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

 

Before I start on this tonight, let me say that I never begrudge any salesman a fair commission.  When I was a bond manager, I made a point of never letting my brokers “cross bonds” to me, i.e., at no commission.  I would raise my purchase price a little to compensate them.  Had my client known that I did that, he might have objected, but it was in his best interests that I did it.  As a result of that and other things that I did, my brokers were very loyal to me, and worked to give my client excellent executions whether buying or selling.  They were also more frank with me about bonds they thought I should sell.  Fairness begets fairness under most conditions, and suspicion and tightness also have their way of breeding as well.  Consider that in all of your dealings.

My main reason for writing tonight is to remind investors to think about how the parties you transact with are compensated.

  • If they are compensated on transactions, expect to see a lot of buying and selling.
  • If they are compensated on asset-based fees, expect them to try to get business, and then retain it.
  • If they are compensated on profits, they will try to get profits.  Be wary of how much control they might have over the accounting, they will be incented to be liberal if they have any control.  They will also be incented toward volatility, because volatile assets offer the best possibility of a big score, even if the probability is moderate at best.

The greater the potential compensation, the greater the tendency to act along the incentives offered.  As a result, if a life insurance salesman has a product offering a high commission, and one offering a low commission, he may act in the following way:

  • Figure out if you are price-sensitive or not.
  • Figure out if you are willing to accept a product that has a long surrender charge.  Long surrender charges lock in business, and allow for high commissions to be paid.
  • Also analyze how much complexity you are willing to accept — more complex permanent policies and especially ancillary riders are far more profitable because even external actuaries would have a tough time analyzing them.
  • If you are price-sensitive, bring out the low commission policy that is more competitive.
  • If you are price-insensitive, bring out the high commission policy that is less competitive.

(Note: there are state laws in every state that constrain this behavior for life insurance agents, but it can never be eliminated in entire.)

Now, many agents will act in your interests in spite of their own interests, but some won’t, so be aware.  Always ask a question like, “This seems expensive.  Don’t you have another policy that is less expensive that accomplishes only the main goal that I am shooting for?”

You could always ask them what commission is that they will earn.  Most won’t answer that.  First, it’s kind of offensive, and second, they will argue that it is not material to your decision.

But it is material to your decision.  Here’s why:

  • The size of the commission directly affects the size of the premium that you pay.
  • It also directly affects the length and size of the surrender charge that you would pay if you terminate the policy early.
  • After all, the actuaries or other mathematical businessmen are trying to avoid the risk of paying a commission that they can’t recover under ALL circumstances.  They will get their fees from you to recoup the commission cost.  They will either get it from you coming or going, but they WILL get it from you, at least on average.

If the salesmen disagree with you after mentioning this (or showing them this), you can say to them that every actuary knows this is true, don’t argue with the actuaries, they know the math.  (And its why we tend to buy term and other simple policies.  Shhh.)

I’ve seen more than my share of ugly products in my time.  I’m happy I never designed any.  I did kill a few of them.  That said, one of the most unpleasant duties I ever had as a life actuary was about 18 years ago when I inherited a department to clean up, and I got the responsibility of talking to the clients that were the most irate, demanding to talk to the man in charge.  I never created those products, but I was nominally in charge of the division as I cleaned up the pricing, reinsurance, reserving, accounting, and asset-liability management.

I’ll tell you, it is no fun talking to people who conclude that they have been had.  It is even less fun to be the one who has been had.  Thus I would tell you to view all salesmen of financial with skepticism.  It is hard to assure a good result with intangible products that are hard to compare.  Thus aim for simplicity and lower surrender charge and commission products.

Now, I used life insurance as my example here because I know it best, and it excels in complexity.  But this applies to all financial products, especially illiquid ones.  Be wary of:

  • Brokers who make money off of commissions
  • Those who sell private REITs and structured notes
  • Any product where you have a limited ability to liquidate or sell it.
  • Any product that you can’t understand how the company and salesman are making money off it.
  • Any product where you can’t understand what the legal form of the investment is (Stock, bond, mutual fund, partnership, derivative, insurance, etc.)

Here are some final bits of advice:

  • Look for advisers who are fiduciaries, and are responsible to look out for your interests (but still be wary)
  • Look at the fee structures, and look for lower cost alternatives.
  • Seek competing products, salesmen and companies.
  • Negotiate lower compensation where possible.
  • Remember that higher yields are almost never free… what yields more typically has more risk.  Yield is the oldest scam in the books.

