bid bonds

Secrets of Bonding #160: Deep in the Weeds with Set Aside Letters

In this article we will peel back the onion on Set Aside Letters (SAL) issued by banks in connection with construction loans.  What are they, when they are useful for bonding companies and when are they not?

Here is the essence of such documents:

“The agreement covering the project will provide that the funds in said impound account are … to be disbursed for payment of the (Name of Project) mentioned above and only after (Bank) has satisfied itself that the work paid for has actually been performed… In the event (Borrower) fails to complete the project described herein… all funds remaining in said impound account shall be immediately available to Surety to complete and pay the costs of said project, and in such event, (Borrower) waives any claim or interest in the remaining funds. Surety shall not in any way be obligated to repay said funds so used to (Bank).

This is an irrevocable commitment of funds which is not subject to recall or offset by (Bank).”

Pretty interesting!  This letter / agreement keeps the loan in play to fund the completion of the project  – even if the borrower (bank customer) fails / defaults.

When Are Set Aside Letters Used?

These documents are a common underwriting tool when a Site or Subdivision Bond is issued by a surety. If the bond applicant (who is also the developer and borrower) is relying on a construction loan to fund the bonded work, the SAL protects the surety by providing funds for the completion of the work in the event of a default.

What a great idea.  So why don’t we use these on everything?  Let’s look at another example.

Commercial Projects

The project owner hires a bonded contractor and a bank loan will fund the project.  The bank needs a guarantee that the asset / project (which backs the loan) will be built as intended.  A Performance and Payment Bond accomplishes this and assures there will be no Mechanics Liens against the property for unpaid bills.  These two aspects benefit the project owner and the lender.  Keep in mind, in a borrower default situation, the bank becomes the new owner of the property.

It is common for the bank to stipulate that a bonded contractor be used, and they may want to be a named beneficiary on the P&P bond – accomplished by issuing a Dual Obligee Rider.  In turn, should the underwriter require a SAL from the lender?

On Commercial projects, the normal practice is to NOT obtain a SAL from the lender.  Why not?  Why is this different?

Choose one:

a. The bank is a secured lender

b. The bank can subrogate against the borrower’s assets

c. The Dual Obligee Rider serves a purpose similar to the SAL

a. and b. are true, but the answer is c.

Welcome to the Weeds

We’re going in now. The Dual Obligee Rider adds the lender as a beneficiary with all the rights and obligations of the obligee named on the bond (the project owner).  And what are they?  Obviously they are entitled to make a performance claim and have the project delivered as indicated in the contract.

The named obligee also has obligations, one of the most primary is to PAY the builder. Important: The obligee is prohibited from making a performance claim if they have failed to pay the contractor.

Therefore, when the bank is included under a Dual Obligee Rider, they accept the benefits and obligations.  If the borrower defaults, the lender cannot make a bond claim unless they continue to pay the construction loan to the surety.  (Now the bank owns the project and the surety has become the contractor.)

Summary

Is this starting to make sense?  When a borrower defaults on a commercial project, a lender included by Dual Obligee Rider cannot make a claim unless they continue to pay the project funds to the surety.

Deeper Weeds

On Site and Subdivision there is a unique risk – the lender can take a free ride on the surety by having the bonding company pay out of pocket to complete the project.

Site and Sub-D bonds have the local municipality as obligee, not the bank.  The bank doesn’t want a Dual Obligee Rider because they automatically receive a financial benefit if the municipality makes a bond claim to demand completion of the project.  If the borrower has defaulted, the bank has the opportunity to withhold the balance of the loan (the borrower is gone), and watch the surety pay to complete a project they now own.  And they were not even the bond claimant…

This is the risk sureties avoid on Site and Subdivision Bonds by requiring the SAL that keeps the loan in play, even if the bond applicant / borrower has failed.

Admittedly, this is a pretty obscure subject, but also interesting to us “bond nerds.”  It never hurts to understand how things fit together.  These skills help us solve your complicated bond opportunities.  Take advantage of our expertise when the next one pops up.

