Tag Archives: Carl Icahn

A Tale of Two Insurers

My negativity on the operating prospects for the reinsurance and specialty insurance sector has been articulated many times previously in this blog. Many of the same factors are impacting the broader commercial insurance market. Pricing conditions in the US and globally can be seen in the graph below.

click to enlargeUS and Global Commercial Insurance Pricing

Two insurers, at different ends of the size scale, which I have previously posted on, are AIG (more recently here and here) and Lancashire (more recently here and here). Given that a lot has happened to each since I last posted on them, I thought a quick update on both would give an interesting insight into the current market.

First up is AIG who have been under a lot of pressure from shareholders to unlock value, including a break-up plan for the insurance giant from the opportunistic rascal Carl Icahn. The graph below shows a breakdown of recent operating results (as ever with AIG longer term comparisons are hampered by their ever changing reporting segments). The improvement in the UGC mortgage insurance business has been dwarfed by the poor non-life results which were impacted by a significant reserve strengthening charge.

click to enlargeAIG PreTax Operating Income 2012 to 2015

In January, Peter Hancock (the 5th CEO since Hank Greenberg left in 2005) announced a new strategic plan to the end of 2017, the main points of which are

  • Return at least $25 billion of capital to shareholders through dividends and share buy-backs from operating profits, divestitures and other actions such as monetizing future life profits by $4-5 billion through reinsurance purchases.
  • Enhance transparency by separating into an operating portfolio with a goal of over 10% return on equity and a legacy portfolio that will focus on return of capital. Reorganize into at least nine modular, more self-contained business units to enhance accountability, transparency, and strategic flexibility.
  • Reduce general operating expenses by $1.6 billion, 14 percent of the 2015 expenses.
  • Improve the commercial P&C accident year loss ratio by six points.
  • Pursue an active divestiture program, including initially the 20% IPO of UGC.

The non-life reserve charge in 2015 amounted to $3.6 billion. 60% of the charge came from the (mainly US) casualty business, 16% from financial lines (again mainly in the US) and 15% from the run-off business. After the last material reserve strengthening in 2010, the worrying aspect of the 2015 charge is that approximately two thirds comes from accident years not yet 10 years old (which is relatively immature for long tail casualty business particularly when 42% of the charge is on excess casualty business). The impact of the reserve hikes on the commercial P&C segment can be clearly seen in the graph below.

click to enlargeAIG Commercial P&C Combined Ratio Breakdown 2008 to 2015

Perhaps the most aggressive target, given current market conditions, in the strategic plan is the 6% improvement in the commercial P&C accident year loss ratio by the end of 2017. The plan includes exiting approximately $1 billion of US casualty business, including poorly performing excess casualty business, primary and excess auto liability, health-care and financial lines business. Growth of $0.5 billion is been targeted in multi-national, financial lines, property upper middle market and major accounts which involve specialist engineering capabilities, international casualty and emerging risks such as cyber and M&A insurance. AIG also recently announced a two year reinsurance deal with Swiss Re on their US casualty book (it looks like a 25% quota share). The scale of the task for AIG in meeting this target can be seen in the exhibit below which takes a number of slides from the strategy presentation.

click to enlargeAIG Commercial P&C Metrics

I was struck by a quote from the firm on their turnaround plan – “We will use the data and analytical tools we have invested in to significantly differentiate and determine where we should focus our resources.” I suspect that every significant insurer would claim to have, or at least aspire to have, similar analytical capabilities. Big data and analytical driven underwriting is undoubtedly the future for large insurers with access to large amounts of quality data. Fortune had an interesting recent article on the analytical firm Palantir who are working with some insurers on sharpening their underwriting criteria for the social media age. An analyst in Citi even suggested that Goggle should look at buying AIG as a fintech play. The entry of the big internet firms into the insurance sector seems inevitable in some form or other, although I doubt AIG will be part of any such strategy.

As to the benefits of staying a large composite insurer, AIG cited an analysis commissioned by consultants Oliver Wyman supporting the benefits of diversification between the life and non-life business of AIG. Using the S&P consolidated model as a proxy, Oliver Wyman estimate a $7.5 billion capital benefit to AIG compared to separate life and non-life businesses, as envisaged in Icahn’s plan.

So, can AIG achieve the aggressive operational targets they have set themselves for the P&C business? Current market conditions present a considerable challenge. Combined with their recent results, an end of 2017 target for a 6% improvement is extremely aggressive. Too aggressive for my liking. However, the P&C results should improve somewhat over the short term (particularly if there is no more big reserve charges) and actions such as expense reductions, monetizing future life profits and divestitures will give AIG the fire power to hand out sweeties to shareholders. For those willing to take the punt, the return of a chunk of the $25 billion target in dividends and share buy-backs over the next 2 years for a firm with a current market value of $61 billion, trading at a 0.72 multiple to book value (trading around 0.92 of book less AOCI and DTA), may be too tempting to resist. It does have a certain allure…..

