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.
P&C Outlook for 2015
Rate increases that will slow or outright decline for the property and casualty insurance industry is just one of the major trends as we enter 2015.
Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analysts expect insurers’ operating earnings to improve modestly in 2015, mostly from the “earn-in” of 2014 rate increases versus still-benign loss cost inflation, partly offset by fading reserve releases and normal catastrophe losses.
KBW’s Managing Director Meyer Shields said workers’ comp and some other casualty lines, general liability and commercial auto liability will see rate increases, albeit at a slower pace, while property lines will continue to decline.
“There are a lot of insurance carriers and so it remains a very competitive marketplace,” — Meyer Shields, managing director, KBW
“There are a lot of insurance carriers and so it remains a very competitive marketplace,” Shields said. “Companies believe they can earn an adequate return and still price competitively, which should drag down prices” but he noted that pricing was “on a line-specific basis.”
KBW also expects loss cost inflation to pick up somewhat, “but not materially so,” as insurance loss cost trends has been very suppressed lately, he said. Moreover, given the decline in interest rates, there will be a continuation of lower investment income and overall returns will also come under pressure.
Potential Pricing Challenges
In a report released in December, KBW analysts wrote that two scenarios could disrupt the trend of decelerating or declining prices.
“First, a resurgence of claim cost inflation could quickly erode prior and current accident-year profitability, which would produce a year or so of weak earnings, but would also probably jump-start rate increases,” the analysts wrote.
“On the other hand, persistently low investment yields could drive the providers of third-party capital to expand their participation into other reinsurance lines beyond property catastrophe and similar short-tailed lines.
“We don’t think an expansion is imminent, both because it would tie up capital for longer, and because expected returns for most lines are much lower than was the case for property catastrophe almost two years ago,” they wrote.
“But we believe that the traditional industry players are rational and disciplined enough to avoid obviously destructive pricing, so it would probably take external forces to really disrupt pricing.”
The P&C industry’s underwriting performance continues to lag behind 2013, but remains favorable, according to A.M. Best’s Nine Month Financial Review of the U.S. P&C industry published Dec. 16.
The pure loss ratio increased by 2 points to 58.2 for the nine months through Sept. 30, 2014, primarily as a result of higher catastrophe losses and reduced benefit from favorable development of prior accident years’ loss reserves.
Favorable Commercial Lines Outlook
While net premiums written (NPW) grew, the pace of that growth has slowed. However, increased NPW has benefitted the underwriting expense ratio, as those expenses climbed at a slower pace than NPW, according to the rating organization.
The commercial lines segment posted another set of favorable results for the nine months ended Sept. 30, although some underwriting performance deteriorated somewhat year over year, according to A.M Best’s report.
Through the first nine months of 2014, the segment’s combined ratio was 97.6, compared with 95.6 posted the same period in 2013. Net income totaled $19.2 billion, down $9 billion from a year earlier.
A.M. Best’s analysts are seeing a continuation of the trends exhibited earlier in 2014, said Jennifer Marshall, an assistant vice president in the property casualty ratings department.
“We also now have a negative outlook on the reinsurance sector, but we have seen some solid results, so we expect the industry will post an underwriting profit for 2014.” — Jennifer Marshall, assistant vice president, property casualty ratings, A.M. Best
“Moderation in catastrophic losses continues, as it was yet another year without a major hurricane hitting the U.S. East Coast, which typically is a substantial driver of losses for third quarters,” Marshall said.
A.M. Best’s analysts are also seeing a slowing in premium increases, she said. They also believe the industry in general is well-capitalized, though they have concerns in the commercial line segment, specifically related to questions about reserves in recent years for companies that write a significant amount of long-tail business.
“We also now have a negative outlook on the reinsurance sector, but we have seen some solid results, so we expect the industry will post an underwriting profit for 2014,” Marshall said. Overall, “the industry seems to be performing in line with what we expected for this year.”
Morgan Stanley researchers believe that alternative capital such as catastrophe bonds is driving “secular changes” in the global (re)insurance ecosystem, according to a report released in December.
“We estimate that alternative capital currently accounts for 15 to 20 percent of global reinsurance capacity,” the analysts wrote. “We see it as a secular shift that disrupts balance sheet-based reinsurance models with a goal of directly matching risks with the most efficient capital.”
However, the trend also offers opportunities for primary insurers to re-enter markets and lines of business, to lower operating costs through lower-priced reinsurance, and to open up new revenue streams by managing third party capital.
“Those that adapt can not only survive but thrive, in our view,” the analysts wrote. “Longer term, we believe thriving reinsurers that adapt to this secular change should (1) maintain strategic relevance (size and breadth), (2) manage third party capital, (3) become closer to the end customers, or (4) focus more on investments (asset-manager-backed reinsurers).”
When the Going Gets Rough, the Smart Come to Aspen Insurance
Sometimes, renewals don’t go as expected.
Perhaps your company experienced a particularly costly claim last year. Or maybe it was just one too many smaller incidents that added to a long claims history.
