2015 RendezVous: Smiles or Scowls?
Nikolaus Von Bomhard was not a happy man this time last year. The CEO of German reinsurance giant Munich Re — in line with its general policy — is rarely outspoken. However, ahead of the September 2014 Monte Carlo gathering of the reinsurance industry’s key personnel, he spoke of being “disappointed, exasperated and even rather appalled by what is happening in the market.”
It’s unlikely that the past 12 months have offered much to lift his spirits. Guy Carpenter reports that global property catastrophe rates were down by 11 percent on average at Jan. 1 2015, the same rate of reduction as the year before. “Reductions were sustained across all lines of business with few exceptions,” the group commented. “We continue to see rate reductions and easing terms and conditions at the various key renewal anniversaries during 2015.”
Attendees at the 59th annual RendezVous in the tiny European principality of Monaco next month will therefore be confronting familiar problems; indeed, the mood could best be described as “the same, only more so.”
Low inflation, minimal interest rates and meager investment returns have regularly featured on the RendezVous agenda since the 2008 global financial crisis broke. More recently, Europe has seen low inflation turn to deflation, while some corporates have followed the lead of its more confident governments and been emboldened to offer negative rates on bond offerings. This year also began with the European Central Bank (ECB) belatedly adopting the experiment applied by both the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, to kick-start an economic revival by launching a quantitative easing (QE) program.
As for Munich Re, more recent pronouncements have employed milder language — although when the group issued its annual results in May, board member Torsten Jeworrek admitted that market conditions looked fairly certain to remain soft.
“The question for us is not how far the rates can decline,” said Jeworrek. “The question is how to manage the cycle and where to find new business opportunities. We are proceeding on the assumption that the market environment will not change significantly in the upcoming renewal rounds in 2015, unless extraordinary loss events occur, or there are any major changes in the market.”
New Channels for Excess Capital?
With what Aon Benfield describes as “too much capital and less opportunity to deploy it” prevailing, 2015 has seen an upturn in merger and acquisition activity with more defensive and strategic deals than in any year since 2007. Swiss Re’s chief economist, Kurt Karl, said recently that activity pointed to a squeezing out of the middle-tier specialist insurers and reinsurers. “Some firms do not have the scale or the breadth of services to differentiate their offering from more commoditized reinsurance capacity,” he noted.
The unsolicited takeover attempt launched by Italian investment firm Exor for PartnerRe is still grabbing headlines. This has threatened to overturn the reinsurer’s planned “merger of equals” with rival Axis Capital Holdings that was announced at the start of this year.
The resulting turbulence was recently commented on by XL Catlin’s CEO Mike McGavick, who cheerfully admitted: “We’re awfully happy to be able to take advantage of the confusion that mergers create for others.” Admittedly XL can display a degree of schadenfreude; the group’s $4 billion takeover of Lloyd’s of London underwriter Catlin went through relatively smoothly — announced in January, it had wrapped up by April.
“While both XL and Catlin were major reinsurers pre-combination, we are now the eighth largest P&C reinsurer in the world and have a larger suite of products and a broader geographic reach together,” said Greg Hendrick, CEO of XL Catlin’s reinsurance operations.
“This will be the main thrust of our meetings at Monte Carlo; we can entertain any P&C risk that a client faces anywhere in the world and we will be very focused on the overall relationship across products and geographies.”
It will take rather more major M&A deals to change Aon Benfield’s assessment. However, Bryon Ehrhart, CEO of Aon Benfield Americas and a regular speaker at the RendezVous, said that while the pronouncement remains valid, he sees grounds for optimism. “The growth in reinsurance capital continues to outpace the growth in demand for reinsurance,” he said.
“However, material new demand has emerged for U.S. mortgage credit risk and certain life reinsurance transactions. While the industry clearly has the capital to deploy in these areas, the industry’s skills are still developing and currently limit the ability of the industry to match the opportunity.”
Ehrhart also believes that the industry’s leading players have made “material progress” toward incorporating lower-cost underwriting capital into their value proposition. “Reinsurers have seen that they have and can sustain their significant competitive advantages when they optimize their underwriting capital structures.”
So what else will feature on the Monte Carlo agenda next month? Negative interest rates are likely to be a key topic, said Jean-Jacques Henchoz, CEO reinsurance for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Swiss Re. “After large parts of European sovereign yield curves dipped into negative territory during spring this year, investors have certainly become aware that zero may not necessarily be the lower bound for bond yields.”