KIS Surety is the national contract bond underwriting department for Great Midwest Insurance Company, a national, corporate surety with an A-8 rating.  We throw all this underwriting talent at your bond opportunities and support contracts up to $10,000,000.

If you have a contract surety case that needs a fast, creative response, call us: 856-304-7348

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Secrets of Bonding #159: Beware the False Asker

Surety Bond Producers have one main goal: produce the business and move on.

You know there is a process when submitting a surety bond for approval but hate that sick feeling when the underwriter comes back with a ton of questions.  Let’s face it, customers just want to complete the transaction and get on with their lives.  They have more important things to do than fill out forms, scan documents and complete applications.  You know you’ll get push back if you bug them.  

What’s more, the questions may result in a dead end, a declination!  Did the underwriter already form an opinion?  Did they already decide the account is not for them, but just want to complete the file… to have a complete file?

We will call such a person the “False Asker” – an underwriter who puts you through the paces, just to say no at the end.  They never really wanted to write the bond and are developing the file under false pretenses.  They send you on a fools mission.  It is 100% a waste of your time!

Or just maybe, questions are the opposite…  The bond underwriter thinks the account may be a fit, but just needs to check a few more points.  This could be the first step on a successful journey. Here’s more: There may be something wonderful about the questions good underwriters ask.  Let’s explore.

When reviewing the file, the analyst marks off elements of strength and weakness.  For example, the company is 10 years old, but current management has only been in place for a year (a plus and a minus).  Or maybe the net worth is strong, but debt is high resulting in too much leverage.  If there is more good than bad, an approval may be in order – after additional development. 

Now comes the gift: The key points, the underwriting questions, are an insight to the decision making process.  They are keys to the underwriter’s mind.  With favorable answers, authorization may ensue. The questions chart a course that the producer could imagine but not confirm.  In this manner, the underwriting questions are priceless, the keys to success.

Remember, there is room for frustration on the underwriter’s side, too.

Q. Which of the underwriting questions are optional? You know, the unimportant ones?

A. They are all important.

Sometimes we ask 5 Q’s and get back 3 A’s.  Then re-ask the 3 and get back only 2.  It’s like beating your head against the wall…

It all comes down to this:  Beware the False Asker.  You must avoid that person who churns the file and wastes your time.  Every producer has been through it.  You answer questions for two weeks and get a declination they could have figured on day one – and not wasted your time.

A good underwriter only develops an account they intend to support.  They like it and want to proceed, but must tidy up the file. Their Qs are a gift, the path forward, the key to your success if you follow through willingly and diligently.

Judge all of us by our performance:

  • Good underwriters are prompt. For example, our office provides a same day response on all submissions.
  • Are our responses concise and easy to understand?
  • Do we offer a prompt declination or clear path forward, defined by the underwriting questions that will get the deal done?

A good surety underwriter can be your important ally and business partner.  Choose us carefully based on performance, and always Beware the False Asker!

KIS Surety is the national contract bond underwriting department for Great Midwest Insurance Company, a national, corporate surety with an A-8 rating.  We throw all this underwriting talent at your bond opportunities and support contracts up to $10,000,000. 

If you have a contract surety case that needs a fast, creative response, call us: 856-304-7348

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Secrets of Bonding #154: Be A Bean Counter (The Importance of Bid Results)

It’s not sexy.  Nobody has it on their business cards.  It may not be in your “official” job description.  But this article is the start of your new vocation as an official Bean Counter!

A major area of surety bonding is “Contract Surety.”  This refers to bid and performance bonds for construction contracts.  When we set up a new account, an amount of bonding capacity is established and the individual bond requests are processed within that line.  It is possible for a client to use up the full capacity of their line, then our underwriting department could consider granting an exception to support additional work.

Efficient management of the line can minimize instances where an exception is needed.  Here’s where the bean counting comes in.

We manage bonding capacity the way a bank runs a credit line.  A series of individual transactions (bonds) can equal the full capacity amount (referred to as the “aggregate”).  Bank credit lines work the same way.  For the bond or bank customer, it is advantageous to maximize the available credit.  Prompt reporting of bid results helps accomplish this objective.

