the real estate area of Provident Mutual avoided most of the troubles, as they sold their building that they built seven years earlier for twice what they paid to a larger competitor.  They also focused their mortgage lending on small, ugly, economically necessary properties, and not large trophy properties.  They were unsung heroes of the company, and their reward was elimination eight years later as a “cost saving move.”  At a later point in time, I talked with the lending group at Stancorp, which had a similar philosophy, and expressed admiration for the commercial mortgage group at Provident Mutual… Stancorp saw the strength in the idea, and still follows it today as the subsidiary of a Japanese firm.  But I digress…)

Many of the insurance companies making the marginal commercial mortgage loans had come to AIG seeking emergency financing.  My boss at AIG got wind of the fact that I was looking elsewhere for work, and subtly regaled me of the tales of woe at many of the insurance companies with these lending issues, including one at which I had recently interviewed.    (That was too coincidental for me not to note, particularly as a colleague in another division asked me how the search was going.  All this from one stray comment to an actuary I met coming back from the interview…)

Back to the main topic: good investing and business rely on the concept of a margin of safety.  There will be problems in any business plan.  Who has enough wherewithal to overcome those challenges?  Plans where everything has to go right in order to succeed will most likely fail.

With Trump back in 1990, the goal was admirable — become liquid in order to purchase properties that were now at bargain prices.  As was said in the Wall Street Journal back in April of 1990, the article started:

In a two-hour interview, Mr. Trump explained that he is raising cash today so he can scoop up bargains in a year or two, after the real estate market shakes out. Such an approach worked for him a decade ago when he bet big that New York City’s economy would rebound, and developed the Trump Tower, Grand Hyatt and other projects.

“What I want to do is go and bargain hunt,” he said. “I want to be king of cash.”

That’s where Trump said it first.  After that he received many questions from reporters and creditors, because his businesses were heavily indebted, and property values were deflated, including the properties that he owned.  Who wouldn’t want to be the “king of cash” then?  But to be in that position would mean having sold something when times were good, then sitting on the cash.  Not only is that not in Trump’s nature, it is not in the nature of most to do that.  During good times, the extra cash that Buffett keeps on hand looks stupid.

Trump did not get out of the mess by raising cash, but by working out a deal with his creditors in bankruptcy.  Give Trump credit, he had convinced most of his creditors that they were better off continuing to finance him rather than foreclose, because the Trump name made the properties more valuable.  Had the creditors called his bluff, Trump would have lost a lot, possibly to the point where we wouldn’t be hearing much about him today.

Trump escaped, but most other debtors don’t get the same treatment Trump did.  The only way to survive in a credit crunch is plan ahead by getting adequate long-term financing (equity and long-term debt), and keep a “war kitty” of cash on the side.

During 2002, I had the chance to test this as a bond manager.  With the accounting disasters at mid-year, on July 27th, two of my best brokers called me and said, “The market is offered without bid.  We’ve never seen it this bad.  What do you want to do?”  I kept a supply of liquidity on hand for situations like this, so with the S&P falling, and the VIX over 50, I put out a series of lowball bids for BBB assets that our analysts liked.  By noon, I had used up all of my liquidity, but the market was turning.  On October 9th, the same thing happened, but this time I had a larger war chest, and made more bids, with largely the same result.

That’s tough to do, and my client pushed me on the “extra cash sitting around.”  After all, times are good, there is business to be done, and we could use the additional interest to make the estimates next quarter.

To give another example, we have the visionary businessman Elon Musk facing a cash crunch at Tesla and SolarCity.  Leave aside for a moment his efforts to merge the two firms when stockholders tend to prefer “pure play” firms to conglomerates — it’s interesting to look at how two “growth companies” are facing a challenge raising funds at a time when the stock market is near all time highs.

