Yesterday, news broke that Texas-based activist value investor Sardar Biglari is bidding again for full control of Fremont Michigan InsuraCorp:
Biglari Holdings Inc. (NYSE:BH – News) today announced a proposal to acquire 100% of the issued and outstanding shares of common stock of Fremont Michigan InsuraCorp, Inc. (OTC Bulletin Board:FMMH.OB.ob – News) that it does not already own for a purchase price of $29 per share in cash. The purchase price represents a 41% premium over the closing price of Fremont’s common stock on October 11, 2010. Biglari Holdings is presenting its proposal to the Fremont Board, expecting its Board to exercise its fiduciary duties and therefore meet with Biglari Holdings to reach a mutually satisfactory transaction.
To preface, I don’t own any Biglari Holdings stock anymore. Biglari’s struggle for Fremont has been well documented on my blog. Initially, Biglari offered $24.50 per share in a combination of cash and stock. At the time, many derided the offer and said it undervalued Fremont because he was only willing to pay close to 90% of book value for the company. Eventually, the management team used their political pull in Michigan to introduce legislation which would impede his ability to pursue a hostile offer against the company.
The new offer is $29 per share or about 1.1x book value, which might be fair given Fremont’s current troubles. Fremont’s underwriting has deteriorated recently and posted a combined ratio of 108 in the last quarter, which means its operations are generating losses. Combined ratios are calculated by taking underwriting expenses + loss adjustment expenses and dividing them by the amount of earned premiums. A combined ratio of less than 100 means underwriting operations are profitable. More broadly, the insurance market as a whole is feeling the pressures of the low yield environment. Most P/C underwriters have had the bulk of their profits come from their investment portfolios, not their underwriting. The problem with this is that insurance investment arms typically take a levered bond fund approach and safe bonds aren’t yielding a whole lot right now. This puts insurers who are bad at underwriting in a precarious position. They face losses on both ends and so far the soft market (weak insurance pricing cycle) is showing no signs of persisting.
So in a way, it’s possible that a capital allocator such as Biglari could be helpful. If he could adjust the company’s current allocation split between cash and bonds, Fremont might be able to generate investment gains that would offset their underwriting losses. Right now Fremont’s investment portfolio is just under $70M with about 83% of it in bonds. Biglari reportedly already has an insurance executive on staff who would be brought in to turn around underwriting operations which have so far run into losses as they’ve grown their personal lines business.
It’s easy to see why he wants Fremont. Being able to add an insurer would help diversify BH’s business from being so dependent on fast food and would also add a business line which brings recurring earnings to the table. Plus, the float from the insurance business (which is smaller because of the short-tail nature of their claims), could be used as dry powder when pursuing activist investments or takeovers. Similarly, Mark Schwarz of Newcastle Partners has taken this approach by gaining control of Hallmark Financial (NASDAQ:HALL) and using it to then gain control of Pizza Inn (NASDAQ:PZZI).
While I don’t have a stake in this situation, it’s still fun to watch given the tactics being employed by both sides.
My name is Tariq Ali, I run Street Capitalist. I recently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. There, I stumbled onto value investing via the school library. I read everything I could and now I'm here, writing out my thoughts and investment ideas.