“I think the debate now is less about Solvency II content, but about how companies are going to live with it.” — Eric Paire, head of global strategic advisory, Guy Carpenter’s EMEA region
He believes that deflation fears may diminish: While the ECB’s bond buying program under QE had a major negative impact on bond yields over the first half of 2015, it is unclear whether it will remain the dominant driving force. “There are other forces which may push bond yields higher,” said Henchoz. “The U.S. Fed is likely to start hiking interest rates later this year. In addition, it is expected that inflation rates will increase in the second half as oil prices stabilize.
“Overall, the outlook for interest rates remains highly uncertain at this point in time. What is clear, however, is that insurers’ investment returns will not improve significantly anytime soon. This is because even if bond yields increase, existing higher-yielding bonds in insurers’ portfolios will need to be reinvested into lower-yielding bonds. So insurers’ investment returns will recover only slowly and with a time lag.”
Long-established players are also coming to terms with the fact that many of the market’s newer entrants have joined for the long-term. “We believe that alternative capital is here to stay and will be a part of the capital base supporting the reinsurance market,” said Hendrick.
“The only open question in our mind is what size and portion of the overall market will this capital source attain in the coming years. We are positioning XL Catlin to be able to utilize all forms of capital, our own and third party, to ensure that we match each risk profile with the appropriate capital.”
Ehrhart suggested two other topics likely to feature in many discussions. “Cyber [risk coverage] will recur as a topic that is driving demand growth,” he said. “The discussion of alternative capital will move from the debate over whether or not it is a good or bad thing to how best it can be incorporated into a reinsurer’s value proposition to its customers and shareholders.”
Solvency II issues
Just over the horizon is the European Union’s Solvency II legislative program, which introduces a new and harmonized EU-wide insurance regulatory regime in all 28 member states. As it takes effect from Jan. 1 2016, it might be expected to feature highly on this year’s RendezVous agenda. Conversely, having been in the pipeline for several years, is the debate over Solvency II — and the industry’s objections to the directive — now largely over?
“Not at all,” said Eric Paire, head of global strategic advisory for Guy Carpenter’s EMEA region. “I think the debate now is less about Solvency II content, but about how companies are going to live with it, and this includes topics such as internal model validation, volatility of capital requirements, and reconciling increased required capital with low prices and interest rates.
“Furthermore, with doubts about the readiness of some companies and indeed regulators, Solvency II is a long way from disappearing from the agenda.”
Henchoz agreed. “The focus is currently very much on implementation, on understanding how business operates under the new EU solvency regime as well as preparing for application,” he said.
“Many companies are still busy getting their systems ready by 2016, in particular on reporting, and the change towards an economic and risk-based regime has some wider implications which demand a different approach to strategy and products.”
RendezVous 2015 also poses the question of where delegates who usually check in at Monte Carlo’s five-star central Hotel de Paris will find a bed. The iconic venue began a major renovation program last October that won’t be completed until September 2018; until then many will have to settle for an address that is less prestigious — or located further out of town.
CROs Gaining Authority, Survey Finds
The forces of change are continuing to reshape the insurance industry and its chief risk officers (CROs) are at the forefront of that change, reports Ernst & Young Global, aka EY.
The professional services multinational just published its fifth annual survey of CROs in the insurance sector. Conducted between December 2014 and February 2015, the survey canvasses views from various senior risk executives at 20 North American insurance companies, with life, P&C and multi-line insurers all represented.
The findings show that “the most profound forces of change” are reflected in an evolution of the CRO role. They have greater authority, are assuming greater responsibilities and gaining an enhanced profile across the organization, with effective risk management increasingly regarded as contributing to market success.
Ways in which this enhanced profile is evidenced include direct participation on key strategic business matters, larger staffs than before and a wider use of stress testing. Nearly three in four CROs told EY that their department had expanded in the past year.
Along with more stress tests, additional staff are needed for operational risk, the own risk and solvency assessment (ORSA) and model risk management. Risk management today is closely “integrated with the business, rather than being an afterthought,” according to one survey respondent.
The report identifies three current key themes cited by CROs:
Capital Standards Still Confuse
The lack of common accounting standards and capital measures makes it difficult to compare performance and solvency across companies. Insurers employ various capital measures, many specific to the company, to analyze their risk exposures over a range of time periods and under different normal and adverse scenarios. The quantitative impact survey (QIS) launched last September by the Federal Reserve Board and field testing by the International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS) persuaded several companies to consider new approaches to regulatory capital treatment.
Expanding risk management capabilities and the hiring of more risk staff confirms that it has become a team activity, played across and at every level of the enterprise.