Remember, regardless of what laws exist, you are your own best defender when it comes to your own economic interests.  Be aware of the economic incentives of those who seek your business with financial products, and be reasonably skeptical.

Photo Credit: Mike Beauregard || Frozen solid, right?

Photo Credit: Mike Beauregard || Frozen solid, right?

The talk regarding an illiquid public corporate bond market goes on, and if you’ve read me over the past year on this topic, you know that I don’t think it is a serious issue.  One of the reasons why it is not a big issue is that the public bond market is designed to be low liquidity.

It starts with how bonds are originally issued.  New bonds and new stocks are issued in similar ways, but with a few differences:

  • IPOs of stocks have a higher retail component.  Bonds, aside from muni bonds, are typically almost entirely institutional
  • IPOs are typically priced cheap, but with bonds the cheapness is smaller and more frequent.
  • Bond IPOs usually happen with companies that have issued other bonds before
  • Bond IPOs happen more frequently, except in a bear market
  • Bond IPOs typically happen more rapidly, minutes to a few days, except in a bear market

IPOs on Wall Street get allocated if they are oversubscribed.  When they are oversubscribed, the deal is typically good, and everyone wants more, so they put in huge orders.  The dealer desks on Wall Street solves this problem by allocating proportionate to the size that they have come to understand the managers in question typically buy and sell at, with some adjustment for account profitability.

Those that flip cheap bonds for a quick profit typically get penalized, and their allocations get reduced.  Those that buy bonds in the open market when the deal breaks and becomes “free to trade” can become eligible for larger allocations.  The dealer desks work in this way because they want the buyers to be long-term holders, and not seekers of easy profits from flipping.  That doesn’t mean you can never trade a bond you have bought — just not in the first month, subject to a few exceptions like a small allocation, your credit analyst rejected it, etc.  (Oh, and if one of those exceptions exists, the primary dealers want to do the secondary trade.  If the exceptions don’t exist, they don’t want to know about it.)

If flippers ever get big, despite the efforts of the dealer desks, they will price a deal very tight, and let the flippers take a big loss, with no one wanting to buy the excess bonds unless they are much, much cheaper.

The main effect of this is that once a deal is allocated, it is typically “well-placed,” with few secondary trades after the IPO.  This is even more pronounced with mortgage bonds, which aside from the AAA tranches, have very small tranche sizes, making them very illiquid.

In this environment, where yields have fallen over the past few years, it is difficult for financial companies that have bought bonds to replace the income if they sell the bond.  Thus, few bonds will be sold unless they are in the hands of buyers that don’t have a formal balance sheet, or, when credit quality is deteriorating badly.

Add in one more factor, and you can see why the market is so illiquid — the buy side of the market is more concentrated than in prior years, with big buyers like PIMCO, Blackrock, Metlife, Prudential, etc. being a larger portion of the market.  Concentrated markets with few holders tend to be less liquid.

All Good/Bad Things Must Come to an End

Some of these factors can be reversed, and others can be mitigated.

  • There’s no reason why the buy side has to stay concentrated.  Big institutions eventually break up because diseconomies of scale kick in.  Management teams typically do worse as companies get more complex.
  • Eventually interest rates will rise.  Once bonds are in a nearly neutral to negative capital gains positions, parties with balance sheets will trade bonds again.
  • Even mutual funds that own a lot of yieldy bonds can have a strategy for dealing with the illiquidity.  Yieldy bonds have excess yield relative to bonds of similar duration and credit quality, and are often less liquid because there is something odd about them that makes some portion of the market skeptical, which reduces liquidity.  A mutual fund holding a lot of less liquid bonds, can deal with illiquidity by selling opportunistically, selling more liquid bonds in the short-run, while discreetly inquiring on a few less liquid issues to see where real bids might be.  Remember, the amount of underperformance is likely to be limited, if any, so a run on a mutual fund is not likely, but in the unlikely case of a run, this can mitigate the effects.  Personally, I would not be concerned, so long as you keep your pricing marks conservative if cash outflows become a rule in the short-run.

In closing, don’t worry about illiquidity in the bond markets.  If there is a need for liquidity, the problem will solve itself as sellers lose a little bit in order to gain cash to make payments.  It’s that simple.

Photo Credit: Dana || They charge more for "Arrest me red" too!

Photo Credit: Dana || They charge more for “Arrest me red” too!