Both Tesla and Solar City are needy companies when it comes to financing.  They need a lot of capital to grow their operations before the day comes when they are both profitable and cash flow from operations is positive.  But, so did a lot of dot-com companies in 1998-2000, of which a small number exist to this day.  Elon Musk is in a better position in that presently he can dilute issue shares of Tesla to finance matters, as well as buy 80% of the Solar City bond issue.  But it feels weird to have to finance something in less than a public way.

There are other calls on cash in the markets today — many companies are increasing dividends and buying back stock.  Some are using debt to facilitate this.  I look at the major oil companies and they all seem to be levering up, which is unusual given the recent trajectory of crude oil prices.

We are in the fourth phase of the credit cycle now — borrowing is growing, and profits aren’t.  There’s no rule that says we have to go through a bear market in credit before that happens, but that is the ordinary way that excesses get purged.

That is why I am telling you to pull back on risk, and review your portfolio for companies that need financing in the next three years or they will croak.  If they don’t self finance, be wary.  When things are bad only cash flow can validate an asset, not hopes of future growth.

With that, I close this article with a poem that I saw as a graduate student outside the door of the professor for whom I was a teaching assistant when I first came to UC-Davis.  I did not know that is was out on the web until today.  It deserves to be a classic:

Quoth The Banker, “Watch Cash Flow”

Once upon a midnight dreary as I pondered weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious volume of accounting lore,
Seeking gimmicks (without scruple) to squeeze through
Some new tax loophole,
Suddenly I heard a knock upon my door,
Only this, and nothing more.

Then I felt a queasy tingling and I heard the cash a-jingling
As a fearsome banker entered whom I’d often seen before.
His face was money-green and in his eyes there could be seen
Dollar-signs that seemed to glitter as he reckoned up the score.
“Cash flow,” the banker said, and nothing more.

I had always thought it fine to show a jet black bottom line.
But the banker sounded a resounding, “No.
Your receivables are high, mounting upward toward the sky;
Write-offs loom.  What matters is cash flow.”
He repeated, “Watch cash flow.”

Then I tried to tell the story of our lovely inventory
Which, though large, is full of most delightful stuff.
But the banker saw its growth, and with a might oath
He waved his arms and shouted, “Stop!  Enough!
Pay the interest, and don’t give me any guff!”

Next I looked for noncash items which could add ad infinitum
To replace the ever-outward flow of cash,
But to keep my statement black I’d held depreciation back,
And my banker said that I’d done something rash.
He quivered, and his teeth began to gnash.

When I asked him for a loan, he responded, with a groan,
That the interest rate would be just prime plus eight,
And to guarantee my purity he’d insist on some security—
All my assets plus the scalp upon my pate.
Only this, a standard rate.

Though my bottom line is black, I am flat upon my back,
My cash flows out and customers pay slow.
The growth of my receivables is almost unbelievable:
The result is certain—unremitting woe!
And I hear the banker utter an ominous low mutter,
“Watch cash flow.”

Herbert S. Bailey, Jr.

Source:  The January 13, 1975, issue of Publishers Weekly, Published by R. R. Bowker, a Xerox company.  Copyright 1975 by the Xerox Corporation.  Credit also to aridni.com.

Photo Credit: thecrazysquirrel

Photo Credit: thecrazysquirrel

Before I start tonight, I just wanted to mention that I was on South Korean radio a few days ago, on the main English-speaking station, talking about Helicopter Money.  If you want listen to it or download it as a podcast, you can get it here.  It’s a little less than 11 minutes long.

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The bravery of Steve Kandarian and the executives at MetLife is a testimony to something I have grown to believe.  Frequently the government acts without a significant legal basis, and bullies companies into compliance.  If a company is willing to spend the resources, often the government will lose, when the laws are unduly vague or even wrongheaded.

This was true also in a number of the allegations made by Eliot Spitzer.  Lots of parties gave in because the press was negative, but those that fought him generally won.  Another tough-minded man, Maurice Raymond “Hank” Greenberg pushed back and won.  So did some others that were unfairly charged.

