Insurance Industry Meltdown Continues

Insurance company stocks again suffered major losses today, with MET down 15%, PRU down 11% and HIG down a stunning 32%.   The Wall Street Journal reported on the various reasons for the continuing sell off including the poorly timed comment by Senator Reid that “someone in the Democratic caucus had said a major insurance company, “one with a name that everyone knows,” was on the verge of bankruptcy.”  A spokesman for his office later attempted to soften the statement but the damage was done.

The market value loss today on these three major US insurance companies totaled almost $12 billion and the total market cap loss from the 52 week highs on MET, PRU and HIG total a stunning $61 billion.   The horrific asset value losses being seen on virtually every asset class will have a devastating negative wealth affect on consumer spending which will in turn lead to major job losses as virtually every industry in the country experiences lower demand; this cycle is of course self reinforcing.

The Wall Street Journal also reported all three companies stating that their business was basically sound and that capital levels were fine.

On Thursday, MetLife said it had terminated some reinsurance contracts, so it will get back by late January $600 million in premiums it had paid. The company said the move had nothing to do with capital considerations.

All three firms distanced themselves from Sen. Reid’s remark Wednesday. Hartford also said the firm’s “liquidity remains strong.” MetLife said the company “is financially sound.” A Prudential spokesman said it has “a lot of cash at the parent-company level.”

My take on this is that things are obviously not fine but at a critical stage since insurance companies, as with banks, rely on confidence and right now there is a crisis of confidence.   After the AIG debacle, which occurred despite many assurances of financial health from the company before it imploded, investors are obviously giving little credence to assurances of any kind, especially when it is not possible to know what type of exotic financial timebombs (CDS, etc) that may be lurking in the portfolios.

In the past, this type of panic sell off would have provided an incredible buying opportunity for these three great American financial institutions, and this may indeed turn out to be the case.  My advice – wait and see who survives since trying to buy any selloffs in this bear market has more often than not produced some very fast losses.

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