This should be a relatively quick note on personal lines insurance. I’m writing this after reading the piece in this month’s Consumer Reports on Auto Insurance.  I agree with most of it.  For those that are short on time, my basic advice is this: bid out your auto, home, umbrella and other personal lines property & casualty insurance policies once every three years, or after every significant event that changes your premium significantly.

Here are a few simple facts to consider:

  • Personal lines insurance — auto, home, umbrella, rental, etc. is a very competitive business, and the companies that offer it all want an underwriting formula that would give them the best estimate of expected losses from each person insured.
  • After that, they want to know how much “wiggle room” that they would have to build in some profit.  Where might the second place bid be?  How likely are consumers to shop around?
  • Most insurers use a mix of credit scores and claim history to calculate rates.  Together, they are effective at forecasting loss costs — more effective than either one separately.
  • Read my piece On Credit Scores.  They are very important, because they measure moral tendency.  People with low scores tend to have more claims than those with high scores on average.  People with high scores tend to be more careful in life.  This is a forward-looking aspect of a person’s underwriting profile.
  • It’s fair to use “credit scores” because they are positively and significantly correlated with loss costs.  The actuaries have tested this.  Note that it is legal in almost all states to use credit scores, or something like them, but not all of them.
  • As the Consumer Reports article points out, many insurance companies take advantage of insureds that stick with them year by year, because they don’t shop around.  Easy cure: bid out your policy every three years at minimum.  If enough people do this, the insurance companies that overcharge loyal customers will stop doing it.  (Note: when I was a buy side analyst analyzing insurance stocks, one company implicitly admitted to doing this, and I was insured by them.  Guess what I did next?  It was not to sell the stock, though eventually I did when I saw that their premium increases were no longer increasing profits.)
  • Also be willing to unbundle your home and auto policies — there may be a discount, or there may not as the Consumer Reports article states.  I’ve worked it both ways, and am unbundled at present.
  • If they have that much money for amusing advertising, it implies that the market isn’t that rational.  Bid it out.
  • But — it is important to realize that insurers don’t all have the same formulas for underwriting, and those formulas are not static over time.  Bidding out your insurance makes sure you benefit from changes that positively affect you.
  • Insurers tend to get more competitive as the surplus they have to deploy gets bigger, and vice-versa when it shrinks after a large disaster.  If your premium goes up after a disaster, bid the policies out.  If it drifts up slowly when there have been no significant disasters, or claims on your part, they are taking advantage of you.  Bid it out.

Bid it out.  Bid it out.  Bid it out.  What do you have to lose?  If loyalty means something to the insurer, they will likely win the bid.  If it doesn’t, they will likely lose.  Either way you will win.  If you have an agent, they will note that you are price-sensitive.  The agent will become more of an ally, even if it doesn’t seem that way.

I went through this several times.  Most people who have read me for a while know that I have a large family — I am going to start teaching number seven to drive now.  I bid it out when kids came onto my policy.  It produced a change.  When two of my kids had accidents in short succession, my premiums rose a lot.  They would not underwrite one kid.  I got most of it back when I bid it out.  Since that time, the two have been claim-free for 2.5 years.  Guess what I am going to do next March, when I am close to the renewal where premiums would shift?  You got it; I will bid it out.

There is one more reason to bid it out: it forces you to review your insurance needs.  You may need more or less coverage than you currently have. You might realize that you need an umbrella policy for additional protection.  You may decide to self-insure more by raising your deductibles.  The exercise is a good one.

You don’t need transparency, or more regulation.  You don’t get transparency in the pricing of many items.  You do need to bid out your business every now and then.  You are your own best defender in matters like this.  Take your opportunity and bid out your policies.

Make sure that you:

  • Choose a range of insurers — Large companies, smaller local companies, stock/mutual, and any that favor a group you belong to, if the group is known to be filled with good risks.
  • Give them a standardized request for insurance, giving all of the parameters for your coverage, and data on those insured.
  • Tell them they get one shot, so submit their best bid now… there will be no second looks.
  • Some companies argue more about paying claims.  (AIG once had a reputation that way.)  Limit your bidders to those with a reputation for fairness.  State insurance departments often keep lists of complaints for companies.  Take a look in your home state.  Talk with friends.  Google the company name with a few choice words (cheated, claim denied, etc.) to see complaints, realizing that complainers aren’t always right.
  • Limit yourself to the incumbent carrier and 4-6 others.  Seven is more than enough, given the work involved.

