Regulators Should Allow Bond Insurers to Fail: Ackman

By Reuters -  |  Posted 2008-02-07 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Bill Ackman, whose hedge fund has been betting against bond insurers since at least 2002, said in a letter to U.S. regulators that rescuing the bond insurers will only prolong the credit crisis, and the companies should instead be allowed to fail.

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Bill Ackman, whose hedge fund has been betting against bond insurers since at least 2002, said in a letter to U.S. regulators that rescuing the bond insurers will only prolong the credit crisis, and the companies should instead be allowed to fail.

In the letter obtained by Reuters, Ackman said bond insurers in recent years have become a means for banks to avoid reporting their full credit exposure and make their capital ratios appear stronger, but that banks should be forced to own up to their full credit risk.

"(W)e understand that the banking industry counterparties to the bond insurers would prefer to avoid taking these ... risks back on balance sheet -- particularly at a time when their balance sheets are strained by subprime and other losses that have not been hedged," Ackman wrote, adding that "there are no such free lunches available in the capital markets."

Bond insurers have in turn been critical of Ackman and other investors betting against the companies. On a recent conference call, MBIA Inc (MBI.N: Quote, Profile, Research) Chief Executive Gary Dunton railed against "the fear mongering and intentional distortions of facts about our business that have been pumped into the market by self-interested parties."

New York State Superintendent Eric Dinallo is working with banks to rescue bond insurers including Ambac Financial Group Inc (ABK.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and FGIC Corp, which face billions of dollars of potential losses after guaranteeing bonds linked to risky subprime mortgages and other debt.

One idea floated by Dinallo early in discussions was banks putting up a rescue fund of about $15 billion to save the insurers, according to a person briefed on the matter. That idea has now given way to separate rescues of the companies, which collectively guarantee more than $2.4 trillion of bonds.

But some analysts argue a rescue will take a lot more than $15 billion. Sean Egan, managing director of independent credit rating firm Egan-Jones Ratings Inc, says the top six bond insurers face roughly $80 billion of eventual losses, and probably need more than $200 billion of new capital.

Ackman said in his letter that given the eventual losses the bond insurers face, banks that have traded with the companies should write down their exposure today and raise enough new capital so they can continue to operate safely.

Banks and bond insurers should be forced to disclose their exposure to repackaged bonds and loans known as collateralized debt obligations immediately, Ackman added in the letter, which was addressed to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and others.

Ackman is founder of Pershing Square Capital Management, which has sold shares of Ambac and MBIA short in a bet they will decline. Pershing Square manages some $6 billion. In addition to these short positions, the company also buys shares of companies and agitates for change, as at McDonald's Corp and Wendy's.

THE INSURERS' CASSANDRA

Investors for years ignored bearish analysts like Ackman, and instead sent shares of bond insurers like Ambac and MBIA Inc to record levels as recently as the beginning of 2007.

But investors have become much more open to Ackman's arguments in recent months as bond insurers have reported billions of dollars of payouts, posted quarterly losses that eroded a substantial portion of their net worth, and edged closer to losing top ratings crucial for their business.

If U.S. bond insurers lose their top ratings, global financial markets could be hurt. Investors that can only hold top-rated bonds will be forced to sell them, while banks will be forced to record losses that some analysts estimate at $70 billion or more.

Bond insurers originally focused on guaranteeing municipal bonds against default. Tax-free bonds issued by cities, states, and other government entities rarely default, which meant that bond insurers rarely had to make payouts, and could maintain fairly low levels of capital relative to their exposure.

But in the last decade, the insurers have sought higher returns by guaranteeing repackaged subprime mortgages and other risk assets against default, which turned out to be a losing bet after housing prices stopped rising, borrower defaults jumped and credit markets went into a tailspin.

(Reporting by Dan Wilchins)

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