Saturday, February 16, 2008

Insurance Woes and Whines

Insurance firms feel profit pinch
Industry giants blame roiling markets, high loonie for dampening fourth-quarter earnings and outlook

Sez the headline. But the reality is that it has less to do with the loonie, and more about their investments in the U.S. including of course their exposure to the sub-prime credit mess. Ah the joys of global capitalism. The reason that banks want to merge of course is to compete for positions in the global financial markets, that is the U.S. market. And this is what happens when they do.....

Manulife is Canada's largest insurer. Approximately 64 per cent of its earnings are generated in the United States and Asia. Smaller rival Sun Life faces a similar predicament with about 52 per cent of its earnings originating from the U.S., U.K. and Asia.

For the October-December quarter, Sun Life reported earnings of $555 million or 97 cents per share. That compared with net income of $545 million or 94 cents per share for the same period in 2006. "This quarter was also marked by significant market turbulence," McKenney said.

Chief executive Donald Stewart said that volatility would likely affect the industry's outlook in the near term. Echoing those sentiments, Manulife CEO Dominic D'Alessandro suggested that "unsettled markets" would likely affect wealth businesses.

Sun Life also disclosed it has $84 million in direct exposure and $961 million in indirect exposure to monoline bond insurers. Those companies, which provide insurance against default in securitized debt, have become a source of worry because certain firms have had their credit ratings downgraded.

Chief investment officer Jim Anderson said Sun Life's direct exposure to monolines is with two insurers that are "AAA rated with a stable outlook." Its indirect exposure is to insurers with "investment grade" ratings, adding most of its exposure is in the U.K.

Insurance companies used to be the most risk adverse and conservative of financial institutions. However with the shift to globalization of the marketplace in the eighties and nineties from production to FIRE (financial services, insurance, real estate,) this all changed. A renewed financial market dominated the market, as it once had prior to WWI, the result of this financial exuberance, and shift from investment in production to investment in investment instruments bailed out New York and London from their Reagan/Thatcher excesses and declines. In doing so insurance companies as well as the banks and other financial businesses exposed themselves to the dangers of the balloon and bust market. Chickens, home, roost.

Just as people meet and authorize someone from among their own number to take specific action on their behalf, so commodities must meet to authorize a single commodity to confer full or partial citizenship in the world of commodities. The act of exchange is the occasion for such a meeting of commodities. The social activity of commodities on the market is to capitalist society what collective intelligence is to a socialist society. The consciousness of the bourgeois world is concentrated in the market report. It is only after the successful completion of the exchange that the individual can have any insight into the process as a whole, or any guarantee that his product has satisfied a social need, as well as the incentive to begin his production anew. The object which is thus authorized by the common action of commodities to express the value of all other commodities is – money. The authority of this particular commodity develops along with the development of the exchange of commodities.

Finance Capital, Hilferding 1910


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