So, what are you waiting for?  Bid out your personal insurance business.

Full disclosure: long AIZ, ALL, BRK/B, TRV for myself and clients (I know the industry well)

Everyone reading should know that I am an actuary, as well as a quant and a financial analyst.  Math is my friend.

Math is not the friend of many of my readers, so I usually don’t bother them with the math.  Tonight’s post will be no different.  It stems from my time of creating investment strategies for what was at that time a leading indexed annuity seller.

What is the return that you get from an indexed annuity?  It is the return from index options, subject to a certain minimum return over a 7-15 year period. Now, on average, what is the return you get from buying any fairly priced option?  You get the return on T-bills plus zero to a slight negative percentage.  So, if the option premiums paid are cumulatively greater than the guaranteed minimum return, the product should return more than the minimum on average — but likely not much more on average.

Why is that?  Options are a zero sum game, and usually there is no inherent advantage to the buyer or seller.  There are some exceptions to this rule, but it favors at-the money option sellers, never buyers. Buying options is what happens with indexed annuity products.

Now, over any short amount of time, like 5-10 years, you can get very different results than the likely average.  That doesn’t affect my point.  With games of chance, some get get good outcomes, and other get bad outcomes.

Now, the indexed product sellers will tell potential buyers that they will never lose money if the market goes down.  True enough.   What they don’t tell you is that over the long haul, you will most likely earn more investing in one of Vanguard’s S&P 500 funds or even their Balanced Index Fund.  You may even earn more investing in their high yield fund, or even their bond market index fund.

In exchange for eliminating all negative volatility, you end up getting very modest interest credits, while still being exposed to the credit risk of the insurance company.  In an insolvency, your policy will be affected.  The state guaranty funds will likely protect you if your policy is underneath the coverage limits, but still it is a bother.

Add to that the illiquidity of the product.  Yes, you can cash it in at any time, do 1035 exchanges, etc., but before the end of the surrender charge period you will pay a fee that compensates the insurance company for the amortized value of the large commission that they paid the agent that sold you the policy.  For most people, the surrender charge psychologically locks them in.

Thus I say it is better to be disciplined, and buy and hold a volatile investment with low fees over time, rather than own an indexed annuity that will tend to lock you in, and deliver lower returns on average.  That’s all, aside from the postscript.

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Postscript

How does an insurance company make a profit on an indexed annuity?  They take the proceeds of the sale, pay the agent, and use the rest to invest.  About 90% of the money will be invested in a bond that will cover the minimum guarantee.  The remainder will buy option premiums — the amount of money that gets applied to that is close to the credit spread on the bonds less the insurance company’s fees to pay the costs of the company and a charge for profit. Not a lot is typically left in a low yield environment like this.  The company tries to buy the most attractive options that they can on a limited budget.  Inexpensive options typically imply that most will finish out of the money, and/or when they do finish in-the-money, the rewards won’t be that large.

Photo Credit: Bowen Chin || What's more Illiquid than Frozen Tundra?

Photo Credit: Bowen Chin || What’s more Illiquid than Frozen Tundra?

My last piece on this topic, On Bond Market Illiquidity (and more), drew a few good comments.  I would like to feature them and answer them.  Here’s the first one:

Hello David,

One issue you don’t address in your post, which is excellent as usual, is the impact of what I’ll call “vaulted” high quality bonds. The explosion and manufacturing of fixed income derivatives has continued to explode while the menu of collateral has been steady or declining. A lot of paper is locked down for collateral reasons.

That’s a good point.  When I was a bond manager, I often had to deal with bonds that were salted away in the vaults of insurance companies, which tend to be long-term holders of long-term bonds, as they should be.  They need them in order to properly fund the promises that they make, while minimizing cash flow risk.

Also, as you mention, some bonds can’t be sold for collateral reasons.  That can happen due to reinsurance treaties, collateralized debt obligations, accounting reasons (marked “held to maturity”), and some other reasons.

But if the bonds are technically available for sale, it takes a certain talent to get an insurance company to sell some of those bonds without offering a steamy price.  You can’t sound anxious, rushed, etc. My approach was, “I’d be interested in buying a million or two of XYZ (mention coupon rate and maturity) bonds in the right price context.  No hurry, just get back to me with any interest.”  I would entrust this to one mid-tier broker familiar with the deal, who had previously had some skill in prying bonds out of the accounts of long-term holders before.  I might have two or three brokers doing this at a time, but all working on separate issues.  No overlap allowed, or it looks like there is a lot of demand for what is likely a sleepy security.  No sense in driving up the price.