Advantages Of Reporting Bid Results Promptly

  • When a bid bond is approved / issued, the underwriter debits the amount against the aggregate capacity. However, the full contract amount is used, not the dollar value of the bid bond.  For example, a 10% bid bond for $100,000 actually uses $1 million of aggregate capacity.  Therefore, when it is known that the bid is not likely to result in a contract award (the client is not “apparent low bidder”), this fact should be reported so we can restore the capacity.
  • Detailed bid results are needed on low bids in order to process final bonds. Example: Our guy has a low bid for $5,000,000. The second bidder is at $5,400,000.  Third bidder submitted $5,550,000. Because our bid is less than 10% below the second bidder, the adequacy of the contract amount is supported.  If our client is more than 10% below the second bidder, there will be an additional evaluation before proceeding with the P&P bond.
  • Bid Spreads – in cases where the bid spread is excessive, it is important to have a prompt discussion with us. If there is a bid calculation error, and the contract price is inadequate, there is a limited amount of time to withdraw the bid without penalty (such as a bid bond default / claim).  Learn more about bid spreads:  Click!
  • Low bids may be for lesser amounts than the original bid approval. Example: We approve a bid for an estimated contract amount of $9 million, but the actual bid goes in at $8,500,000 due to last minute changes and reductions. Therefore, when the low bid results are reported, $500,000 in capacity is restored to the aggregate.
  • Postponements – sometimes bids are postponed at the last minute, with no immediate reschedule date. The bid approval may never be used. If it dies on the vine we will restore the capacity immediately.
  • Withdrawal – clients may decide not to bid a project after ordering the bid bond. They may have determined that the plans are unclear or unacceptable.  Advise us so capacity can be restored.

If you are now sufficiently impressed with the importance of minding these small details, you may don your green eye shade and declare yourself an Official Bean Counter.  It’s not glamorous, but it is necessary for proper management of the bond account.  (Actually, we think it is glamorous!)

~ ~ ~

KIS Surety Bonds, LLC is the exclusive underwriting department for Great Midwest Insurance Company an A – 8 carrier licensed in all states plus D.C.  

We have in-house authority for Bid and Performance Bonds up to $10 million each.

Contact us for creative solutions and a same day response: 856-304-7348.

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Secrets of Bonding #148: The Greatest Impediment to Bonding

Surety bonds are hard to get. Contractors and their insurance agents know that underwriters are conservative. They ask lots of questions. Then they ask more questions. Then they say they can’t help you. It’s a fun-filled process.

Some contractors can’t get bonded because they have a poor credit history. Others have weak or insufficient financial statements. There are plenty of reasons for an unhappy ending, but what is the single biggest reason – and what can you do about it?

Crappy credit: This is a very common problem. The company may be struggling to get enough work, resulting in a weak credit report. So they decide to move into public work for additional revenues – but the bad credit report makes this impossible. Sometimes the report can be improved by correcting errors and updating the info. This is not the greatest impediment contractors and their agents face.

Weak or insufficient financial statement: There are innumerable potential problems. No financial statement, only an internal statement, only a compilation, an interim FS, a net loss, no working capital – the pitfalls are endless! It’s not the biggest impediment though.

Unsavory circumstances: Excessive bid spreads, inadequate prior experience, bad bond forms, harsh contract terms, too much other work. They are all bad, but they are not the king.

The Greatest Impediment

Picture how the process starts. When the contractor decides to go after bonding, a list of information is requested. The underwriter wants business and personal financial statements. A current work in process schedule is needed. Prior tax returns, resumes of key people and a bank reference letter are desired.

The contractor wants to pursue this, but MAN, that’s a lot of stuff!

He has not needed to make company financial statements, so how to come up with them now?

The company owner never needed to make a resume, always been self-employed. How do I write that up?

The WIP schedule: I don’t have that info available. I know where I am on all my jobs. Why would I take the time to fill out a bunch of forms anyway?

