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Private Equity Taps Insurers’ Cash to Speed Up Growth

Investment firms on the cutting edge of finance are turning to one of Wall Street's oldest industries to help them grow: insurance. Private-credit fund managers like Blackstone Inc., Group Inc., and Centerbridge Partners are increasingly forming joint ventures with insurers or purchasing them outright. Call it the marriage of slow and fast money. Insurers have large amounts of cash from annuity payments and insurance premiums, but many have struggled for years to achieve good investment returns in bond portfolios that they manage themselves. Private-equity firms have been developing a financing machine that generates complex private-debt instruments, but at lower yields than their traditional clients require. Insurers are eager to purchase. Large fund managers such as Blackstone, Carlyle, and Sixth Street Partners announced deals with insurers in the last year that increased their collective assets under management by about $80 billion. Insurance ventures were also launched by midsize firms such as Centerbridge, Davidson Kempner Capital Management, and Hildene Capital Management. The transactions are part of a broader shift on Wall Street in which money managers are replacing investment banks as global financial supermarkets. Insurers primarily purchase investment-grade debt, and prior to the 2008 financial crisis, they had a plentiful supply from investment banks in the form of private-placement bonds. Asset managers are now taking over, buying bundles of corporate, consumer, and mortgage loans and packaging them into highly rated debt. "Asset managers such as ourselves have increasingly stepped in to fill the void," said Dushyant Mehra, co-chief investment officer of Hildene, which launched a reinsurance business in September. Private debt is opaque and rapidly growing, which credit rating agencies and regulators have identified as a potential risk. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners, for example, is investigating the risks posed by an increase in insurers' purchases of privately structured securities. Some companies invest in annuity companies, while others enter into asset management agreements with them. Some companies offer reinsurance, or insurance for insurers. Davidson Kempner has just completed its largest insurance transaction to date. The $37 billion asset manager has committed $300 million to a reinsurance venture it formed with Kuvare Holdings, a technology-driven insurer, in December. The new company, Kindley Re, will initially reinsure approximately $4 billion in annuities and similar products sold by Kuvare to individuals and institutions. Kindley will be liable for future annuity payments, freeing up capital for Kuvare. Davidson Kempner will invest some of Kuvare's annuity proceeds and charge a management fee. Kindley profits if investment returns outperform annuity payouts. If not, the reinsurer bears the loss. The trend can be traced back to Apollo Global Management Inc., which assisted in the establishment of annuity insurer Athene Holding Ltd. more than a decade ago. The two companies merged last year, and the Athene subsidiary now manages nearly half of Apollo's $523 billion portfolio. According to Apollo, the potential market for investment-grade private credit could be worth $40 trillion. Typically, such debt yields 5% to 6%, but investors in the firms' private-equity and hedge funds expect returns in excess of 10%. Fixed annuities are purchased by millions of conservative savers. Over the last two decades, these have produced annual returns ranging from 2% to 5.75% for consumers. Many traditional insurers have been shedding annuities in recent years because low interest rates make it difficult to cover obligations while offering competitive yields. Outsourcing annuity operations frees up capital for insurers, potentially increasing their stock prices. "Insurers need other suitable investments that meet their policyholder obligations...so there is an increased need for the capabilities we provide," said Craig Lee, head of insurance and strategic finance at KKR & Co., which purchased life insurer Global Atlantic Financial Group Ltd. in 2021. Some insurance companies have their own investment divisions that are developing private-credit teams. Nonetheless, many people are turning to alternative investment firms that have improved their ability to create private debt with investment-grade credit ratings. The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates dramatically in the last year, but bond yields remain historically low. Private-credit firms have now created higher-yielding debt that is backed by loans to investment-grade companies and equipment leases, real estate, consumer loans, junk-rated corporate loans, and even shares in private-equity funds. Apollo and KKR are now expanding their annuities businesses through Athene and Global Atlantic rather than through acquisitions and reinsurance. As a result, they are in competition with their insurance clients, which has allowed smaller fund managers to form partnerships with insurers. "Insurance companies liked working with Athene and Global Atlantic, but they wanted other reinsurance options," said Matt Kabaker, Centerbridge's head of insurance solutions and co-head of private equity. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. approached Centerbridge in 2021 about establishing a reinsurer, and the companies launched Martello Re with a group of co-investors last year. Centerbridge and MassMutual's investment subsidiary, Barings, now manage approximately $16 billion in reinsurance contract assets. Centerbridge manages approximately $35 billion in total assets, roughly half of which are debt investments. "We were able to catapult ourselves to scale in insurance solutions because of this relationship," Mr. Kabaker said.
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Product Safety Recalls Rose by 33% in 2022: Report

The number of product recalls is at its highest since 2016, ranging from carbon-monoxide-emitting gas stoves to treadmills. However, thousands of people are injured or killed each year by faulty gadgets, devices, and toys, according to a new analysis of Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) data released Thursday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG). Consumer product recalls increased 33% from the previous year. However, according to a new analysis from the USPIRG Education Fund, consumers may not always listen and companies may not respond to safety threats quickly enough. The mismatch between alerts and awareness has resulted in avoidable injuries and deaths. According to USPIRG, it can take months or years after a person is injured or worse before a company issues a recall. Recalls of products can take months or years." It investigated the chasm between product safety warnings and consumer awareness. "Incident reports show that products are frequently linked to serious incidents, yet the company and government take far too long to announce a recall," USPIRG said in a statement. Similarly, customers may miss the memo or ignore it and continue to use the product. "Re-announcements of certain recalls show that injuries frequently occur long after the initial recall," USPIRG said, citing Generac Power Systems of Wisconsin as an example. After people continued to report finger amputations 16 months after the initial recall, it renewed a recall on 321,160 portable generators in November. According to USPIRG, one out of every five recalls issued last year resulted in injuries or deaths. The report did not include information about recent FDA recalls of charcuterie meat, sausage, eye drops, and sunscreen. The CPSC has issued approximately 30 recalls this year, at least one of which was a second alert. On Thursday alone, five of them were issued.
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Monsanto Sued Again Over Legacy of Toxic PCBs

