Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Mortgage Insurer Meltdown

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. In addition to the term helicopter economics, we have also coined the term, helicopternomics, to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government and to update the old-fashioned term wheelbarrow economics.

Bond insurers (Ambac, MBIA, FGIC, XL Capital, ACA, Security Capital) were only one of the many sectors of the financial industry that had gotten themselves into serious trouble by the fall of 2007. While these companies were not large compared to the banks or broker-dealers, they had an out sized impact because they guaranteed most municipal bonds in the United States and the ratings of those bonds couldn't be any higher than the bond insurance companies own ratings. Lowered ratings on bonds would mean higher interest costs, higher insurance costs, and even the possibility of not being able to borrow money for municipalities throughout the country. As with most of the problems created by the credit bubble, the bill would eventually wind up at the doorstep of the American taxpayer. As bad as this was, it was by no means the full extent of the damage that would be caused if bond insurers lost their financial viability.

Bond insurers are also known as monolines because for most of their existence they only operated in one line of business, the low-risk insurance of municipal bonds. That changed however in 1998 when they persuaded New York State regulators to allow them to underwrite high-risk Credit Default Swaps (a type of derivative that is insurance on a bond) on mortgage securities. Other states promptly followed New York's lead. The bond insurers set up shell companies called 'transformers' because they transformed a traditional bond insurance contract into a Credit Default Swap. These swaps in turn allowed investment banks to move commitments off their balance sheets and book profits up front - an accounting illusion that began to implode when the housing market went into decline.

On December 19, 2007, S&P finally downgraded bond insurer ACA from A to a junk rating of CCC. S&P was apparently one of the last to realize that that the company was no longer creditworthy. The company's stock had already fallen to less than a dollar (the price the market sets when a bankruptcy is expected) and had been delisted from the New York Stock Exchange in November, but apparently even that wasn't enough for S&P to give up the fiction of its A rating on ACA. Nor did S&P explain why ACA suddenly went from a creditworthy rating to junk status overnight when it belatedly downgraded ACA in December. S&P and the other rating agencies were quite aware of what would happen if they gave the bond insurers realistic credit ratings. Shortly after their downgrade of ACA, CIBC World Markets announced that insurance for $3.5 billion in securities it held backed by subprime mortgages was possibly no longer viable. In other words, the big banks and brokerage houses would be on the hook for all the subprime garbage on (and off) their books and would have to acknowledge it if the bond insurers were downgraded. One could safely presume that there was a lot of political pressure from many quarters to prevent this from happening.

Next: Sovereign Wealth Funds Bail Out the Banks

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

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1 comment:


A subprime Mortage is the kiss of death.