More Regulations and Intrusive Regulatory Oversight
CROs from insurers not already regulated by the Federal Reserve Board accept, grudgingly, that they will also come under its spotlight. Until recently these CROs were confident that current state-based requirements would remain unchanged, but now accept that the two regulatory regimes, with different risk management standards, will probably converge around more stringent guidelines.
Risk Management Is a Team Sport
The 2015 survey shows CROs spending more time and effort on integrating risk management practices into the business. For some, the risk management function’s value is chiefly measured through its integration with the business. Expanding risk management capabilities and the hiring of more risk staff confirms that it has become a team activity, played across and at every level of the enterprise.
Past and Future Challenges
Asked to identify the main risk challenges currently occupying the insurance industry, 40 percent of CROs surveyed cite the slew of regulation and pending common capital standards. Although a distant second, 14 percent picked cyber risk, showing the CRO’s agenda now extends beyond financial risk. Easing concerns over interest rates and the economy as well as renewal of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) saw both dip from a year ago to 13 percent and 10 percent respectively. Lingering worries that TRIA might not be extended was subsequently resolved at the end of January. Competition and pricing levels also scored 10 percent.
Looking ahead to the main risk challenges of the next 12 months, 28 percent of CROs surveyed cited capital modeling and stress testing. Three tasks: establishing an enterprise risk management (ERM) framework and governance; integration and transparency; and assessing risk appetite each attracted 15 percent, while both emerging risks and operational risks were cited by 9 percent. Still a high priority a year ago, ORSA has since fallen off the list as many institutions have since participated in one of the three pilots or produced an ORSA draft.
Longer-term, insurance industry CROs expect greater authority and accountability, increased influence and broader interaction over the next few years, with their role becoming more visible and more accountable as it becomes better defined. In the meantime, they are focused on performance and creating value for the business. As one respondent commented, “we are spending less time on defining and debating the role and approach and more time on executing our risk plan.”
The café terraces of Monte Carlo will be bathed in sunshine, literally and figuratively, when reinsurers and brokers meet for Les Rendez-vous de Septembre (RVS), commencing Sept. 9.
Monaco is one of the few European locations to avoid the dark economic clouds that descended on the continent in the wake of the banking sector’s meltdown and ensuing financial crisis. Following five years of austerity, voters used the European Parliament elections in May this year to voice their dissatisfaction.
Yet, despite this sullen atmosphere, the biggest casualties of boom-to-bust such as Spain, Ireland and Greece have been steadily pulling out of recession over the past year.
While Munich Re is averse to speculating on the mood that is likely to prevail at 2014 RVS, its latest Insurance Market Outlook (PDF), published in May, predicted that a broad-based economic recovery across many countries would see global insurance premium growth accelerate to 2.8 percent this year, from 2.1 percent last year, with a further improvement to 3.2 percent in 2015.
Munich Re’s chief economist, Michael Menhart, noted that the pick-up comes after three years of relatively low growth rates.
“In many cases, reinsurance has been used as a means of managing any potential earnings volatility arising from these larger retained portions.” — Charles Whitmore, managing director, head of the property solutions group, Guy Carpenter
Charles Whitmore, managing director, head of the property solutions group at Guy Carpenter, said the “improving economic environment in Europe has enabled insurance carriers to repair balance sheets and press ahead with consolidation and increased retention appetites.”
“In many cases, reinsurance has been used as a means of managing any potential earnings volatility arising from these larger retained portions.”
This generally optimistic outlook was tempered by the fact that Munich Re expects reinsurance premium growth to be more modest than that for primary insurance.
Over the next six years, the German reinsurer expects average growth in global reinsurance markets in real terms of little more than 2 percent per year. RVS attendees will also look back on this year’s January 1 and April 1 renewals, where pricing pressures saw declines of as much as 20 percent for U.S. CAT business.
As Munich Re’s report noted, while the potential of the world’s emerging markets — particularly the so-called BRIC economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China — was a hot topic a few years back, for the time being the major industrialized nations are back in the driving seat.
While the group expects China’s premium volume (which was around $284 billion in 2013) to double by the end of the decade, it will still lag way behind the United States, whose premium volume it predicts will pass the $1,624 billion level by 2020.
Possibly the biggest BRIC disappointment — which attendees may seek to explain — is Brazil. Hopes were high when the country began liberalizing its reinsurance market six years ago, ending the near-70 year monopoly of state-owned IRB.
Within four years, more than 100 reinsurers had established a presence in the country. However, this summer’s World Cup underscored how the economic optimism in 2007, when Brazil won the rights to stage the contest, has steadily dissipated.
Insurer confidence on the country’s economic outlook has fallen to a record low and Standard & Poor’s is among those warning that profitability in the Brazilian reinsurance market remains elusive.
