While most life insurers have yet to recognize material losses on their commercial real estate-related investments, a sizeable portion of their assets are entrenched in commercial real estate. And with an increasingly negative outlook in the cards for CMBS over the next couple of years, performance pressure on life insurers is likely to increase over time.
'Commercial real estate (CRE) fundamentals are softening as rents are declining and vacancies increasing in response to the broader economic downturn,' said Managing Director Bob Vrchota of Fitch's CMBS ratings group. 'Without a recovery for commercial real estate fundamentals, recent vintage U.S. CMBS could experience losses averaging 8.7%.'
Some insurers are better off than others. Take Hartford, for instance - not to single any particular firm out, but they had 33% of their structured products portfolio in securities rated lower than AAA at issuance. Virtually all of that has been downgraded to something lower than A-rated today, and thus their RBC ratios have to be shooting through the roof. In addition, about 70% of their structured products portfolio was 2005 vintage or later, i.e. weaker underwriting. According to a 10/24/08 report from Citi, Hartford and XL had the largest CMBS investments of all the Insurers they covered, Hartford had the lowest quality CMBS portfolio (followed by Progressive and AIG), Hartford and Progressive had the highest concentration of IOs, Hartford had the largest CRE CDO exposure (12.3% of shareholder's equity at the time, and 13.1% of their CMBS portfolio) and 11% of them were rated below BBB at the time.
The last stament in the Fitch report that CMBS could experience losses averaging 8.7% seems a little rosy - that is closer to the low-end estimate of average losses in my opinion, and is in line with the average losses experienced during the late 80s/early 90s on senior CRE mortgages. The good news is that most insurers were relatively conservative investors, and further they tended to be CRE guys first, and bond guys second. So, overall I wouldn't expect to see horrible losses in their CMBS portfolios over the long-term.