No matter the cause, few words are scarier to hear this time of year than, “Renewal denied.”
But new options are now emerging for companies that are willing to tackle their product liability challenges head-on.
Aspen Insurance’s products liability team – underwriters, loss control engineers and claims professionals – welcome clients who have been denied coverage from other, more traditional carriers.
“For our team, we view our best opportunities to be with clients who have specific problems to solve. In these cases, we leverage our deep expertise and integrated team approach to help the client identify root causes and fix issues,” said Roxanne Mitchell, Aspen U.S. Insurance’s executive vice president and chief casualty officer.
“The result is a much improved product or manufacturing process and the start of a new business relationship that we can grow for many years to come.”
“We want to work with insureds as partners, long after a problem has been resolved. We seek clients who are going to stick with us, just as we will with them. As the insured’s experience improves over time, pricing will improve with it.”
— Roxanne Mitchell, Executive Vice President, Chief Casualty Officer, Aspen Insurance
Of course, this specialized approach is not applicable to all situations and clients. Aspen Insurance only offers coverage if the team is confident the problems can be solved and that the client genuinely wants to engage in improving their business and moving forward.
“Our robust and detailed problem-solving approach quickly identifies pressing issues. Once we know what it will take to rectify the problem, it’s up to the client to make the investments and take the necessary actions,” added Mitchell. “As a specialty carrier operating within the E&S market, we have the ability to develop custom-tailored solutions to unique and complex problems.”
For clients who are eager to learn from managing through a unique, pressing issue, and apply the consequential lessons to improve, Aspen Insurance can be their best, and sometimes only, insurance friend.
The Strategy: Collaboration from Underwriting, Claims and Loss Control
Aspen offers a proven combination of experienced underwriting professionals collaborating with the company’s outstanding loss control/risk engineering and seasoned claims experts.
“We deliver experts who understand the industries in which they work, which is another critical differentiator for us,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell described the Aspen underwriting process as a team approach. In diagnosing the causes of a specific problem, the Aspen team thoroughly vets the client’s claims history, talks to the broker about the exposures and circumstances, peruses user manuals and manufacturing processes, evaluates the supply chain structure – whatever needs to be done to get to the root of a problem.
“Aspen pulls from every resource we have in our arsenal,” she said.
After the Aspen team explores the underlying reason(s) and root cause(s) producing the client’s problem in the first place, it will offer a solution along with corresponding price and coverage specifics.
“We have a very specific business appetite and approach,” Mitchell said. “We don’t treat products liability as a commodity.”
As noted, a major component of Aspen’s approach is that they seek to work with clients who are equally interested in solving their problems and put in the work required to reach that end.
Mitchell cited two recent client examples of manufacturers of expensive products that could endure large claim losses but had some serious problems that needed to be solved.
A conveyor systems manufacturer had a few unexpected large claims and lost its coverage in the traditional insurance market. The manufacturer never managed a product recall in the past, and Aspen’s loss control engineers dug into why several systems failed. Aspen also helped the company alert customers about the impending repairs.
Another company that manufactured firetrucks had three or four large losses, when telescoping ladders collapsed, resulting in serious injuries. The company’s claim history was clean until this particular product defect. When Aspen researched the issue, it found that the specific metal and welding used to make the telescoping ladders didn’t have the required torque to keep the ladders from collapsing.
Both companies worked with Aspen to correct the issues. Problem solved.
“It is so important that our clients are willing to actively engage in finding out what is causing their losses so they can learn from the experience,” Mitchell said.
Apart from the company’s problem-solving philosophy, Mitchell said, the willingness to allow qualified clients to manage their own claims is the second biggest reason companies come to Aspen.
“We are willing to work with clients who have demonstrated the expertise to handle their own claims — with our monitoring — rather than hiring a TPA,” she said. “It is a useful option that can save them money.”
Mitchell explained that customers who stay with Aspen for the long-term can be confident that Aspen will help them – whatever the challenge. For instance, if they need a coverage modification for a new product that they bring to market, Aspen can help make it happen. Mitchell noted, “We pride ourselves on the ability to develop custom-tailored solutions to address the complex and challenging risks that our clients face.”
Aspen’s desire to help solve difficult client problems comes with a caveat, but one that benefits both Aspen and the insured: It wants to move forward as a true partner – one with clear long-term relationship potential.
In a nutshell, Aspen’s products liability worldview is to partner with a manufacturer who is facing a difficult situation with claims or coverage, help them solve that problem, and then, engage in a long-term, committed relationship with the client.
“We want to work with insureds as partners, long after a problem has been resolved,” she said. “We seek clients who are going to stick with us, just as we will with them. As the insured’s experience improves over time, pricing will improve with it. This partnership approach can be a clear win-win.”
This article is provided for news and information purposes only and does not necessarily represent Aspen’s views and does constitute legal advice. This article reflects the opinion of the author at the time it was written taking into account market, regulatory and other conditions at the time of writing which may change over time. Aspen does not undertake a duty to update the article.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Aspen Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.