Many reinsurers instead appear to be focusing on gaining a presence in India, once the long-delayed Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill 2008, which would allow foreign reinsurers to set up offices in the country, is finally cleared by parliament.
France’s biggest reinsurer, Scor, is among those that have signaled their intent to add an Indian operation. Such hopes will have been encouraged by the landslide election victory in May of Narendra Modi. India’s 15th prime minister swept to power on a promise to kick-start an underperforming economy, which reinsurers hope will mean an end to the stalling in opening up its market.
The Top Three
But which trio of issues is most likely to dominate the discussions in Monaco?
“We can be certain that one of the prime themes, as always, will be the prognosis for reinsurance pricing, capacity, [and] terms and conditions at the coming January renewal,” said Christopher Klein, managing director and head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) strategy at Guy Carpenter.
“A second topic will be the continuing influx of new capital into the reinsurance sector from so-called nontraditional sectors, despite the surplus of capacity.
“In the absence of a market-changing loss, continuing pressure on prices and returns can be expected. However, to date, the greatest effect has tended to be in the North American catastrophe market. We will be interested to see if the new capital will start to make significant inroads into the EMEA and Asia Pacific (APAC) regions and non-catastrophe classes.
“Finally,” Klein added, “a favorite topic of discussion at Monte Carlo is speculation about corporate activity and consolidation. This year, we have witnessed some high-profile attempts at consolidation in Bermuda. Expect this topic to continue to make headlines.”
Bryon Ehrhart, chief executive of Aon Benfield Americas, predicted at last year’s RVS that a further $100 billion of alternative capital would enter the reinsurance market by 2018 and said that so far, this prediction is on track.
He cited the decision in early June by the European Central Bank to cut its main interest rate to a record low of 0.15 percent and entering into what the headlines call “uncharted territory” by reducing its interest rate on deposits to a negative figure for the first time, of -0.1 percent.
This could mean that the predicted figure of $100 billion needs revising upwards. As he pointed out, major pension funds are making promises to retirees of returns of 4 percent upwards, against returns on conventional investments that are typically 1.25 percent to 1.5 percent.
Ehrhart cited two relatively recent entrants: Stone Ridge Asset Management — which launched two reinsurance-linked funds as recently as November 2012 and already has $2.5 billion under management — and LGT Capital Partners.
“The impact of the hedge fund reinsurers has been fairly transformative,” he said.
“They have put forward material capacity at very low prices and opened up a whole new set of opportunities for our clients.”
Inevitably, these pricing pressures continue to impact the long-established carriers. As A.M. Best commented earlier this summer, global reinsurance companies in the first quarter of 2014 benefited from below-average catastrophe losses and most continued to report favorable reserve releases, yet those that are publicly traded saw their stock lag the market. From a group of 20, only Bermuda’s Maiden Holdings managed a strong gain (of over 14 percent). The ratings agencies will doubtless dissect this overall sluggish performance at Monte Carlo.
Big Data and El Niño
What else is likely to be on this year’s agenda? The big keynote session or “presentation-debate” will be on Big Data and its potential to significantly change how reinsurers do business. While details of participants were sketchy at the time of writing, the session will be chaired by Michel Liès, chief executive of Swiss Re and the reinsurer said that it “wants to examine with RVS participants and clients how Big Data can enable new business opportunities and how privacy concerns can be addressed.”
Gretchen Hayes, managing director, global strategic advisory at Guy Carpenter, noted the “reinsurance industry is still at the beginning stages when it comes to the potential and competitive advantages of Big Data in combination with predictive analytics.”
“As these technologies continue to advance, insurance companies are reaping the benefits of gathering and analyzing vast amounts of information that come through their own internal networks as well as that of their business partners and even through new external sources.”
Video: The Weather Channel reports on some of the possibilities associated with an El Niño in 2014.
With reports suggesting that there is a 90 percent chance that an El Niño will disrupt global weather patterns this year, the recurring climate phenomenon could also force itself on the discussions.
Beginning as a vast expanse of water in the Pacific that becomes abnormally warm, El Niño has the potential for adverse weather effects ranging from a weaker-than-usual monsoon season in India that starves its paddy fields of vital rain, to scorching heat and bush fires in Australia and sharply reduced fishing catches in South America.
The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts predicts that the El Niño phenomenon is highly likely to occur this year; indeed, the organization believes it could potentially be the most damaging since 1997-98, which produced the hottest year on record and a string of natural catastrophes, an estimated 23,000 deaths and total economic losses in the region of $35 billion to $47 billion.