Merrill's AIG Problem

Posted by: Matthew Goldstein on September 16, 2008

John Thain may have struck a deal to sell Merrill Lynch to Bank of America at just the right time, and for a whopping 70% premium to boot. That’s because the recent rating downgrade of American International Group may force Merrill to take another write-down on what’s left of its rotting pile of subprime mortgage-backed collateralized debt obligations.

Even after selling off some $30.6 billion in ailing CDOs to private equity firm Lone Star Funds in August at a steep discount, Merrill still has $19.9 billion in mortgage-backed CDOs in its portfolio. Merrill has marked down the value of those CDOs to $8.8 billion—a more than 50% haircut. In a recent regulatory filing, Merrill said it was adequately protected against suffering any sizeable losses on those remaining CDOs because it had purchased $6 billion worth of insurance, or credit default swaps, from “highly-rated non-monoline counterparties.’’ It’s widely believed that the bulk of that insurance was purchased from AIG, which was a prime seller of credit default swaps on CDOs up until the beginning of 2006.

The downgrade of AIG could require the big insurer to cough-up money to Merrill to keep those contracts in place. But with AIG facing the possibility of having to pay $14 billion in additional capital to Merrill and other companies and hedge funds that bought similar credit default swaps, it’s by no means certain the big insurance will be able to meet that obligation.

That’s a big reason Wall Street is so concerned about AIG and the fear that a collapse of AIG could have far greater ripples than Lehman’s bankruptcy filing. AIG and Merrill did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In all, AIG wrote some $79 billion in insurance on CDOs backed mainly by subprime mortgages—selling insurance to financial firms like Merrill, UBS and Calyon. But AIG did much more than just issue credit default swaps on the worst of the CDOs. The total value of AIG’s credit default swap portfolio is $527 billion, according to a regulatory filing. In downgrading AIG on Sept. 15, Standard & Poor’s said: “The primary source of the strain comes from credit default swaps covering multi-sector collateralized debt obligations with mortgage exposure as well as insurance company holdings of residential mortgage-backed securities.”

The need for AIG to make good on all of its credit default obligations it the main reason the insurer is facing a mad dash to raise cash. It’s likely that firms like Merrill will give AIG some time to raise the necessary capital. Squeezing AIG for cash it doesn’t have will only force the insurer’s trading partners to take write-downs and losses on the credit protection it has purchased.

In many ways, this is what happened when tiny bond insurer ACA Capital was downgraded by S&P to junk status last December. The thinly capitalized firm, which insured nearly $30 billion in subprime backed CDOs, couldn’t make good on its capital obligations. The firm’s failure to pay up resulted in a series of big CDO write-downs by Merrill, CIBC and other banks. It looks like history may be repeating itself. But this time the damage will be much worse.

--with David Henry

Reader Comments

williambanzai7

September 16, 2008 11:31 AM

Notwithstanding all the fine arguments about how important CDSs are as risk management tools, what good are instruments that are never called because everyone feards what will happen if they are. Its freakin ridiculous. The mony that flows for the origination of this garbage. It adds up to multiples of the debt actually insured, it is unfunded it is OTC paper so it is not fungible and liquid. Congress please do something about this garbage heap Wall Stree hath created. And Mr. McCain, thanks but no blue ribbon necessary to understand what is happening here.

arrowrod

September 16, 2008 2:39 PM

What a great business model. Sell insurance, pay self huge bonuses. Default.

Leave a huge mess. Get relief from partners.

Start all over again.

Wait a second, I'm Merrill Lynch, I'm supposed to do "due diligence".

Howard

September 16, 2008 4:41 PM

I'm looking for a partner to enter a business. We each invest $1,000.00. We then borrow $1 Billion. We use this to insure $1 Trillion of mortgages. But first we pay each other $100 Million salary for being such geniuses. Seems like a good idea.

Squeezebox

September 16, 2008 5:15 PM

Half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. Merrill will still collect more from the insurance policies than it would have had it not bought the policies.

azbala

September 16, 2008 5:40 PM

The loaf is stale & rotten with mold & fungus. They can collect all of it from the wall street dumpsters, ain't real money, no more.

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About

Bloomberg Businessweek’s Ben Steverman focuses on the latest moves in financial markets and emerging trends in stocks, bonds, and funds, always with an eye toward giving readers a better understanding of the sometimes confusing and often chaotic world of money. Standard & Poor’s senior index analyst Howard Silverblatt will also provide his take on companies’ finances and the markets. Voted one of the “Top 100 Finance Blogs” in 2007.

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