Lancashire, a London market specialty insurer and reinsurer with a mantra of disciplined underwriting, is at the opposite end of the scale spectrum with a niche focus. Long cherished by investors for its shareholder friendly dividend policies, Lancashire has been under pressure of late due to the heavy competition in its niche markets. The energy insurance sector, for example, has been described by the broker Willis as dismal with capacity chasing a smaller premium pool due to the turmoil in the oil market. A number of recent articles (such as here and here) highlight the dangers. Alex Maloney, the firm’s CEO, described the current market as “one of the most difficult trading environments during the last twenty years”. In addition, Lancashire lost its founder, Richard Brindle, in 2014 plus the CEO, the CFO and some senior underwriters of its Lloyds’ Cathedral unit in 2015.

The graph below shows the breakdown of reported historical calendar year combined ratios plus the latest accident year net loss ratio and paid ratio.

click to enlargeLancashire Ratio Breakdown 2008 to 2015

The underwriting discipline that Lancashire professes can be seen in the recent accident year loss ratios and in the 30% drop in gross written premiums (GWP), as per the graph below. The drop is more marked in net written premiums at 35% due to the increase in reinsurance spend to 25% of GWP (from approx 10% in its early years).

click to enlargeLancashire GWP Breakdown 2008 to 2015

The timely and astute increase in reinsurance protection spend can be seen in the decrease in their peak US aggregate exposures. The latest probable maximum loss (PML) estimates for their US peak exposures are approximately $200 million compared to historical levels of $300-350 million. Given the lower net premium base, the PML figures in loss ratio terms have only dropped to 40% from 50-60% historically. Lancashire summed up their reinsurance purchasing strategy as follows:

“Our outwards reinsurance programme provides a breadth and depth of cover which has helped us to strengthen our position and manage volatility. This helps us to continue to underwrite our core portfolio through the challenges posed by the cycle.”

As with AIG, the temptation for shareholders is that Lancashire will continue with their generous dividends, as the exhibit below from their Q4 2015 presentation shows.

click to enlargeLancashire Dividend History 2015

The other attraction of Lancashire is that it may become a take-over target. It currently trades at 1.4 times tangible book level which is rich compared to its US and Bermudian competitors but low compared to its peers in Lloyds’ which trade between 1.58 and 2.0 times tangible book. Lancashire itself included the exhibit below on tangible book values in its Q4 2015 presentation.

click to enlargeInsurance Tangible Book Value Multiple 2012 to 2015

It is noteworthy that there has been little activity on the insurance M&A front since the eye boggling multiples achieved by Amlin and HCC from their diversification hungry Japanese purchasers. Many in the market thought the valuations signaled the top of the M&A frenzy.

Relatively, AIG looks more attractive than Lancashire in terms of the potential for shareholder returns. However, fundamentally I cannot get away from current market conditions. Risk premia is just too low in this sector and no amount of tempting upside through dividends, buy-backs or M&A multiples can get me comfortable with the downside potential that comes with this market. As per the sentiment expressed in previous posts, I am happy with zero investment exposure to the insurance sector right now. I will watch this one play out from the sidelines.

My Erratic Telecom Habit

One of the sectors that I have followed for nearly 15 years now is the emerging telecom sector, specifically the so called altnet or CLEC sector. My affiliation with this sector has been the cause of many highs and lows, some very painful lows, through the telecom/internet bubble & bust, the 2000’s and to this day. Initially the attraction was the boom in internet and data traffic and the leveraged nature of many of the firms. After spectacular gains in the go-go days of the bubble (I bought hook line and sinker into the “picks and shovel” rationale), the subsequent reality of the telecom bust and the “nuclear winter” left me with big losses. For those unfamiliar with the stories of the bubble era, Om Malik’s excellent book “Broadbandits: Inside the $750 bilion Telecom Heist” goes deep into the madness that prevailed.

Over the past 10 years odd, I have had a much more cautious and opportunistic approach on the sector and have had some success at dipping in and out of stocks/debt/options of restructured companies as they moved in and out of favour (particularly prior to the financial crisis). Successes in recent years include the post-bankruptcy Virgin Media and Global Crossing. One notable failure was a firm called XO Communications backed by the vulture investor Carl Icahn. A self publicised champion of the minor investor, when it suits him, investing alongside Icahn in XO proved to be a grave error. This article illustrates some of the drama. I Iearned much from the experience including the dangers of illiquid stocks, the nonsense of following a self hyped dominant “star” investor, and the obvious perils of over-leveraged stocks with poor balance sheets in commoditising businesses. Despite these up and downs, the core thesis of a rapidly increasing data consuming society with the potential for high return/high risk (and often leveraged) investments remains for those with an aggressive risk appetite, particularly now that most of the overcapacity from the telecom boom years is becoming less of a factor. For any investor in this space, Robert Powell’s website Telecom Ramblings is the go-to place to get sensible and experienced insights.

