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Posts Tagged ‘systemic risk

“It’s very easy for trusted companies to mislead naive customers, and life insurance companies are trusted”*…

Systemic risk in the financial system– the kind that can create devastation like the Crash of 2008— has been the province of regulators for many decades, primarily the SEC and the Federal Reserve. But as our financial system has become more complex and intertwined, that risk may have moved from the stock market and banks to other sectors, sectors less well regulated. As John Ellis explains in his terrific newsletter, News Items, we might do well to turn our attention to the seemingly staid insurance industry…

The Fed exists to oversee banking, but lately it’s been keeping an eye on life insurance, too. Its recent Financial Stability Report flagged some life-insurance practices that might make the system vulnerable. Some insurers invest in assets that “can suffer sudden increases in default risk,” the report said. And some use “nontraditional” funding sources that could dry up “on short notice.”

That sounds ominous. But not long after that, Jon Gray, the president of private-equity giant Blackstone, turned up in a Financial Times article, saying life insurers had the wherewithal to bolster America’s weakened regional banks. 

Gray said private equity firms like Blackstone could get “very low-cost capital” from life insurers and extend it to regional banks, to fund their lending operations. That would be a boon, because the banks’ usual source of funding, customer deposits, has grown more expensive and flighty in the wake of this year’s bank failures. So the life insurers could help ease a credit squeeze.

And once the banks make the loans, Gray said, the insurers might like to acquire some of them as investments. Blackstone manages billions of dollars of insurance investments, and Gray said the firm was already talking with large, unnamed regional banks about such deals.

So, what’s up with life insurance? Is the industry so flush it can send money to shore up America’s weakened banks? If so, then what’s the Fed worried about? 

As it happens, a group of Fed economists has some answers. They got under the hood of the life insurance industry and combed through the voluminous regulatory filings of more than a thousand life insurers in the years since the crash of 2008. The U.S. financial system was going through major changes then, and they wanted to understand how the insurers had navigated the changing landscape.

One trend they observed: First, America’s bailed-out banks, seen as having gambled with their depositors’ money, were brought under the broad financial-reform legislation known as Dodd-Frank. It steered them away from making any more loans to big, low-rated borrowers. Then, once the banks had departed that space, life insurers moved in.  

As a result, “These insurers have become exponentially more vulnerable to an aggregate corporate sector shock,” wrote the three economists, Nathan Foley-Fisher, Nathan Heinrich, and Stéphane Verani, in a paper first published in February 2020 and updated in April of this year.  

Their findings cast the life insurance industry in a very different light from the traditional image of dull, stable companies plodding along under the weight of big, safe, bond-laden investment portfolios. 

“Within ten years, the U.S. life insurance industry has grown into one of the largest private debt investors in the world,” the three wrote.

At the end of 2020, life insurers managed one-fourth of all outstanding CLOs, or collateralized loan obligations – bond-like securities backed by pools of loans to large, low-rated borrowers. Because the underlying borrowers have low ratings, CLOs pay a higher yield than the high-grade corporate bonds a conventional life portfolio would hold. 

The insurers were also using unusual sources of capital to fuel their growth (funding-agreement-backed repos, anyone?). Not all life insurers, but a certain cohort was doing the kind of business the big banks did before the financial crisis, “but without the corresponding regulation and supervision.”  

The economists called it “a new shadow-banking business model that resembles investment banking in the run-up to the 2007-09 financial crisis.”

Their reports describe the trends in detail, but in measured tones. No flashing red lights or alarm bells. But they do tell how things could go south: “A widespread default of risky corporate loans could force life insurers to assume balance sheet losses” from their CLO holdings. 

Institutional investors watch life insurers carefully and know where the shadow-banking activity is concentrated; they would presumably see the losses coming and withdraw from the affected insurers in time. That’s what we’ve been seeing in the regional banking sector this spring, where savvy investors have identified potential problem banks and sold or shorted their stocks. The trouble is, such trading can turn a potential problem into a real one.

Upshot: “U.S. life insurers may require government support to prevent shocks from being amplified and transmitted to the household sector,” the three warn…

[Ellis explains how this happened; TLDR: life insurers chased yield; private equity firms obliged.]

The Fed researchers said the private-equity firms appear to be giving their affiliated insurers “some of the riskiest portions” of the CLOs that they package. Since risk and reward go hand in hand, presumably the insurers are getting better returns than they would from safe bonds. 

But still, should America’s insurance regulators be allowing this? Remember, America’s banks were told to stop. 

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has, in fact, proposed a change in the post-crisis rule that’s been letting insurers count risky CLOs as if they were safe bonds. 

But the NAIC isn’t a regulator; it’s a non-governmental organization that represents America’s 56 insurance regulators (one for each state, five for the territories, and one for the District of Columbia). The regulators often have different priorities and viewpoints, and when the NAIC makes a proposal, it can take years to get the necessary buy-in. 

So here we are. Countless policyholders and annuitants are diligently paying their premiums to keep their contracts in force, unaware of these trends. The Fed’s economists see undisclosed risk, but the Fed has no legal authority to regulate insurers. The insurance regulators don’t seem in any rush to rein in the risk-takers. Keep in mind: Life-and-annuity is a $9 trillion industry that doesn’t have anything like the FDIC…

Eminently worth reading in full (along with the report and the paper linked above): “Risky Business,” from @EllisItems.

(Image above: source)

Daniel Kahneman

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As we whack the mole, we might recall that it was on this date in 1931 that the New York Stock Exchange began regularly reporting short selling data for the first time. The Crash of 1929 had rocked the stock market; the Dow dropped 32.6% in 1930 as the American economy took a nosedive (unemployment doubled to 16.3% by 1931, as the Great Depression set in). But short sellers in the stock market made a killing. Consequently, those short sellers took a lot of heat for the stock market crash of 1929, which led to the enactment of the uptick rule (requiring that short selling orders be filled only during upticks in share prices and meant to mitigate the negative impact of short sales) shortly thereafter. The reporting of short orders/sales was another step toward reining in the phenomenon.

The uptick rule was abolished in 2007, just prior to the market crash of 2008.

People Gathering in Front of the New York Stock Exchange at the start of the Crash in 1929 (source)
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