"Early in 2008, we activated Berkshire Hathaway Assurance Company (“BHAC”) as an insurer of the tax-exempt bonds issued by states, cities and other local entities....BHAC has become not only the insurer of preference, but in many cases the sole insurer acceptable to bondholders. Nevertheless, we remain very cautious about the business we write and regard it as far from a sure thing that this insurance will ultimately be profitable for us...
The rationale behind very low premium rates for insuring tax-exempts has been that defaults have historically been few. But that record largely reflects the experience of entities that issued uninsured bonds. Insurance of tax-exempt bonds didn’t exist before 1971, and even after that most bonds remained uninsured.
A universe of tax-exempts fully covered by insurance would be certain to have a somewhat different loss experience from a group of uninsured, but otherwise similar bonds, the only question being how different. To understand why, let’s go back to 1975 when New York City was on the edge of bankruptcy. At the time its bonds – virtually all uninsured – were heavily held by the city’s wealthier residents as well as by New York banks and other institutions. These local bondholders deeply desired to solve the city’s fiscal problems. So before long, concessions and cooperation from a host of involved constituencies produced a solution. Without one, it was apparent to all that New York’s citizens and businesses would have experienced widespread and severe financial losses from their bond holdings.
Now, imagine that all of the city’s bonds had instead been insured by Berkshire. Would similar belt-tightening, tax increases, labor concessions, etc. have been forthcoming? Of course not. At a minimum, Berkshire would have been asked to “share” in the required sacrifices. And, considering our deep pockets, the required contribution would most certainly have been substantial.
Local governments are going to face far tougher fiscal problems in the future than they have to date. The pension liabilities I talked about in last year’s report will be a huge contributor to these woes. Many cities and states were surely horrified when they inspected the status of their funding at year-end 2008. The gap between assets and a realistic actuarial valuation of present liabilities is simply staggering.
When faced with large revenue shortfalls, communities that have all of their bonds insured will be more prone to develop “solutions” less favorable to bondholders than those communities that have uninsured bonds held by local banks and residents. "
Page 13 of Berkshire Hathaway's Letter to Stockholders
(p.s. don't ignore the first page.)