There was a time when everyone thought CDOs are perfectly safe. That ended up being a tad incorrect. It resulted in AIG blowing up, recording hundreds of billions in losses and almost taking the rest of the financial world with it, leading ultimately to the first iteration of quantitative easing. A few years thereafter, several blogs and fringe elements suggested that munis are the next major cataclysm and will likely require Fed bail outs (some time before Meredith Whitney came on the public scene with her apocalyptic call). It would be only fitting that the same AIG that blew up the world the first time around, end up being the same company that does so in 2011, and with an instrument that just like back then only an occasional voice warned is a weapon of mass destruction: municipal bonds. AIG dropped over 6% today following some very unpleasasnt disclosures about its muni outlook, and corporate liquidity implications arising therefrom: "American International Group Inc., the bailed-out insurer, said it faces increased risk of losses on its $46.6 billion municipal bond portfolio and that defaults could pressure the company’s liquidity." So how long before we discover that Goldman has been lifting every AIG CDS for the past quarter? And how much longer after that until someone leaks a document that the company's muni strategy was orchestrated by one Joe Cassano?
From the Risk Factors section in the company's just issued 10-K:
The value of our investment portfolio is exposed to the creditworthiness of state and municipal governments. We hold a large portfolio of state and municipal bonds ($46.6 billion at December 31, 2010), primarily in Chartis, and, because of the budget deficits that most states and many municipalities are continuing to incur in the current economic environment, the risks associated with this portfolio have increased. Negative publicity surrounding certain states and municipal issues has negatively affected the value of our portfolio and reduced the liquidity in the state and municipal bond market. Defaults, or the prospect of imminent defaults, by the issuers of state and municipal bonds could cause our portfolio to decline in value and significantly reduce the portfolio’s liquidity, which could also adversely affect AIG Parent’s liquidity if AIG Parent then needed, or was required by its capital maintenance agreements, to provide additional capital support to the insurance subsidiaries holding the affected state and municipal bonds. As with our fixed income security portfolio generally, rising interest rates would also negatively affect the value of our portfolio of state and municipal bonds and could make those instruments more difficult to sell. A decline in the liquidity or market value of these instruments, which are carried at fair value for statutory purposes, could also result in a decline in the Chartis entities’ capital ratios and, in turn, require AIG Parent to provide additional capital to those entities.
Some more gasoline in the fire from Bloomberg:
AIG said that “several” issuers of bonds it holds have been downgraded, amid budget pressures. As of Dec. 31, the company had more than $700 million of state general-obligation bonds from California, which has the lowest Standard & Poor’s credit rating of any U.S. state. It also held more than $200 million in the bonds from Illinois.
Chartis’s portfolio has been reduced to about $36.3 billion, and 99 percent of the municipal holdings are rated A or better, AIG Chief Financial Officer David Herzog said in a conference call today with analysts.
And the greatest thing is that like "back then" nobody has any clue how bad the situation truly is:
“The risk is real,” said Phillip Phan, professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore, in an interview today. “They’re going to have to do a lot more homework before they can quantify how bad the situation is.”
In typical financial fraud fashion (and for a great corollary on this, read Jon Weil's recent expose on how Citigroup, with the assistance of KPMG, lied to everyone about its risk exposure), the company represented that all is well... three short months ago.
The insurer had said in its third-quarter filing in November that it “does not expect any significant defaults in portfolio holdings of municipal issuers over the near term.”
People are shocked. SHOCKED.
Justin Hoogendoorn, a bond strategist with BMO Capital Markets in Chicago, said he was surprised by AIG’s statement. “What are they seeing that we’re not seeing?” he said.
And yet another confirmation that our capital market is nothing but a mixture of central planning and certified idiocy:
“Since about mid-January, you’ve got a nice rebound in the market,” Hoogendoorn said.
Some more facts:
AIG’s gross unrealized gains on the municipal bond portfolio narrowed to $1.73 billion on Dec. 31 from $3.32 billion at the end of the third quarter, according to the filing. Rival insurer Travelers Cos., which holds a $39.5 billion municipal portfolio, said last month that gross unrealized gains on the securities narrowed to $1.6 billion from $2.8 billion during the period.
The figures, reflecting market fluctuations that aren’t counted toward earnings, are monitored by investors and rating firms as a gauge of financial strength.
Property-casualty insurers buy municipal bonds with policyholder premiums and hold the securities to pay future claims. Travelers, the only insurer in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, said this month its portfolio may face a higher risk of defaults, which could result in investment losses and reduced income.
“There are a number of things that you can be concerned about at AIG, and this is one of them,” said Cliff Gallant, an analyst at KBW Inc., who has an “underperform” rating on the stock.
We can't wait until it is confirmed that Zero Hedge readers (or at least 36% of them) were right, and the Fed will have no choice but to bail out AIG (again) this time by buying up muni bonds.
The investor presentation can be read here in its entirety, while the earning call transcript is reproduced below, courtesy of Bloomberg.