I can get the bank reference letter completed and make copies of prior tax returns (they want the WHOLE THING?!) But if I do that, who’s gonna do the estimating so we don’t run out of work? And I have to visit the projects or everything will grind to a halt. The workers want to milk every job like it’s their last. They’ll suck the profits out of everything if I give them the chance.

Conclusion 

The greatest impediment is the applicant themselves! In my 40+ years of surety bond underwriting, I have concluded that MOST contractors deserve to be bonded, but many fail to acquire surety support. It is because they stop trying, or never really start.

People must make choices. They have to put bread on the table. If they can succeed by doing what they know, why try some experiment that may fail? Sometimes it’s just easier to keep doing the same thing – even if you are discontent.

Our observation is that bonding takes perseverance and patience. It is a journey, a path with unexpected twists. There can be obstacles, but we have solutions! If contractors or agents expect it to be fast and easy… they may be disappointed.

Applicants for bonding must plan to devote some time and energy to achieve a goal they know is worthy. It says a lot to have a surety backing you. They are vouching for your ability, and putting up their own money to prove it. It’s a big deal and not always easy, but always worth it in the end.

KIS Surety is the national contract bond underwriting department for Great Midwest Insurance Company, a national, corporate surety with an A-8 rating.  We throw all this underwriting talent at your bond opportunities and support contracts up to $10,000,000.

If you have a contract surety case that needs a fast, creative response, call us: 856-304-7348

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Secrets of Bonding #146: Financial Statement Sniff Test

Here is a list of my business and accounting courses in college:

  1. _______
  2. _______
  3. _______

I was an Education Major (teaching), so I didn’t get anything on financial statements “FSs”.  When I started as a surety bond underwriting trainee, I realized that I had no idea what a Balance Sheet was – but I learned. 

If your first reaction when you look a FS is “Duh,” we will fix that right now.  Keep reading! This will be a view from 30,000 feet.  Big picture but it will help.

To be complete, every financial statement must include at the minimum:

  • Balance Sheet
  • Profit and Loss Statement

The Balance Sheet

This document is a one-day snap shot of the funds in the company (Assets) and who owns them (Liabilities).  The assets and liabilities are equal “balance” because every dollar in the company is shown from two points of view: the Asset side and who owns it, the Liability side. 

The Balance Sheet has three important parts we can review initially.  Let’s identify them based on their functionality.

Current Assets: This line item is a subtotal found near the middle of the Asset column. It represents those assets readily convertible to cash within the coming fiscal year (such as Accounts Receivable).

Current Liabilities: Found near the middle of the Liabilities column, these are debts to be paid in the coming fiscal year (such as Accounts Payable).

Total Stockholders Equity, aka Net Worth: Usually the last subsection near the end of the Liabilities column. This is the company’s Net Worth that would remain if they shut down and liquidated everything.

The Profit and Loss Statement

This is a historical summary of all the money taken in (Sales aka Revenues) and money spent (Expenses) during the preceding period, usually one year. At the bottom of the column is the Net Profit, which is the money the company “made” for the year after paying all the related bills and taxes.

Now that you can pick out a couple of strategic numbers on any FS, what shall we do with them?

Calculate Working Capital

This is a primary measure of financial strength used by all analysts, including sureties, banks and other credit grantors.  It is found by subtracting the Current Liabilities from the Current Assets. It is an indicator of expected cash flow in the coming year. 

Here is a quick, simplified Sniff Test to use when considering a particular bid or performance bond.  The evaluation is made based on the expected contract (not bond) amount. This is an instant indication of the adequacy of the finances in regard to the upcoming project.

Part One – The Working Capital target amount is 15% of the contract amount.  For example, if the contract amount is $1,000,000, sureties hope to see Working Capital of at least $150,000.

Part Two – The Net Worth target amount is 20% of the contract amount or about $200,000 in our example.

Certainly there is more to surety underwriting than this simple analysis.  However, by using this method, you can get a quick idea of whether the financial statement easily supports the bond, or may be a stretch.  If your analysis reveals negative numbers, which are shown in parenthesis on financial reports, that’s obviously a bad sign.

