Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ambac’s shocking press release

I have meticulously (and I mean meticulously) gone through Ambac’s reserves (and MBIAs). Ambac is fairly close to accurately reserved. MBIA is way under. Them the facts looking at individual exposures.

That said two things have gone wrong:

1. The bankruptcy of Lehman accelerated some GIC contracts stretching parent company liquidity, and

2. Moody’s put them on credit watch, possibly forcing a parent company liquidity issue.

A small downgrade (one notch) leaves the parent company solvent. A double downgrade requires the insurance regulator to let more money out of the regulated insurance entity to pay parent company obligations.

Be under no illusion – the regulator has an incentive to do this. If the parent company goes bankrupt there is a credit event under Ambac’s credit default swaps. That would accelerate the payment on the CDS – a payment that is currently deferred and may never need to be made if the losses are not as great as predicted on the CDS.

The accelerated payment would mean that the holders of the CDS get paid before the holders of any (future) defaulted municipal bonds. This essentially makes Wall Street structurally superior to Main Street – and the regulator doesn’t like that deal.

Contra: if the regulators hang tough and force the holding company to bankruptcy then the GICs get accelerated anyway – and the money will come from the regulated entity. So the regulator can’t stop it coming from the regulated entity – and might as well not try.

So when push comes to shove (and it might) the regulator will allow the parent company to downstream capital from the regulated entity to the subsidiary.

The regulator will however not allow the regulated entity to set up Connie Lee under those circumstances though – and so a lot of the upside will disappear. Still the question with Ambac comes down to whether they are appropriately reserved not the parent company liquidity. That is the subject of some later posts. Connie Lee comes later.

However just as I thought Ambac’s solvency (or questions thereof) was seriously overplayed the last time the stock was below $5 I think it is overplayed this time.

I am however seriously regretting not selling shares on the way up. Round tripping is no fun at all.

Here is the press release in its gory details.

John Hempton

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