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Insurance Companies Position Themselves for Bailout


Firms snatching up small banks to speed conversion to holding companies.

Insurance companies have now joined the growing list of American firms vying for a piece of the bailout pie.

According to the Wall Street Journal, large insurance companies are snatching up small regional banks to speed up their transition to savings-and-loan holding companies, thereby qualifying them for capital infusions from Washington.

Like Goldman Sachs (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS), who recently made similar conversions, insurance companies are looking for billions of dollars in government money to shore up their battered balance sheets.

Over the last week, Hartford Financial Services (HIG) purchased Federal Trust of Sanford, Florida; Genworth Financial (GNW) bought a thrift in Maple Grove, Minnesota; and Lincoln National (LNC) agreed to buy a tiny bank in Goodland, Indiana, which has a mere $7 million in assets. For Lincoln, a company with over $180 billion in assets, that's just not very much money.

Insurance companies take in premiums from policy-holders, which they then use to buy up securities. As long as the income generated from those investments covers their payouts on claims, they turn a profit. Traditionally believed to be stogy, conservative firms, in recent years insurers dabbled in risky securities to juice profits. Using leverage, they added mortgage-backed securities to their core holdings of highly-rated corporate bonds.

The poster-child for these bad investments was, of course, AIG (AIG), which has now gobbled up almost $150 billion in taxpayer-funded bailout money.

And while AIG was the worst offender, its competitors have likewise seen the value of their investments erode in value in recent months. Last month, Met Life (MET), the largest US insurer by assets, raised capital to cover expected losses. Investors initially cheered the move, optimistic that the firm could get money at all.

In the last month, however, Met Life shares have lost almost 50% of their value.

And the bailout money is running thin. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has said he won't petition Congress to release the second half of the $700 billion allocated for the bailout of the financial system. Confident the bailout is working, Paulson is urging lawmakers to hold on to the money for that proverbial rainy day.

The question, of course, is in what form the deluge will come. General Motors (GM)? General Electric (GE)? Or something else entirely?
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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