One commonly used valuation metric for telecoms is the EV/EBITDA multiple (although it needs to be supplemented with other metrics such as debt and cash-flow measures to get a holistic picture in the altnet space). The graph below shows the variation that has been prevalent in the sector (for selected firms that survived & there is many names that didn’t).

Historical EV/EBITDA Valuations (point selections as at Year End) click to enlarge

Historical EVtoEBITDA Multiples CLEC sector May 2013

As I was preparing to crystallise my thoughts & analysis on this sector (the discipline of having to write down my analysis for this blog is a big reason I am continuing with this blog experiment), the comments from Keith Meister of Corvex at the Ira Sohn conference this week on Level 3 and TW Telecom have been extremely timely. By the way, Meister is an old colleague of Carl Icahn and served as his envoy on the XO board. Given this pedigree, I would therefore totally discount anything he says as 100% self serving. This post will outline some of the historical experience and a follow-on post will outline my valuation analysis for the future of Level 3 and TW Telecom.

Anybody familiar with this space is well aware of the ups and downs of the soap opera that is Level 3. One of the key players in the telecom boom, it built a wholesale network with the help of vast amounts of equity and debt in the bubble years (raised $14 billion in 1998!) and through the 2000’s became a serial consolidator purchasing firms such as Genuity, Wiltel, Progress Telecom, ICG, Telcove, Looking Glass networks and Broadwing to rebalance its business away from the wholesale business into the enterprise space. It is quite incredible that this company avoided the Chapter 11 route that so many companies in this space had to go through to right-size their balance sheets in the face of the new reality of the sector in the 2000’s. With its merger with the restructured Global Crossing announced in 2011, Level 3 seems to have finally reached a level where its balance sheet fits its business. The company also now has diversity across products and regions which indicate that it may be the right time to focus on organic growth. The arrival of the new CEO, Jeff Storey who previously served as Level 3’s COO and previously was the CEO of Wiltel, and his comments on the latest conference call seem to have signalled that Level 3’s consolidation days are behind it and the focus will now be on driving the company forward given its extensive global assets and improved balance sheet. The company is also a potential attractive takeover target for larger established telecoms looking to expand or from regional telecoms or bandwidth hungry technology companies looking for diversification (the more fanciful speculation highlights Level 3’s chairman Walter Scott & his friendship with Warren Buffet and his place on Berkshire’s Board). Again, Robert Powell posts, such as the one this week on TW Telecom, are the place to go to get sensible and knowledgably views on items such as M&A speculation.

TW Telecom, on the other hand, is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Level 3. It always had a focus on the enterprise space and has such a determined management that its business execution normally results in an ability to predict its quarterly result to the nearest million. Its leverage has always being far more rational than that of Level 3 and it has grown into its balance sheet gracefully over the past years. TW telecom is the sensible stable child to Level 3’s wild rebel in this space. Indeed, TW Telecom’s lack of adventure has been recently cited as a reason why it may be ready for a takeover.

In order to get some context on these two US based firms and a view of what has happened to a European focussed altnet, I also include a historical review of a European company called COLT Telecom (recently cited by Telecom Ramblings as a potential acquisition target for Level 3).

Graph of Historical Share Price for LVLT, TWTC, COLT click to enlarge

Historical Share Prices LVLT TWTC COLT

The historical operating figures for these three companies are highlighted below.

Historical Level 3 Operating Metrics (US$s) click to enlarge

Historical Operating Metrics LVLT

Historical TW Telecom Operating Metrics (US$s) click to enlarge

Historical Operating Metrics TWTC

Historical COLT Group Operating Metrics (€s) click to enlarge

Historical Operating Metrics COLT

In the interests of open disclosure, I currently own stock & options in Level 3 and have owned some of the other companies named in this post in the past. I am currently re-examining my valuation methodologies for the sector, specifically for estimating Level 3’s future path using TW Telecom as an example of firm’s experience in a relatively steady state and COLT as an example of firm’s experience on a cross border basis. I have used traditional discounted cash-flow and EV/EBITDA multiple analysis in the past but have recently become more sceptical about the underlying theory for such methods. I am trying to adapt them to get a more realistic view of the sector based upon previous experiences. I will post a follow-up of my thoughts and conclusions.