Wednesday, July 2, 2008

GIGs and Ambac

Warning: Wonkish. Read only if you are interested in Ambac.

The Whitney Tilson post I wrote up on the weekend goes through the issues of GICs and MBIA. The story is that when a municipality raises a bond it doesn’t need all of it straight away. So the bond insurers (using their contacts with the municipalities) sold “guaranteed investment contracts”. These contracts were invested in primarily high-grade instruments (but not Treasuries). A guaranteed return was offered to the municipality. Withdrawal was usually limited to term giving MBIA several opportunities for profit by structuring investments to match total maturity schedules.

The problem for MBIA was that the GICs could be accelerated in the event of a ratings downgrade – either that or the company could be forced to post collateral. The collateral requirements are causing MBIA difficulties.

Ambac has also written GICs and they too can be accelerated. Here is the disclosure in the last annual filing. Note the section bolded by me which says that Ambac has “de-emphasized” this business for reasons primarily related to liquidity needs.

It is clearly a problem in the event of “well defined credit events” (which I presume is a ratings trigger). As to whether this ratings trigger is an issue for the stock: I report – you decide. As to whether these are ultimately parent company liabilities? I will leave that for another post. But if you want to know any earlier than that - read the statutory statements of the insurance subsidiaries.

Financial Services Liquidity. The principal uses of liquidity by Financial Services subsidiaries are payment of investment and payment agreement obligations, net obligations under interest rate, total return and currency swaps, operating expenses and income taxes. Management believes that its Financial Services liquidity needs can be funded from its operating cash flow, the maturity and sale of its invested assets and from time to time, by inter-company loans and repurchase agreement transactions. The principal sources of this segment’s liquidity are proceeds from issuance of investment agreements, net investment income, maturities or sales of securities from its investment portfolio and net receipts from interest rate, currency and total return swaps. The investment objectives with respect to the investment agreement business are preservation of capital by maintaining a minimum average quality rating of AA on invested assets, maximize the net interest rate spread as compared to investment agreements issued and to maintain a liquid floating rate investment portfolio, which includes short term investments, to minimize interest rate and liquidity risk. As of December 31, 2007, the investment agreement business floating rate investment portfolio approximates $6.3 billion or 84% of the investment portfolio related to the investment agreement business. Recently, Ambac decided to de-emphasize the Financial Services businesses. Ambac’s decision to decrease outstanding exposure to the financial services businesses was primarily due to the different liquidity needs of the business compared to the Financial Guarantee business, rating agency views relating to non-core businesses and to allow management to enhance its focus on the financial guarantee business. Ambac believes that this decision should not materially impact the Financial Services business liquidity.

Investment agreements subject Ambac to liquidity risk associated with unanticipated withdrawals of principal as allowed by the terms of the investment agreements. These unanticipated withdrawals could require Ambac to sell investment securities at a loss to the extent other funding sources are unavailable. Ambac utilizes several tools to manage liquidity risk including regular surveillance of the investment agreements for unscheduled withdrawals. In general, Ambac has characterized the portfolio of investment agreements into two broad categories, contingent and fixed withdrawal. As of December 31, 2007, approximately $4.5 billion relates to contingent withdrawal investment agreements. Contingent withdrawal transactions include contractual provisions that allow the investor to withdraw principal and require minimal notice to Ambac. The vast majority of these investment agreements can only be drawn in the event that well-defined, observable events have occurred, primarily credit events. As of December 31, 2007, approximately $3.3 billion relates to fixed withdrawal investment agreements, of which $1.8 billion include provisions where under certain circumstances our counterparty has the ability to withdraw funds during 2008.

Disclosure: I have just purchased a fair size holding in Ambac and a smaller holding in MBIA. I think it is possible (even likely) that both companies go to zero - but I do not think that they do so rapidly. Ambac in particular is trading at out-of-the-money option value only. My expectation of return is high - but I can't eat my expected return and it is entirely possible I will lose 100 percent of my investment. I will sell a fair bit of the position on any big rally. I do not want too many "told you so" emails if I stuff this one up. But then I will not gloat that much if I get it right.


John Hempton said...

Got my first "told you so" emails from a hedge fund manager I very much admire.

I know a fair few people I do not think who are competent who are shorting MORE Ambac at this point.

I don't mind being on the opposite side of them.

But I dislike being on the opposite side of this guy intensely.


Anonymous said...

At least with MBIA, it looks like there is a chance you may get out ahead :)

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