Accounting rules, through their interactions with capital regulations, affect financial institutions’ trading behavior. The insurance industry provides a laboratory to explore these interactions: life insurers have greater flexibility than property and casualty insurers to hold speculative-grade assets at historical cost, and the degree to which life insurers recognize market values differs across U.S. states. During the financial crisis, insurers facing a lesser degree of market value recognition are less likely to sell downgraded asset-backed securities. To improve their capital positions, these insurers disproportionately resort to gains trading, selectively selling otherwise unrelated bonds with high unrealized gains, transmitting shocks across markets.
This paper investigates fire sales of downgraded corporate bonds induced by regulatory constraints imposed on insurance companies. As insurance companies hold over one-third of investment-grade corporate bonds, the collective need to divest downgraded issues may be limited by a scarcity of counterparties. Using insurance company transaction data, we find that insurance companies that are relatively more constrained by regulation are more likely to sell downgraded bonds. Bonds subject to a high probability of regulatory-induced selling exhibit price declines and subsequent reversals. These price effects appear larger during periods when the insurance industry is relatively distressed and other potential buyers' capital is scarce.