Counterintuitive Accounting: Ambac Edition

Earlier today, Ambac Financial Group (a big bond insurer) reported that it earned more than $2 billion in the third quarter, or $7.58 per share. As reported over at Marketwatch, these must be among the lowest quality earnings in accounting history:

Ambac Financial Group reported a $2.19 billion quarterly profit Wednesday as the company got a big accounting boost from deterioration in the perceived creditworthiness of its main bond insurance unit. …

Most the gain came as credit spreads widened on Ambac Assurance Corporation, the company’s main bond insurance subsidiary. When credit spreads widen, that implies investors are more concerned about a company not being able to meet its obligations. However, when this happens, it reduces some of the insurer’s liabilities. For example, if the insurer is deemed to be less capable of standing by its derivatives-based guarantees, the value of those liabilities falls. That results in a derivatives gain.

In short, earnings skyrocketed because investors became even more doubtful about Ambac’s ability to pay its future liabilities. I see many benefits in mark-to-market accounting generally, but this treatment of liabilities is counterintuitive to say the least. There must be a better way.

Ambac shares closed at a lofty $1.50 per share, up 35% on the day. It’s not often that you encounter a stock that trades for less than one-fifth of its quarterly earnings …

Disclosure: I have no investments in Ambac or any bond insurer.

Booms, Busts, and the Leverage Cycle

Over the Wall Street Journal, Mark Whitehouse has a nice piece on John Geanakoplos, a finance guru in the worlds of both academia and Wall Street. Over the past ten years, he’s been exploring how leverage and the value of collateral can drive booms and busts in financial markets.


His research was sparked by the challenges his investment fund faced after the demise of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998:

A lender to the fund where Mr. Geanakoplos was a partner abruptly demanded more margin on a loan. The event, which nearly toppled the fund as the partners scrambled to raise cash by selling securities, drove home to Mr. Geanakoplos how margins could work two ways — stimulating asset buying as they go lower, but forcing fire sales as they rise.

In a 2000 academic paper, Mr. Geanakoplos offered a theory. He said that when banks set margins very low, lending more against a given amount of collateral, they have a powerful effect on a specific group of investors. These are buyers, whether hedge funds or aspiring homeowners, who for various reasons place a higher value on a given type of collateral. He called them “natural buyers.”

Using large amounts of borrowed money, or leverage, these buyers push up prices to extreme levels. Because those prices are far above what would make sense for investors using less borrowed money, they violate the idea of efficient markets. But if a jolt of bad news makes lenders uncertain about the immediate future, they raise margins, forcing the leveraged optimists to sell. That triggers a downward spiral as falling prices and rising margins reinforce one another. Banks can stifle the economy as they become wary of lending under any circumstances.

“It was evident to me that there was a cycle going on, not just in my little market, but all over the world,” says Mr. Geanakoplos, who is still a partner at Ellington Capital. The “leverage cycle,” he called it.

Well worth a read.

Should Children Get One or Two H1N1 Flu Shots?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States government are having a fascinating debate about the number of H1N1 flu vaccinations that children under age 10 should receive. Both agree that two shots are better than one. The vaccine is scarce, however, so public health officials have to make hard choices about how to prioritize its use.

As NPR reported a few days ago, the WHO favors giving a single dose to each child because of the vaccine shortage:

“The priority is to give…one dose rather than vaccinate half the number of children with two doses,” says Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, director of WHO’s Initiative for Vaccine Research.

The National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), however, favors giving two doses to each child:

“One of the dangers in jumping ahead and saying you want to stretch out the supply by giving a single dose to these young kids,” [NIAID Director Dr. Anthony] Fauci says, “is that you’ll be under-protecting them.” If that happened, he says, we wouldn’t be saving a dose for each vaccinated child. We’d be wasting a dose.

Intrigued by this difference in opinions, I took a quick look at some of the newest vaccination data that the NIAID reported last week. Researchers examined the immune response of 583 children who received two doses of vaccine and found the following:


To use these data in developing vaccination strategies it is helpful (as I repeatedly tell my students) to consider the marginal benefits and costs associated with each shot:

Continue reading “Should Children Get One or Two H1N1 Flu Shots?”

Yes, the House Health Bill Costs More than $1.2 Trillion

In a series of posts last week, I noted that the coverage provisions in the House health bill would cost more than $1 trillion over the next ten years, notably higher than the $894 billion figure that was circulated when the bill was first released. In addition, I pointed out that the bill includes other spending increases that aren’t involved in expanding coverage; when you factor those in, I estimated that the real cost of the bill would be almost $1.3 trillion.

I am not alone in this conclusion. According to David Espo of the Associated Press:

The health care bill headed for a vote in the House this week costs $1.2 trillion or more over a decade, according to numerous Democratic officials and figures contained in an analysis by congressional budget experts, far higher than the $900 billion cited by President Barack Obama as a price tag for his reform plan.

While the Congressional Budget Office has put the cost of expanding coverage in the legislation at roughly $1 trillion, Democrats added billions more on higher spending for public health, a reinsurance program to hold down retiree health costs, payments for preventive services and more.

Many of the additions are designed to improve benefits or ease access to coverage in government programs. The officials who provided overall cost estimates did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss them.

My own calculation came in at $1.27 trillion, which strikes me as “almost $1.3 trillion” rather than “$1.2 trillion or more”, but that’s nit-picking.

The key point is that there’s a consensus, at least behind the scenes, that the bill would cost more than $1.2 trillion over the next ten years.