MetLife won its case against the Financial Stability Oversight Council [FSOC] in US District Court.  The government will likely appeal the case, but though I have been a bit of a lone voice here, I continue to believe that MetLife will prevail.  Here’s my quick summary as to why:

  • The FSOC’s case largely relies on the false idea that being big is enough to be a systemic risk.
  • Systemic risk is a mix of liquidity of liabilities, illiquidity of assets, credit risk, leverage, contagion, and lack of diversity of profit sources.
  • Liquidity of liabilities is the most important factor — in order to get a “run on the bank” there has to be a call on cash.  Life insurers have long liability structures, and it is very difficult for there to be a run.  People would have to forfeit a lot of value to run.
  • Contrast that with banks that use repo markets, and have short liability structures (w/deposit insurance, which is a help).  Add in margining at the investment banks…
  • The only life insurers that suffered “runs” in the last 30 years wrote lots of short-term GICs.  No one does that anymore.
  • Life insurers invest a lot of their money in relatively liquid corporates, and lesser amounts in illiquid mortgages.  Banks are the reverse.
  • Leverage at life insurers is typically lower than that of banks.
  • Insurers make money off of non-financial factors like mortality & morbidity.  Banks run a monoculture of purely financial risk.  (Okay, increasingly many of them make money off of “free” checking, and then kill their sloppy depositors who overdraw their accounts… as I said to one of my kids, “Hey, your best friend “XXX bank” sent you a love note thanking you for the generous gift you gave them.”)
  • That makes contagion risk larger for banks than life insurers — banks often have more investments across the financial sector than insurers do.
  • Life insurers tend to be simpler institutions than banks.  There is less too-clever-for-your-own-good risk.
  • State regulators are less co-opted than Federal regulators.  They also employ actuaries to analyze actuaries.  (At least the better and larger states do.)
  • Finally, life insurers do more strenuous tests of solvency and risk.  They test solvency for decades, not years.  They have actuaries who are bound by an ethics code — the quants at the banks have no such codes, and no responsibility to the regulators.  The actuaries with regulatory responsibility serve two masters, and though I had my doubts when the appointed actuary statutes came into being, it has worked well.  The problems of the early ’90s did not recur.  The insurance industry generally eschewed non-senior RMBS, CMBS and ABS in the mid-2000s, while the banks loved the yieldy illiquid beasties, and lost as a result.

Anyway, that’s my summary case.  I haven’t always been a fan of the industry that I was raised in, but the life insurers learned from their past errors, and as a result, made it through the financial crisis very well, unlike the banks.

PS — there are some things I worry about at life insurers, like LTC and secondary guarantees, but I doubt the FSOC could figure out how big those are as an issue.  A few companies are affected, and I’m not invested in them.  Also, those risks aren’t systemic.

Full disclosure: long ENH NWLI BRK/B GTS RGA AIZ KCLI and MET

Photo Credit: TEDizen || Buffett's house is a humble abode -- mine is dumpy

Photo Credit: TEDizen || Buffett’s house is a humble abode — mine is kind of dumpy

Last year, when BRK [Berkshire Hathaway] reported their annual earnings with the letter, report, and 10K, I concluded:

From an earnings growth standpoint, there was nothing that amazing about the earnings in 2014.  A few new subsidiaries like NV Energy added earnings, but existing subsidiaries’ earnings were flattish.  Comprehensive income was considerably lower because of the lesser degree of unrealized appreciation on portfolio holdings.

On net, it was a subpar year for Berkshire Hathaway.  The annual letter provided a lot of flash and dazzle, but 2014 was not a lot to write home about, and limits to the BRK business model with respect to float are becoming more visible.

What I said one year ago would be a good summary for this year, though Buffett was more upbeat about outcomes this year, with BRK’s book value advancing while the S&P 500 fell on a total return basis.

