Investment Risk Manager: Act like An Owner, not Like a Manager

Investment Risk Manager: Act like An Owner, not Like a Manager

My boss walked in and said that we needed to terminate our annuity reinsurance treaty with an entity that I will call Bigco (this happened in July).  Senior management had deemed that we should do it, and in days we visited Bigco, assuming that the actuary in question would approve a termination of the treaty where:

  • There was no termination provision.
  • There was a guaranteed minimum return to the reinsurer.
  • The reinsurer had participation in the upside of profits.

Who negotiated such a treaty?  Very one-sided, and Bigco needed to deploy capital, not contract it.

Could a negotiating position be worse?  Yes, it could, just wait.

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When we got to Bigco, we talked with the actuary for a little while, and then he handed us over to the head of M&A.  Uh-oh, he sized up the situation perfectly, and denied our request, unless we were willing to pay considerably above book value to repatriate the assets.

We went home depressed, and a few months after that my boss was summarily fired.  In those days, September was the firing time.  You can imagine what that did for morale.  Personally, I expect my boss was fired because he was most similar the the CEO, and had done things well in managing his line of business.

One day the chief actuary came to me and said, “We have to terminate that treaty.”  I explained to him the backstory, that we had offered to buy it back at an ROE of 9%, and Bigco was demanding 6%.  I said to him, “I’ve already compromised the 10% ROE objective of our company, I don’t want to go further.  I’m free to walk away, right, if we can’t get a decent price?”  He said, “No, the deal must be done.  Under no circumstances can you walk away.”

The sad thing was that any termination of the treaty would positively affect management bonuses.  (That was the real target.)

I had a strong sense that I should always serve the ultimate owners of the firm — the dividend receiving policyholders.  But this was at variance from that.

So, with the weakest bargaining hand that I can imagine, I used the following strategy.  I did nothing.  Nothing. Nothing until early December, where I called the M&A guy at Bigco and and told him, “I’ve had a change of heart.  I’ll accept an ROE of 6.9%.  That’s my final offer!”  This was ticklish because I *had* to get the deal done.

He bit on the offer, and I pressed him saying that between this time and the closing, my market value adjustment formula would rule.  He agreed.  (He probably had a profit goal as well, which was what I was counting on.)

But, he didn’t look closely at the Market Value Adjustment formula.  I gave him one that was volatility-loving, that would adjust of the greater of the absolute value of the yield changes in 3-month T-bills or 30-year Treasury Bonds.  Don’t criticize the guy too much, the Federal Reserve fell for the same tactic on GICs they bought from us.

Before the deal closed, the Fed started tightening monetary policy, and the Market Value Adjustment got us out at an ROE of 9.1%.  What a win, and for the policyholders.  Management got more as well, and I got almost nothing.

I took risks trying to do the right thing, praying the God would help me, and in this case, it worked.  Can you be more righteous than your management team?  In most cases, no, but in this case I succeeded.

I would say to all, try to serve the interests of owners rather than management.  Act like an owner, not like a manager hauling down a fat salary.

By David Merkel, CFA of Aleph Blog

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David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.
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