Published in The Finance Toolbox
By Lance Wallach
Investor protection with municipal bonds is so spotty that there is potential for much mischief.
Disclosure, that bedrock of fair securities markets, is the heart of the problem facing municipal investors. Municipal issuers often don’t file the most basic reports outlining their operating results or material changes in their financial conditions.
Even though hospitals, cities and states that borrow money are required by their bond covenants to make such filings, nondisclosure among the nearly 60,000 issuers is common.
With the S.E.C. largely on the sidelines, disclosure enforcement in the municipal market is left to participants. Do you think they really want to police themselves very closely? That leaves individuals who trade the securities, the investors, and the dealers, to monitor the disclosure information. There is almost no penalty for not complying with those requirements. This is another disaster waiting to happen. If you own municipal bonds, you had better be careful. You may want to investigate www.financeexperts.org and select someone that knows what they are doing to assist you.
Do you have a life insurance or annuity policy? If so, you may be in trouble. The plummeting financial markets are dragging down the life insurance industry, which is an important component of the U.S. economy. Continuously escalating losses weaken the companies’ capital and eat away at investor confidence.
More than a dozen life insurers have been awaiting action on applications for aid from the government’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, and the industry is expecting an answer to its request for a bank-style bailout in the upcoming weeks. So far, the government hasn’t stated whether or not insurers qualify for the program.
Life insurers have undoubtedly been taking a beating in recent weeks. The Dow Jones Wilshire U.S. Life Insurance Index has fallen 82% since its May 2007 all time high. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has lost 21% this year to date.
Several of the hardest-hit companies are century-old names that insure the lives of millions of Americans. Shares of Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. are down 93% as of the close on Wednesday, March 11, 2009 from their 2008 high. MetLife Inc. and Prudential Financial Inc. are both suffering as the value of their vast investment portfolios declines.
As the economy weakens, analysts say many insurers face losses can eat away at the capital cushions regulators require them to maintain. In addition, experts say the industry is going through its most chaotic period in recent history and it’s a pretty scary situation right now.
The consequences of a weakened life-insurance industry for the overall economy are significant because life insurers are among the biggest holders of the nation’s corporate debt. For example, if life insurers stop buying bonds, the capital markets may not fully recover. Their buying activity has already declined.
Wall Street analysts say another problem for some life insurers is obligations for variable annuities, a retirement-income product that often guarantees minimum withdrawals or investment returns. As stock markets plunge to new lows, life insurers need to set aside additional funds to show regulators they can meet their obligations, further crimping sparse capital.
Life insurers’ woes have come largely from investment grade corporate bonds, commercial real estate and mortgages, regulatory filings show. Many insurers ended 2008 with high levels of losses that, due to accounting rules, they haven’t had to record on their bottom lines.
Hartford Financial had $14.6 billion in unrealized losses at year’s end. In addition, Hartford Insurance, through its agents, sold life insurance policies that were part of a welfare benefit plan popularly known as Niche Marketing, which has long been under IRS attack and is almost certainly regarded by the Service as an abusive tax shelter and/or listed transaction. Prudential, the second-largest insurer by assets, had nearly $11.3 billion in unrealized losses, up $5.4 billion in the fourth quarter from the previous quarter.
Lance Wallach, the National Society of Accountants Speaker of the Year, speaks and writes extensively about retirement plans, Circular 230 problems and tax reduction strategies. He speaks at more than 40 conventions annually, writes for over 50 publications, is quoted regularly in the press, and has written numerous best-selling AICPA books, including Avoiding Circular 230 Malpractice Traps and Common Abusive Business Hot Spots. Contact him at 516.938.5007 or visit www.vebaplan.com.
The information provided herein is not intended as legal, accounting, financial or any other type of advice for any specific individual or other entity. You should contact an appropriate professional for any such advice.