Overall, BRK had a mediocre year.  Insurance wasn’t that great.  Here are my summary points:

  1. BRK is reducing reinsurance — i suspect they aren’t getting the rates that they want.  There are too many reinsurance wannabes attempting to write business to generate float that they can invest against.  Typically, writing insurance in order to invest usually doesn’t work out.  People forget how much money was lost writing marginal insurance business in soft markets thinking they would more than make up the losses with investment income.  BRK is showing some discipline here — good.
  2. Aside from new lines of business (specialty insurance), growth is slowing; BRK is trying to remain a conservative underwriter.
  3. Reserving conservatism has not changed.
  4. Asbestos position has not materially changed.
  5. GEICO had a bad year for claims — maybe they grew too much, and maybe picked up a lower class of auto driver.
  6. Profit margins falling
  7. Float growth slowing
  8. Continued problems with workers’ comp and long-term care at Gen Re.  Also problems with payment annuities (blames FX, should blame longevity) and Life Reinsurance.

A few quotes from the 10K on insurance issues:

“We define pre-tax catastrophe losses in excess of $100 million from a single event or series of related events as significant. In 2015, we recorded estimated losses of $136 million in connection with a property loss event in China.”

and on GEICO:

“Losses and loss adjustment expenses incurred in 2015 increased $2.7 billion (17.1%) over 2014. Claims frequencies (claim counts per exposure unit) in 2015 increased in all major coverages over 2014, including property damage and collision coverages (three to five percent range), bodily injury coverage (four to six percent range) and personal injury protection (PIP) coverage (one to two percent range). Average claims severities were also higher in 2015 for property damage and collision coverages (four to five percent range), bodily injury coverage (six to seven percent range) and PIP coverage (two to four percent range). We believe that increases in miles driven, repair costs (parts and labor) and medical costs, as well as weather conditions contributed to the increases in frequencies and severities.”

Regarding Gen Re:

“The property/casualty business generated pre-tax underwriting gains in 2015 of $944 million compared to $1.4 billion in 2014. In 2015, we incurred losses of $86 million from an explosion in Tianjin, China. There were no significant catastrophe losses in 2014. Underwriting results in 2015 included comparatively lower gains from property catastrophe reinsurance and the run off of prior years’ business.”

I found the mention of two large loss events in China interesting — maybe it was just one event of $136 million, but they could have been more clear.

Float Note

Before I leave the topic of insurance, I do want to set the record straight on how valuable float is.  This is my best article on the topic.  Buffett is a bit of a salesman in his annual letter, but generally an honest one.

Float is only as good as the insurance business generating it.  If it is generating underwriting losses, the investments will have to earn at least as much per year as the losses divided by the average duration of how long the float will exist in years, in order to break even.

We’re coming off of years where there have been no underwriting losses, so float is magical — but the P&C insurance industry is getting more competitive, and float will no longer be costless.

Widespread use of float for financing is like trying to finance off of other seemingly costless liabilities — in the hands of some investors, that can lead to disaster — after all, consider all of the disasters that I have written about where people finance short to invest long.

Conservative insurers invest their premium reserves in cashlike instruments, and their loss reserves they invest in bonds of a similar duration.  They typically don’t invest float in equities, and certainly not whole businesses.

Buffett has done just that and done well.  That said, he runs his insurers at lower levels of leverage than most insurers, to allow room for taking more investment risk.

Note that BRK doesn’t guarantee the debts of BNSF, BHE, etc., but does guarantee the debts of the finance arms.

There is room for another article on float and cost of capital — not sure when I will get to it, but it will be a WACC-y article. 😉

Final Notes:

1) Note that Buffett keeps profits overseas also. Quoting the 10K: “We have not established deferred income taxes on accumulated undistributed earnings of certain foreign subsidiaries. Such earnings were approximately $10.4 billion as of December 31, 2015 and are expected to remain reinvested indefinitely.”  My guess is that he will use them to buy a foreign subsidiary.

2) BRK Pays taxes at about a 30% rate.

