The Black Swan Circling Puerto Rico——Its Bond Insurers Are Stuffed With Toxic Derivatives

By Investment Research Dynamics

I really had not been paying much attention to the Puerto Rico debt situation.  After all, $72 billion in debt that might go bad – big deal.  The Fed can print up $72 billion in credit lines with the push of a button.

But a friend of mine happened to mention to me today (Monday) that MBIA’s stock was down over 23% and Assured Guaranty’s stock was down over 13%.  That woke me up.

MBI guarantees $4.5 billion in par amount of Puerto Rico muni paper.  As of it’s latest 10-Q (March 31, 2015), MBI showed a book value of $3.9 billion. Puerto Rico alone could more than wipe out MBI’s net worth.  But that’s only a portion of the story. The bigger part of the story is buried off-balance sheet in the footnotes in opaque financial structures called Variable Interest Entities (VIE’s). Remember those from 2008?  I remember them vividly.

The VIEs are the off-balance sheet vehicles that triggered the massive chain of counterparty defaults which de facto collapsed the U.S. financial system in 2008.  The VIEs are where the credit default swaps and other nebulous forms of OTC derivatives bet slither around.

Companies like MBI and AMBAC underwrite  credit “enhancement” guarantees on these massive cesspools of debt – and the associated derivatives that are “wrapped around” the debt structures – and stick them in VIEs.  MBI’s 10-K has several pages of footnotes which vaguely describe the contents of its VIEs.   The problem is that MBI and its ilk are thinly capitalized relative to the potential size of the liabilities they face if the credit markets become volatile to the downside.

Toxicity plus toxicity does not equal purification.  But VIEs that contain off-balance sheet debt and derivative guaranteed equals toxicity cubed, at least.   In other words, whatever MBI lists as its “net” credit

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