Because it is difficult to get the actual cash bonds, it is tempting for some managers to buy synthetic versions of those bonds, or synthetic collateralized debt obligations of them instead.  Aside from counterparty risk, the derivatives exist as “side bets” in the credit of the underlying securities, and don’t provide any additional liquidity to the market.

My point here would be that these conditions have existed before, and I think what we have here is a repeat of bull market conditions in bond credit.  This isn’t that unusual, and it will eventually change when the bull market ends.

Here’s the next comment:

Hi David,

I hope you’re doing well.  I’ve been reading your blog for about a year now and really appreciate your perspective and original content.  Just wanted to ask a quick question regarding your most recent post on bond market liquidity. 

Our investment committee often talk about the idea of bond liquidity (and discusses it with every bond manager who walks in our doors), and specifically how there are systematic issues now which limit liquidity and considerably push the burden onto money managers to make markets vs. the past, when banks themselves were free to make more of a market with their own balance sheets.

My (limited) understanding is that legislation since 2008 has changed the way that investment banks are permitted to trade on their own books, and this is a big part of the significantly decreased liquidity which has thus far been a relative non-issue but which could rear its head quickly in the face of a sharp correction in bonds.

Do you have any thoughts about this newer paradigm of limited market-making at the big banks?  You didn’t seem to mention it at all in your article and I’m wondering if my thoughts here are either inaccurate or not impactful to the bottom line of the liquidity conversation.

I’m sure you’re a busy guy so I won’t presume upon a direct response but it may be worthwhile to post an update if you think these questions are pertinent.

Another very good comment.  I thought about adding this to the first piece, but in my experience, the large investment banks only kept some of the highest liquidity corporates in inventory, and the dregs of mortgage- and asset-backed bonds that they could not otherwise sell.  The smaller investment banks would keep little-to-no-inventory.  Many salesmen might have liked the flexibility of their bank to hold positions overnight, or buying bonds to “reposition” them, but the experiences of their risk control desks put the kibosh on that.

As a result, I think that the willingness of investment banks to make a market rely on:

  • The natural liquidity of the securities (which comes from the size of the issue, market knowledge of the issue, and composition of the ownership base), and
  • How much capital the investment bank has to put against the position.

The second is a much smaller factor.  Insurance companies have to deal with variations in capital charges in the bonds that they hold, and that is not a decisive factor in whether they hold a bond or not.  It is a factor in who will hold a bond and what yield spread the bond will trade at.  Bonds tend to gravitate to the holders that:

  • Like the issuer
  • Like the cash flow profile
  • Have low costs for holding the bonds

Yes, the changed laws and regulations have raised the costs for investment banks to hold bonds in inventory.  They are not a preferred habitat for most bonds.  Therefore, if an investment bank buys a bond in order to sell it (or vice-versa) in the present environment, the bid-ask spread must be wider to compensate for the incremental costs, thus reducing liquidity.

To close this evening, one more letter on bonds from a reader:

First off, thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge via your blog.  It is much appreciated.

Now for a bond question from someone learning the fixed income ropes…

What is the advantage/reasoning behind a company co-issuing notes with a finance subsidiary?  Even with reading the prospectus/indenture I can’t understand why a finance sub (essentially just set up to be a co-issuer of debt) would be necessary especially since the company is an issuer anyway and they also may have other subs guarantee the debt also.  I’m probably missing something obvious.

The answer here can vary.  Some companies guarantee their finance subsidiaries, and some don’t.  Those that don’t are willing to pay more to borrow, while bondholders live with the risk that in a crisis, the company might step away from its lending subsidiary.  They would never let the subsidiary fail, right?

Well, that depends on how easy it is to get financing alternatives, and how easy it might be for the parent company to borrow, post-subsidiary default.

If things go well, perhaps the subsidiary could be spun off as a separate company, or sold to another finance company for a gain.  After all, it has had separate accounting done for a number of years.

Beyond that, it can be useful to manage lending separately from sales.  They are different businesses, and require different skills.  Granted, it could be done as two divisions in the same company, but doing it in separate companies would force separate accountability if done right.

There may be other reasons, but they aren’t coming to my mind right now.  If you think of one, please note it in the comments.