3) Regarding his comments on goodwill amortization — he thinks some of it is economically valid, and some not.  Buffett has the option of putting more data on the income statement if he wants.  Or put it in note 11 (goodwill).  He already does that by breaking apart revenues and expenses by corporate divisions on the income statement.  Do us all a favor, BRK, and split the goodwill into what you think is economically valid, and what is not.

4) Buffett gives an extended defense of Clayton Homes lending.  In general, I thought his points were good — even before Buffett, Clayton was the “class act” in manufactured housing, and financing it.

5) Even BRK has underfunded pension plans, and it has a relatively conservative 6.5% expected return on assets.

6) I note a modest change in 10K risk factors — BNSF and the automatic braking issue.  BNSF will have to spend a lot of money to deal with the need to stop runaway trains remotely.  True of all US and Canadian railroads.

 

7) BRK has less free cash flow to invest in new projects because more of their businesses are capital-intensive.  BRK invested $16B in property, plant and equipment.

8 ) BNSF had a good year.  BH Energy had a good year, mostly from a new Canadian Transmission utility, and their home brokerage arm.

9) BRK bought Precision Castparts, Van Tuyl (auto dealerships), and AltaLink (the Canadian Transmission utility).  Also bolt-ons to existing subsidiaries.

10) Kraft merged with Heinz. Heinz preferred will be redeemed.

11) The big four publicly traded firms owned by BRK didn’t have a good year. AXP, KO, IBM, WFC — he bought more of IBM and WFC.  Buffett argues that the retained earnings of the firms benefit BRK.  I’m dubious.  IBM has particularly been a dog — look at free cash flow.  Much of the earnings at IBM aren’t real.  You can’t use what they don’t dividend.

12) Quoting Buffett from his section on optimism about the US, he tempered it by saying: “Though the pie to be shared by the next generation will be far larger than today’s, how it will be divided will remain fiercely contentious.”

Well, you can say that again, but fairness is a squishy concept.  Is fairness:

  • Even division (from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs)
  • Proportionate to productivity
  • Equal to what you negotiate
  • Derived from the formula of a bureaucrat
  • What you can negotiate through the political process
  • Impossible
  • Or something else?

Buffett worked with the easy stuff, and waved his hands at the hard stuff.  I’ll phrase it this way: in general, the US has done well because we have not wrangled as much as the rest of the world over distribution issues, and have left a lot of room for people to gain a lot from their own productivity.  That has led to a lot of wealth, and in general, a growing pie for everyone to benefit from.

Productivity goes in waves, and labor plays catchup with capital after technological progress.  We have seen people redeployed from agriculture and servanthood/slavery in the past 150 years.  We will see them redeployed from manufacturing in the next 100 years.  They will provide services to their fellow men, should there continue to be peace and tranquility, allowing labor income to catch up with that of capital.

Full disclosure: long BRK/B

 

In some ways, this is a boring time in insurance investing.  A lot of companies seem cheap on a book and/or earnings basis, but they have a lot of capital to deploy as a group, so there aren’t a lot of opportunities to underwrite or invest wisely, at least in the US.

Look for a moment at two victims of the Financial Stability Oversight Council [FSOC]… AIG and Metlife.  I’ve argued before that the FSOC doesn’t know what it is doing with respect to insurers or asset managers.  Financial crises come from short liabilities that can run financing illiquid assets.  That’s not true with insurers or asset managers.

Nonetheless AIG has Carl Icahn breathing down its neck, and AIG doesn’t want to break up the company.  They will spin off their mortgage insurer, United Guaranty. but they won’t get a lot of help from that — valuations of mortgage insurers are deservedly poor, and the mortgage insurer is small relative to AIG.