Also keep in mind, applicants that do not meet these criteria may still qualify for bonds based on other factors – and the reverse is also true. Surety underwriting takes many factors into consideration.  In this article we are offering a very simplified version of the process although it is valid as a quick review. This procedure will enable you to make a fast financial evaluation, and relate it to the upcoming surety exposure.

Summary

This article doesn’t make you a bond underwriter, but now when you get a new FS instead of “Duh!” you can say “Let me analyze this!”

Running a quick analysis plus the Sniff Test will indicate the likelihood of obtaining surety support. You learned a lot in three minutes, but when you have a bond that fails the Sniff Test, that’s where our expertise and market access comes in.  Call us!

KIS Surety is the national contract bond underwriting department for Great Midwest Insurance Company, a national, corporate surety with an A-8 rating.  We throw all this underwriting talent at your bond opportunities and support contracts up to $10,000,000.

If you have a contract surety case that needs a fast, creative response, call us: 856-304-7348

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Bonded Contracts – Show Me The Money! (Secrets of Bonding #139)

 Laurel and Hardy. Ben and Jerry. Bonding companies and money. They just go together!

Let’s take a look at the focus bonding companies place on money when providing Bid and Performance Bonds. It’s a matter of survival. If called upon, the surety hopes to complete the project with the remaining (unpaid) contract funds. They track a number of elements and there are critical milestones. Learn about them so you know what’s ahead.

Of course there is a significant financial evaluation of the applicant (the construction company), a subject we have written about extensively. Visit our index of article subjects. Here we will only talk about the bonded construction project.

An early money question is “how is the work funded?” Most bonded jobs are public work. This means the project is paid for with tax dollars. On private contracts, the work can be funded in a number of ways. For commercial building, the project owner may have a construction loan or set funds aside in an escrow account. In any event, the bond underwriter wants to be sure the contractor will be paid after they incur costs for labor and material. Not being paid could cause the company to fail and result in claims on all open bonds.

Regarding the new contract, the surety will ask:

  • How often will the contractor be paid?
  • Is a portion of the contract amount paid up front, immediately when the work commences?
  • Are there Liquidated Damages – a financial penalty assessed per day for late completion of the work?

Once the contract is underway, the surety wants to monitor the money:

  • Is the job proceeding profitably, and therefore headed for a successful conclusion?
  • Do the contractor’s billings correlate with the degree of completion? It can be dangerous when they get too far ahead by billing the job aggressively.
  • Are suppliers of labor and material being paid on a current basis (by the contractor / surety client)?
  • Is the project owner paying the contractor in accordance with the written payment terms?

Sometimes underwriting issues are resolved by using a “funds administrator.” This procedure is intended to enable the contractor to perform the work, while the money handling is performed by a professional paymaster. The paymaster pays all the suppliers of labor and material, plus the contractor. This procedure minimizes the possibility of claims under the Payment Bond.

When the project reaches a conclusion, there may be important final transactions:

  • Final payment – the contractor collects the last regular payment under the contract. The bonding company issues a consent for release of this payment. If there are any problems or issues, they may withhold such approval. Underwriters can require copies of lien releases (from suppliers of labor and material) to assure that everyone has been paid – to prevent Payment Bond claims.
  • Release of Retainage – the contractor now collects a percentage of the contract amount that was methodically held back (retained) as security for the protection of the project owner. Surety consent is often required for this, too. The owner will not release this money unless all the loose ends are resolved, referred to as a “punch list.”
  • Bond “overrun” premium – normally the surety is automatically required to cover additions to the contract amount (bond automatically increases.) Therefore, they are entitled to an additional premium for such exposure. If not collected during the life of the project, this would be a clean-up item at the end. Sometimes a refund is issued for an “underrun” (net contract reduction.)

Bonus Question: Why do some underwriters require premium payment in advance for Performance and Payment Bonds?

Answer: Unlike insurance, surety obligations (P&P bonds) are not cancellable. Therefore, if the underwriter doesn’t get paid the bond premium, they are still “on” the risk!

