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Billions In Lehman Claims Could Bury An Elusive Insurer

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http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/business...ml?ref=business

Next to a Chinese restaurant in Burlington, Vt., lurks a quiet guardian of Wall Street — an obscure insurance company that is supposed to protect big-money investors in the event of a catastrophic failure of a major brokerage firm.

A failure, for instance, like the one that brought down Lehman Brothers nearly 11 months ago. Now, after years in the shadows, the insurer, the Customer Asset Protection Company, could finally be put to the test, and questions are starting to swirl.

The worry is that the company, which has never paid out a claim, might be unable to cope with the Lehman bankruptcy.

If it were overwhelmed by claims, the banks and brokerage companies that own Capco, as it is known, could end up owing billions of dollars.

Capco representatives dismiss such concerns, but state insurance regulators are keeping an eye on the company. Officials at the New York State Insurance Department are concerned about the company’s ability to withstand the Lehman bankruptcy, the largest in history.

By some industry estimates reviewed by the insurance department, Capco could face nearly $11 billion in claims but has only about $150 million with which to meet them. The state is examining whether the company sold policies without the means to cover them, according to a person with direct knowledge of the inquiry who had signed confidentiality agreements.

The issue has even reached Washington, where a member of the Senate Finance Committee, Robert Menendez, has sounded an alarm. Mr. Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, wrote the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, in June to express his concern.

“It has become clear that this entity is thinly capitalized,†Mr. Menendez wrote in the letter. Capco, he said, potentially posed “systemic risk.†Capco was created in 2003 by Lehman and 13 other banks and brokerage companies as a kind of marketing tool. The pitch was that while Capco would not insure customers against investment losses, it would compensate them if the firms failed. Capco promises to provide virtually unlimited coverage above the $500,000 offered by the Securities Investors Protection Corporation and its equivalent in Britain.

Capco is virtually unknown even in financial circles, but it is being thrust into the spotlight by the events at Lehman. Creditors and former customers are battling over who will get what and when from the fallen bank, including more than $32 billion of assets that have been tied up in Lehman’s London prime brokerage unit. Untangling the mess could take years. Some former Lehman clients, which include big hedge funds, are looking to Capco for answers — and money.

Dewey & LeBoeuf, the law firm that represents Capco, said in a statement that Capco had no current policies outstanding and was “preserving all assets to address claims that might arise out of the insolvency of Lehman Brothers Inc. and Lehman Brothers International (Europe).â€

The law firm called worries about Capco’s potential exposure to Lehman “speculation.â€

Capco, which is private, is something of a financial mystery. Its members include Wall Street giants like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, banks like JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, smaller brokerage firms like Robert W. Baird & Company and Edward Jones, and Fidelity, the mutual fund giant. Capco was initially registered in New York but later moved to Vermont, where state law enables it to operate without disclosing much about its finances.

Capco’s owners referred questions about the company’s liability to Dewey & LeBoeuf. Since it stopped writing policies on Feb. 16, most of Capco’s owners have purchased account protection for their clients through private insurance companies like Lloyd’s of London. Pershing, a unit of Bank of New York Mellon, told clients in a December notice that their Capco insurance would expire and that the firm had a new policy with Lloyd’s to “provide our customers and their investors with extra comfort that their assets are safe.â€

It’s unclear who actually serves as the current president of Capco, and the company’s main phone number connects to a recording that tells callers they’ve reached a “nonworking number at Morgan Stanley.†A unit of Marsh & McLennan, the giant insurance services company, is listed as Capco’s administrator, but no contact information is listed on Capco’s Web site. The unit is based in the same Burlington building as Capco.

Brokerage companies used to buy account protection insurance from large insurance companies like Travelers and the American International Group. But in 2003, those insurance companies stopped offering such policies, saying it was impossible to calculate their liability. Enter Capco.

Sounds like an insurance policy that was never meant to pay out, but merely be a very profitable gravy train with very little risk.

The whole company sounds like a big scam.

Anyone heard of this company before?

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I just wonder how the banks are treating the loss's on their balance sheets, would they be assuming they are totally insured for Lehmans and not showing this as a loss??

Could set of another round of failures???

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I just wonder how the banks are treating the loss's on their balance sheets, would they be assuming they are totally insured for Lehmans and not showing this as a loss??

Could set of another round of failures???

Interesting question. I mean it's not like the banks booked as profit interest payments they hadn't received or anything is it.

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