As I have also pointed out before AIG’s reserving was liberal, and recently AIG took a $3.6 billion charge to strengthen reserves.  Thus I am not surprised at the rating actions of Moody’s, S&P,  and AM Best.  Add in the aggressive plans to use $25 billion to buy back stock and pay more dividends over the next two years, and you could see the ratings sink further, and possibly, the stock also.  The $25 billion requires earning considerably more than what was earned over the last four years, and more than is forecast by sell-side analysts, unless AIG can find ways to release capital and excess reserves (if any) trapped in their complex holding company structure.

AIG plans to do it through (see pp 4-5):

  • Reducing expenses
  • Improving the Commercial P&C accident year loss ratio by 6 points
  • Targeted divestitures (United Guaranty, and what else gets you to $6 billion?)
  • Reinsurance (mostly life)
  • Borrowing $3-5B (maybe more after the $3.6B writedown)
  • Selling off some hedge fund assets to reduce capital use. (smart, hedge funds earn less than advertised, and the capital charges are high.)

Okay, this could work, but when you are done, you will have reduced the earnings capacity of the remaining company.  Reinsurance that provides additional surplus strips future earnings out the the company, and leaves the subsidiaries inflexible.  Trust me, I’ve worked at too many companies that did it.  It’s a lousy way to manage a life company.

Expense reduction can always be done, but business quality can suffer.  Improving the Commercial lines loss ratio will mean writing less business in an already overcompetitive market — can’t see how that will help much.

I don’t think the numbers add up to $25 billion, particularly not in a competitive market like we have right now.  This is part of what I meant when I said:

…it would pay Carl Icahn and all of the others who would be interested in breaking up AIG to hire some insurance expertise.  Insurance is a set of complex businesses, and few understand most of them, much less all of them.  It would be easy to naively overestimate the ability to improve profitability at AIG if you don’t know the business,  the accounting, and how free cash flow emerges, if it ever does.

They might also want to have a frank talk with Standard and Poors as to how they would structure a breakup if the operating subsidiaries were to maintain all of their current ratings.  Icahn and his friends might be surprised at how little value could initially be released, if any.

Thus I don’t see a lot of value at AIG right now.  I see better opportunities in MetLife.

MetLife is spinning off their domestic individual life lines, which is the core business.  I would estimate that it is worth around 15% of the whole company.  In the process, they will be spinning off most of their ugliest liabilities as far as life insurance goes — the various living benefits and secondary guarantees that are impossible to value in a scientific way.

The main company remaining will retain some of the most stable life liabilities, the P&C operation, and the Group Insurance, Corporate Benefit Funding, and the International operations.

I look at it this way: the company they are spinning off will retain the most capital intensive businesses, with the greatest degree of reserving uncertainty.  The main company will be relatively clean, with free cash flow being a high percentage of earnings.

I will be interested in the main company post-spin.  At some point, I will buy some MetLife so that I can own some of that company.  The only tough question in my mind is what the spinoff company will trade at.  Most people don’t get insurance accounting, so they will look at the earnings and think it looks cheap, but a lot of capital and cash flow will be trapped in the insurance subsidiaries.

There is no stated date for the spinoff, but if the plan is to spin of the company, a registration statement might be filed with the SEC in six months, so, you have plenty of time to think about this.

Get MET, it pays.

One Final Note

I sometimes get asked what insurance companies I own shares in.  Here’s the current list:

Long RGA, AIZ, NWLI (note: illiquid), ENH, BRK/B, GTS, and KCLI (note: very illiquid)

In general, people don’t do well with amounts of money significantly larger than they are used to handling.  The most obvious example of that is people who win lotteries.  The money typically gets wasted — bad purchases, bad investments.

Thus I would encourage you to be very careful with any large distributions of money that you might receive.  Examples include:

  • Life insurance settlements
  • Disability insurance settlements
  • Structured settlements arising from winning a court case over a tort against you.
  • Lotteries
  • Pension lump sums
  • Inheritances
  • Big paydays, if you are one of the rare ones in a high-paying short career like entertainment or sports

There are three problems with lump sums — receiving them, investing them, and rate of their use for consumption.  Let me take these topics in the order that they should occur.

