Figures add up nicely for GE Life
By Larry Haverkamp, For The Straits Times
Taken from the Straits Times , August 27, 2009 GREAT
Eastern Life Insurance looks to be everyone’s pick for the most generous company of the year. The company wants to help its policyholders by buying back their GreatLink Choice (GLC) structured notes. These are similar to minibonds but there are more of them. Minibonds worth $508 million were sold to 10,000 investors, while $594 million worth of GLC notes were sold to 18,000 investors. If the notes default over the next four years, investors would lose the $594 million they had sunk in. The company says it will lose $250 million by buying the notes back. It looks generous. Great Eastern will require its agents to pitch in too. They will return the $12 million they made in commissions from selling the notes. This glowing story has been widely reported. On the surface, it might appear investors would be foolish to turn down Great Eastern’s offer. But that may well be wrong. GLC comes in five tranches. GLC 1 and 2 make up one similar group while GLC 3, 4 and 5 are another. A Sunday Times report by Ms Lorna Tan correctly calculated that GLC 1 and 2 are safer investments than GLC 3, 4 and 5. Does that mean the buyback is not in the best interests of GLC 1 and 2 investors? In a word: Yes. Does that mean the offer would benefit Great Eastern at the expense of these investors? In another word: Yes. Instead of helping GLC 1 and 2 investors, it would bite them a second time. The first was when Great Eastern sold GLC without disclosing the total returns of the underlying bonds. That is the standard way for structured notes to conceal risks. The public is shown only the investor yields – such as 3.5 per cent to 4.9 per cent annually for GLC. This lulls investors into thinking risks are moderate. They never see the high-risk returns produced by the note’s underlying assets of junk bonds and credit default swaps. The second bite comes now with the offer to buy back the notes. It will take a safe 17.5 per cent return from GLC 1 and 2 investors and give it to Great Eastern. Less generous than it appears BY 6PM tomorrow, Great Eastern will have bought back many of its GLC notes and written them down to ‘fair value’. It says the write-down will result in a $250 million loss. That estimation could help the company sell its buyback offer. Investors see $250 million as a lot of money to turn down. In fact, Great Eastern’s loss may be much less:
- First, the $12 million clawback of commissions from agents will go entirely to the company. Investors will not get a dollar.
- Second, Lion Global was the fund manager for GLC. Its management fees totalled 8 per cent to 11 per cent on the $594 million value for all five GLC tranches. Much of that was paid upfront – and unlike the clawback of agent fees, Lion Global will not be required to return its fees.Lion Global is 100 per cent owned by Great Eastern and OCBC Bank, while OCBC owns 87 per cent of Great Eastern.
- Third, GLC 1 and 2 are likely to produce high profits for Great Eastern. They make up $209 million – or 35 per cent of the $594 million worth of notes sold.Just over half the investors have accepted Great Eastern’s buyback offer so far. Why so many when it is not in their interest? The current price for the notes is set at 61 cents on the dollar, according to the company website’s pop-up ad and newsletter – a buy-only price, set by the underwriter, which is Deutsche Bank for GLC 1 and 2. Investors who redeem early must sell at that price and sell only to the underwriter. This is likely to bias the price downwards. Great Eastern’s offer is valued at $1 minus the dividends already paid of 10.5 cents. So $1 – $0.105 = $0.895 – easily more than 61 cents. Investors would conclude: ‘It’s a no-brainer. I accept!’ Besides the downward price bias noted above, the 61 cent price on the website is out of date. The more recent price is 73 cents, which makes the offer less attractive to investors. It can also be found on the website, though not as easily.
- Fourth, GLC 1 and 2 investors must give back 10.5 per cent in clawed-back dividends. They must also forgo the 3.5 per cent that was to be paid at the end of September and October, plus another 3.5 per cent due at maturity in 13 and 14 months. So 10.5 + 3.5 + 3.5 = 17.5 per cent – that is the ‘one year’ return investors will receive if they reject the offer and hold GLC 1 and 2 to maturity.
While that 17.5 per cent yield is high, the risks remain low for two reasons:
- One, GLC 1 and 2 have underlying collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) that reference bonds rated BBB- by Standard & Poor’s (S&P). Their time to maturity is just over one year. S&P data shows the one-year default rate for BBB- global corporate bonds from 1981 to last year was only 0.6 per cent. That is less than one bond out of 100 defaulting.
- Two, the rules for GLC 1 and 2 do not place them near default. Only six out of more than 100 bonds held by either tranche have suffered ‘credit events’ in the past four years. Another 11 bonds must go bad before investors lose any capital. With the improved economy, it is unlikely that 11 more bonds will go bad within 14 months.If this scenario plays out and GLC 1 and 2 do not default, investors will get back 100 per cent of their investment in little more than a year. Though there is a slight risk, that 17.5 per cent return more than compensates for it. In its automated e-mail messages, Great Eastern gives the opposite advice: ‘Do not miss this chance to accept the offer,’ it says.
- First, the underlying CDOs of GLC 3, 4 and 5 are rated CCC- by S&P. Their time to maturity is three to four years. S&P data shows that the three-year default rate for CCC- global corporate bonds from 1981 to last year was 39 per cent. The four-year default rate was 42 per cent.
- Second, the CDOs backing GLC 3, 4 and 5 reference more than 100 bonds each. The contract requires that an additional 10, seven and five bonds in GLC 3, 4 and 5 must go bad before investors lose their capital. This is more likely to happen since the time to maturity for these tranches is three times longer than for GLC 1 and 2 and their bond quality is much lower.