Conclusion

Surety underwriters strive to bond reputable, capable companies. But even the biggest, best contractors cannot avoid the financial aspects that pop up during the life of all bonded jobs.  Deal with them as they arise. Now you know what to expect.

Enjoy  this scene from Jerry Maguire (click): Show me the MONEY!!!  

KIS Surety is the national contract bond underwriting department for Great Midwest Insurance Company, a national, corporate surety with an A-8 rating.  We throw all this underwriting talent at your bond opportunities and support contracts up to $10,000,000.

If you have a contract surety case that needs a fast, creative response, call us: 856-304-7348

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Secrets of Bonding #138: Hate Union Bonds

Union Bonds, aka Wage and Welfare Bonds, can be a troublesome area for contractors, agents and bonding companies.  But we like to think there is something there to love. We will explain…

The Hating

For contractors, this is often their first brush with the wonderfully playful world of surety bonds. Maybe the contractor is focused on light commercial work, or is exclusively a subcontractor, so bid and performance bonds have never been needed. The contractor wants to get workers from the union hall so a new contract can begin on time.  Suddenly this road block appears: “A $50,000 surety bond is required.” Unfortunately, the contractor learns that financial statements are needed – but they are not immediately available.  And there are financial strength requirements, which the contractor may need meet, soooo…!

For bonding companies, you might assume that if they get paid their premium, they should be perfectly happy to issue these.  They are not.  The union bond is often their first bond request from the new client.  In other words, they don’t have a file, don’t know the financial condition of the applicant, are not confident in their ability to operate successfully, and this bond is considered a “financial guarantee” (as opposed to a performance and payment bond). A financial guarantee bond guarantees that the principal (construction company) will pay funds when due at a future date.  Get out your crystal ball!  If the contractor cannot pay the required union wages and benefits resulting in a bond claim, where will the money come from to reimburse the surety for the loss?  Underwriters are quick to admit they think these bonds are the worst part of a contractors account, and they dislike having one as the first bond request from a new client.  They prefer to get a couple of P&P bonds under their belt first.

For the bond agent, if they can get the bond approved and issued, what’s not to love?  The problem is that for many new applicants with credit issues or poor financial statements, the bonds are only approved with “full collateral.”  This means if you want a $50,000 bond, the surety wants to HOLD $50,000 as a security deposit against potential future claims.  Plus you pay the bond premium.  Plus you sign an indemnity agreement, probably including personal indemnity, plus your spouse. So, faced with these terms, it is not unusual for the contractor to give the $50,000 directly to the union in lieu of the bond.  For the agent, this means when the bond is approved, the client no longer wants it.  No commission.  Ugh!

The Loving

Here is the flip side.  If the bond is painlessly approved, everyone goes home happy.  But even with a full collateral requirement, there are reasons to still chose the bond (over security held directly by the union). With a bond in place, any claim by the union must be reviewed and analyzed by the surety’s claims department.  The surety is likely to ask the contractor for info and an explanation. Normally money does not go flying out of the bonding company.  It is possible the claim may be declined. This investigative process can be protective for the construction company. If a cash deposit is used, the union has immediate access to the contractor’s money.  Secondly, the wage and welfare bond can open the door with the surety.  Maybe it will lead to a new performance bond facility.  That could result in more revenues, more profits, greater success for the contractor. Another benefit is that after a track record is established, the collateral requirement could be waived. Now the contractor has the bond with NO collateral required.  It was worth the wait!

So there you have it.  Wage and welfare bonds may seem like a PIA, but even if it’s hard to get the bond, it may be worth having in the long run.

KIS Surety is the national contract bond underwriting department for Great Midwest Insurance Company, a national, corporate surety with an A-8 rating.  We throw all this underwriting talent at your bond opportunities and support contracts up to $10,000,000.

If you have a contract surety case that needs a fast, creative response, call us: 856-304-7348

(Don’t miss our next exciting article.  Click the “Follow” button at the top right.)