Receiving a Lump Sum

Let’s start with the cases where you have a stream of payments coming where a third party comes to you and says that you can get all of the money now.  I am speaking of structured settlements and inheritances where trusts have been structured to dole out the money slowly.  There is one simple bit of advice here: don’t do it.  Take the payments over time.  None of the third parties offering to give you cash now are giving you a good deal, so avoid them.

Then there are the cases where an insurance company is making the payments from a disability claim, a structured settlement, a lottery, a pension buyout, or an annuity that someone bought for you on your life.  The insurance company will be more fair than any third party, because they aren’t usually looking to make an obscene gain, just a big one, because it reduces their risk, and cleans up their balance sheet, so they can do more business.  One simple bit of advice here: still don’t do it.  You can do better by taking payments, and building up money for larger purchases.  Be patient.

People do best when they receive money little by little.  When they get money materially faster than the speed at which they have previously earned money, they tend to waste it.  It is almost always better not to take a lump sum if you have the option to do otherwise.

The last set of situations is when the party that owes the set of payments offers you a lump sum.  It could be a life insurance company, a defined-benefit pension plan, a lottery, or some option uncommonly granted by another payor.  I would still tell you not to do it, but the issue of getting cheated is reduced here for a variety of reasons.

The defined benefit plan has rates set by law at which it can cash you out, so they can’t hurt you badly.  That said, you will likely not earn enough off of your investments with safety to equal the stream you are giving up.  The lottery is often similarly constrained, but do your homework, and see what you are giving up.

One place to take the lump sum is with life insurance companies off of a death benefit.  The rates at which they offer to pay an annuity to you are frequently not competitive, so take the lump sum and invest it wisely.

Economically, the key question to ask on a lump sum versus a stream of payments is what you would have to earn to replicate the stream of payments.  Most of the time, the stream is worth more than the lump sum, so don’t take the lump sum.

The second question is more important.  Can you be disciplined and not waste the lump sum?  Ask those close to you what your money habits are like, if you don’t know for sure.  Ask them to be brutally honest.

Investing the Lump Sum

Again, one nice thing about taking payments, is that you don’t have to invest the lump sum.  If you do take the lump sum:

  • First, pay off high interest rate debts.
  • Second, avoid buying big things and calling them investments.  Don’t buy a big house when you don’t need a big one.
  • Third, don’t invest in any of your relatives’ or friends’ business ventures.  Tell them you try to keep personal affection and money separate.  It avoids hurt feelings.
  • Fourth, look at the time horizon of your real needs.  Plan for retirement, college, etc.  Invest accordingly — get a trustworthy adviser who will help you.  Trustworthiness is the most important factor here, with competence a close second.
  • Fifth, don’t so it yourself, unless you have developed the skill to do it previously.  If you want to do it yourself, you will have to gauge whether the various markets are rich or cheap in order to decide where to invest.  For some general, non-tailored advice, you can look at articles in my asset allocation category.  As an aside, don’t invest in anything unusual unless you are an expert.

Receiving Spending Money from Your Investment Fund

The first thing is to decide on a spending rule: many use a rule that says you can take 4% of the assets from the fund.  My rule is a little more complex, but will keep you safer, and adapt to changing conditions: as a percentage of assets, take 1% more than the yield on the 10-year Treasury Note, or 7% if less.  At present, that percentage would be 2.21% + 1% = 3.21%.

Whatever rule you use, be disciplined about your spending.  Don’t bend your spending rule for any trivial reasons.  Size your budget to reflect your income from your investment fund and all of your other income sources.

Conclusion

Remember that most people who get a lump sum end up wasting a lot of it.  The only thing that can keep you from a similar fate would be discipline.  If you don’t have discipline, don’t take a lump sum.  Take the payments over time.  That will give you the maximum benefit from what is a very valuable asset.

Photo Credit: Insider Monkey || Carl never looked so good.

Picture Credit: Insider Monkey || Carl never looked so good.

