Reuters reports today that ACA Capital Holdings will be delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. ACA "provides financial guaranty insurance products to participants in the global credit derivatives markets, structured finance capital markets and municipal finance capital markets." In other words, it is a "monoline" credit insurer, just like MBIA and Ambac, that I have mentioned before on my "black list". ACA's shares have fallen from about $15 in June to about $0.50 today. Their latest economic report (from September 2007) is rather interesting - a net loss of about $-1 billion for the last quarter - total equity now about $-0.88 billion - meaning they are essentially bankrupt. The interesting thing is they have "insured" about $68 billion of "collateralized debt obligations" (CDOs), a form of repackaged debt. Now all that "insurance" is basically worthless. Who owns on all those "insured" CDOs? How did a company that had about $6 billion in total assets at the end of 2006 get to "insure" more than ten times as much in debt? It doesn't take a very high default rate on the underlying loans to erase the company. And who was stupid enough to pay for "insurance" from them? And by how many billions of dollars will they have to write their CDO assets down?
Now ACA is a comparatively small player in the CDS field. Ambac is one of the two biggest "monolines", and yesterday Bloomberg reported that Ambac reinsures $29 billion with Assured Guaranty Ltd., to "avoid the crippling loss of its AAA credit rating". On 5 December, Moody's basically gave Ambac and MBIA two weeks to raise more money or risk a credit rating downgrade. Ambac "guarantees" a mind-boggling $556 billion of securities, with total assets of only $22 billion and total equity of only $5.6 billion (as of September economic report). And they are losing money ($0.36 billion last quarter - I expect much more this quarter, cf. estimates for MBIA below). The deal with Assured Guaranty doesn't really change that much for Ambac - the riskiest debts are not included in the deal. And Ambac have so far not managed to raise any more money.
MBIA seems to be slightly better off - they managed to raise $1 billion from Warburg Pincus. MBIA "guarantees" $652 billion of securities, but their financial status is stronger than Ambac's - $45 billion in total assets, $6.5 billion in total equity and only lost $37 million last quarter. However, Barclays Capital expects MBIA to post losses of between $2.3 billion and $4.2 billion, which would of course make their financial situation precarious to say the least.
Now the string of credit insurers going bust seems to have started with ACA, and I expect Ambac to follow within a few months. MBIA could survive a year, perhaps. Some people might even think this is optimistic. According to Bloomberg "If all the companies were to falter, $2.4 trillion of insured securities would be thrown into doubt, costing as much as $200 billion". My guess is that cost is underestimated, as with all costs so far in this credit mess. However, the biggest risk if the credit insurers falter is that many of those who now hold the "insured" debt are only allowed to hold investment grade rated debt, or have a maximum percentage of non-investment grade debt that they may hold. This means that they would have to sell the "insured" debt if the insurers fail or are downgraded. This sudden selling would lead to lower prices for these classes of debt, thereby increasing losses, if buyers can be find at all in these frozen credit markets.
Ironically, Ambac announced yesterday that "International Securitisation Report (ISR) has named Ambac Monoline Insurer of the Year". Wow! Sounds really great, doesn't it? And it gets better: "Ambac has had an active year closing many noteworthy transactions. This award underscores the company's ability to use our in-depth knowledge and expertise to help issuers and financial advisors structure innovative transactions across a diverse range of asset classes and jurisdictions." It's a pity this award comes just as they seem to be on the brink of bankruptcy.