Contra Costa County and 17 of its cities in California are suing Monsanto Co. to compel it to clean up pollution caused by a chemical coolant produced by the former agricultural giant for decades that leaked into bay waters and prompted state officials to warn residents not to eat striped bass and other types of fish. The lawsuit accuses Monsanto, which has become synonymous with environmental hazards as a result of litigation dating back to the 1980s, of manufacturing toxic chemicals that are hazardous to human health and the environment. The polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, at issue have been used by Monsanto for more than 50 years in a "breathtakingly wide range of commercial, household, and industrial products," according to the lawsuit. Until the chemicals were banned in 1976, the company produced 99% of all PCBs used in the United States. Many Monsanto employees were aware of the risks associated with PCBs, but did not reduce production, warn the public, or protect industrial workers who handled coolants used to treat electrical transformers, according to a long line of court cases. The lawsuit was filed by San Francisco law firm Sher Edling LLP, and nearly all of Contra Costa's prominent central and west county cities, including Richmond, Martinez, Walnut Creek, Concord, Danville, Lafayette, and Pittsburg, joined. Monsanto has not responded to the lawsuit, but it has settled several similar ones. "Monsanto and the other defendants were aware that their products were harmful to human health and the environment, but chose to mislead the public in order to maximize their profits," former county Supervisor Karen Mitchoff said in a statement included in the firm's press release announcing the lawsuit. "Our lawsuit will hold them accountable for their actions as well as the enormous costs of cleaning up the contamination. Not our taxpayers, but they should pay to clean up their mess." They claim that Monsanto's PCBs leached into the ground, eventually making their way into the San Francisco Bay and the western Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where they popped up at various "hotspots" in estuaries that support a diverse range of marine life. "Because buildings, roadways, infrastructure, inland waters, flora, and fauna" in Contra Costa County's cities are contaminated with PCBs, "inflows of water and sediment to the Bay and the Delta Waterways frequently contain (the chemicals)," according to the lawsuit, which was filed in late December but only made public this week. Consuming the chemicals can cause health problems in people of all ages and harm pregnancies, according to health officials, prompting them to advise against eating local fish such as striped bass and white sturgeon. In addition to PCB concentrations in fish skin and fatty tissue, the chemicals have been found in herons and terns, which prey on the fish during their annual migrations across the Pacific Ocean. The plaintiff jurisdictions want Monsanto to pay for the cleanup of contaminated areas as well as the prevention of further PCB seepage. "Monsanto foresaw, or should have foreseen, that regulations limiting such discharges would require local governments... to take a variety of actions and bear associated costs," according to the lawsuit. The filing follows a settlement agreement reached last month in which San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, Alameda County, and other jurisdictions – including Antioch, another Contra Costa city – were awarded $36.5 million in a separate lawsuit against Monsanto, which German pharmaceutical company Bayer acquired in 2018. The settlement for that lawsuit, which was filed as a class action by over 2,500 cities and counties, totaled $648 million in payouts. Last fall, Marin County and its cities filed a lawsuit against Monsanto over PCBs. This latest filing asks for a jury trial and seeks unspecified damages. Last year, a Washington state jury awarded $185 million to three teachers who claimed PCBs at their school caused brain injuries. Bayer representatives stated that they were "pleased" with the $35 million Bay Area settlement reached last month. The company has downplayed public outrage over "legacy" Monsanto products that contained PCBs. "Bayer does not admit to any liability or wrongdoing under the proposed agreement, and the court's final approval fully resolves the claims of class members," the company said at the time.  
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Getty Images Lawsuit Says Stability AI Misused Photos to Train AI

Getty Images has filed a lawsuit against artificial intelligence company Stability AI Inc, accusing it of misusing more than 12 million Getty images to train its Stable Diffusion AI image-generation system. The Delaware federal court lawsuit follows a separate Getty case against Stability in the United Kingdom, as well as a related class-action complaint filed by artists in California against Stability and other companies in the fast-growing field of generative AI. Getty did not respond to questions about the Delaware lawsuit. Stability representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday. In the market for images for editorial use, Reuters News competes with Getty. Last August, London-based Stability AI released Stable Diffusion, an AI-based system for generating images from text inputs, as well as image generator DreamStudio. In October, the company announced that it had raised more than $100 million in funding and was valued at $1 billion. Seattle-based Getty accused Stability of unauthorized copying of millions of its photos and using them to train Stable Diffusion to generate more accurate depictions based on user input. Getty Images claims that its images are especially valuable for AI training due to their image quality, variety of subject matter, and detailed metadata. Getty stated that it has licensed "millions of suitable digital assets" to other "leading technology innovators" for AI-related purposes, and that Stability violates its copyrights and competes unfairly with it. Stability is also accused of infringing on Getty's trademarks, citing images generated by its AI system with Getty's watermark, which Getty claims may cause consumer confusion. Getty asked the court to order Stability to stop using its images and sought monetary damages equal to Stability's profits from the alleged infringement.
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