I’ve written about this topic twice before:

 

Those were back in 2008, before the financial crisis.  I made similar comments at RealMoney earlier than that, but those are lost and gone forever, and I am dreadful sorry.

I’ve written a lot about AIG over the years, including my article that was cited by the Special Inspector General of the TARP in his report on AIG.  I’ve also written a lot about insurance investing.  I’d like to quote from the final part of my 7-part series summarizing the topic:

1) The first thing to realize is that diversification across insurance subindustries usually does not work.

Do not mix:

  • Life & P&C
  • Financial & Anything
  • Health & Anything

Maybe you can mix P&C, Mortgage & Title, after all Old Republic survived.  The main point is this.  Insurance is not uniform.  Coverages are sold and underwritten differently.  Generally, higher valuations will be obtained on “pure play” companies  Diversification is swamped by management inability.  These are reasons for AIG and Allstate to spin off their life operations.

2) Middle-sized companies tend to do best from a valuation standpoint: the large have nowhere to grow, and the small are always questionable on their viability.  With a few exceptions, I like sticking with focused mid-cap companies with my insurance names.

Both of these concepts augur in favor of a breakup of AIG — even without the additional capital needed for being a SIFI (which no insurance firm should be, they don’t collapse together, like banks do), large firms get a valuation discount, because they can’t grow quickly.

Synergies and diversification benefits between differing types of insurance tend to be limited as well.  Focus is worth a lot more in insurance than diversity, because managements are typically not good at multiple types of insurance.  They have different profit models, distribution systems, capital needs, and mindsets.  Think of it this way: if you can’t get personal lines agents to sell life insurance and annuities, why do you ever think there might be synergies?  They are very different businesses.

Now Carl Icahn is arguing the same thingsize and diversification are harming value at AIG, as well as a high cost structure.  I think his first argument is right, and a breakup should be pursued, but let me mention four complicating factors that he ought to consider:

1) Costs aren’t overly high at AIG, and there may not be a lot to cut.  Greenberg ran a tight ship, and I suspect those who followed tried to imitate that.  I would try to double-check cost levels.

2) ROEs are low at AIG likely because many life insurers have low embedded margins and those can’t be changed rapidly because of the long duration nature of the contracts.  The accounting for DAC [deferred acquisition cost] assets can be liberal at times — writedowns are not required until you are deferring losses.  I would analyze all intangible assets, and try to estimate what they returning.  I would also try to look at the valuation of life insurers comparable to those at AIG, which are high complexity beasties.  You might find that a breakup won’t release as much value as you think, at least initially.

3) Pure play mortgage insurers are fodder for the next financial crisis.  If one of those gets spun off, it won’t come at a high valuation, particularly if you give it enough capital to maintain its credit ratings.

4) There are a variety of cross-guarantees across AIG’s subsidiaries.  I’m assuming Icahn read about those when he looked through the statutory books of AIG.  That is, if he did do that.  They are mentioned in the 10K, but not in as much detail.  Those would probably be the most difficult part of a breakup of AIG, because you would have to replace guarantees with additional capital, which reduces the benefit of breaking the companies up.

Summary

Breaking up AIG would be difficult, but I believe that focused insurance companies with specialist management teams would eventually outperform AIG as it is currently configured.  Just don’t expect a quick or massive initial benefit from breaking AIG up.

One final note: it would pay Carl Icahn and all of the others who would be interested in breaking up AIG to hire some insurance expertise.  Insurance is a set of complex businesses, and few understand most of them, much less all of them.  It would be easy to naively overestimate the ability to improve profitability at AIG if you don’t know the business,  the accounting, and how free cash flow emerges, if it ever does.

They might also want to have a frank talk with Standard and Poors as to how they would structure a breakup if the operating subsidiaries were to maintain all of their current ratings.  Icahn and his friends might be surprised at how little value could initially be released, if any.

 

Full disclosure: long ALL