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.
Four Takeaways on the Reinsurance Market
Leaders of the reinsurance industry gathered at the CPCU Society Reinsurance Symposium earlier this year to discuss the current state of the market and where it’s headed. Here are some key takeaways from the conference’s opening panel discussion:
1. A Soft Market is the New Norm
Swiss Re Managing Director Keith Wolfe called the market not just soft, but “dismal,” with reinsurance pricing currently more competitive than the primary market.
The reinsurance market is saturated with “too much competition, too much capital, and too few CATs,” according to Peter Hearn, chairman of Willis Re. It is a trend that may be the norm until excess capital dissipates into new, emerging risks.
Cost control efforts, however, could hinder new ventures.
Specialty and regional carriers are sticking to what they do well,” said Hearn, and only global insurers are pursuing expansion.
According to Mick Ware, president and CEO of United Heritage P&C, reinsurers are recovering slowly from the economic recession but remain very cost-conscious.
One opportunity for growth may exist in workers’ compensation which, according to Wolfe, is “starting to pick up more than people realize” and is leading the way in rate increases.
2. Seeking New CATs
Reinsurers are increasingly looking to spread capacity to new CAT markets. The reinsurers identified five categories with promise:
The market for cyber insurance and reinsurance is soft because so many players are trying to get involved, and much uncertainty exists due to cyber risk’s evolving nature. Still, it is a demand that will not be going away anytime soon and will offer growth opportunity as cyber products become more developed.
If the government does not reauthorize the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, private reinsurers will have a big void to fill.
“TRIA is a big concern,” Wolfe said. “There is an appetite for terror exposure to come into the industry.”
• Climate change
Losses from severe weather are likely to increase as major storms become more common. “Wildfire is also a big concern from a CAT standpoint,” Ware said.
• Driverless cars
The rise of automated driving is “not an ‘if’, but ‘when’ situation,” Wolfe said. While liability surrounding driverless cars is uncertain, insurers will have more risk to cover, whether it belongs to drivers, car manufacturers or suppliers.
Given the increasing scope of nanotechnology, Hearn surmised that it could be “the next asbestos” in terms of the potential for mass tort litigation.
“It’s big in the health and fitness and the food and beverage industry. The impact could be huge,” Hearn said.
Nano particles can be used to manipulate food’s texture, aroma and flavor, and alter its health profile. Pollutants created by the manufacturing process could potentially sicken workers and consumers. The growing potential uses and risks of nanotechnology have been largely flown under the radar, Hearn said, but they represent a new CAT market to keep an eye on.
The lack of loss history, however, is a common drawback to all of these opportunities. Reinsurers are taking a “wait and see” approach to these emerging markets.
3. Alternative Capital
Hearn dubbed this a “transformative time” for reinsurance as it becomes a “blended, collateralized, hedge-fund driven market.”
Insurance-linked securities and other alternative forms of capital have grown, contributing to market softening. Yet, “there is a ceiling to the percentage of the alternatives that will be purchased,” said Nick Tzaneteas, executive vice president of Transatlantic Re.
According to Hearn, insurance-linked securities represent 5 percent of P/C premium at Willis Re.
However, due to lower cost of capital, insurers are increasingly turning to alternative forms of risk transfer as a complement to traditional reinsurance, which will push reinsurers to adopt new models.
Said Wolfe, “the reinsurance market is not traditionally innovative, but that needs to change.”
4. Demographics and Expansion
The aging U.S. population means fewer younger people are buying cars and homes, and starting families, and thus are buying less insurance. Decreased economic activity incentivizes larger reinsurers to look abroad.
“From a demand standpoint, we have to look at emerging nations,” Hearn said.
The rise of the middle class in China, India and Africa means there is a larger population that has assets to protect. “We will see a rise in life and property/casualty demand,” he said.
A Renaissance In U.S. Energy
America’s energy resurgence is one of the biggest economic game-changers in modern global history. Current technologies are extracting more oil and gas from shale, oil sands and beneath the ocean floor.
Domestic manufacturers once clamoring for more affordable fuels now have them. Breaking from its past role as a hungry energy importer, the U.S. is moving toward potentially becoming a major energy exporter.
“As the surge in domestic energy production becomes a game-changer, it’s time to change the game when it comes to both midstream and downstream energy risk management and risk transfer,” said Rob Rokicki, a New York-based senior vice president with Liberty International Underwriters (LIU) with 25 years of experience underwriting energy property risks around the globe.
Given the domino effect, whereby critical issues impact each other, today’s businesses and insurers can no longer look at challenges in isolation one issue at a time. A holistic, collaborative and integrated approach to minimizing risk and improving outcomes is called for instead.
Aging Infrastructure, Aging Personnel
The irony of the domestic energy surge is that just as the industry is poised to capitalize on the bonanza, its infrastructure is in serious need of improvement. Ten years ago, the domestic refining industry was declining, with much of the industry moving overseas. That decline was exacerbated by the Great Recession, meaning even less investment went into the domestic energy infrastructure, which is now facing a sudden upsurge in the volume of gas and oil it’s being called on to handle and process.
“We are in a renaissance for energy’s midstream and downstream business leading us to a critical point that no one predicted,” Rokicki said. “Plants that were once stranded assets have become diamonds based on their location. Plus, there was not a lot of new talent coming into the industry during that fallow period.”
In fact, according to a 2014 Manpower Inc. study, an aging workforce along with a lack of new talent and skills coming in is one of the largest threats facing the energy sector today. Other estimates show that during the next decade, approximately 50 percent of those working in the energy industry will be retiring. “So risk managers can now add concerns about an aging workforce to concerns about the aging infrastructure,” he said.
Increasing Frequency of Severity
Current financial factors have also contributed to a marked increase in frequency of severity losses in both the midstream and downstream energy sector. The costs associated with upgrades, debottlenecking and replacement of equipment, have increased significantly,” Rokicki said. For example, a small loss 10 years ago in the $1 million to $5 million ranges, is now increasing rapidly and could readily develop into a $20 million to $30 million loss.
Man-made disasters, such as fires and explosions that are linked to aging infrastructure and the decrease in experienced staff due to the aging workforce, play a big part. The location of energy midstream and downstream facilities has added to the underwriting risk.
“When you look at energy plants, they tend to be located around rivers, near ports, or near a harbor. These assets are susceptible to flood and storm surge exposure from a natural catastrophe standpoint. We are seeing greater concentrations of assets located in areas that are highly exposed to natural catastrophe perils,” Rokicki explained.
“A hurricane thirty years ago would affect fewer installations then a storm does today. This increases aggregation and the magnitude for potential loss.”
On its own, the domestic energy bonanza presents complex risk management challenges.
However, gradual changes to insurance coverage for both midstream and downstream energy have complicated the situation further. Broadening coverage over the decades by downstream energy carriers has led to greater uncertainty in adjusting claims.
A combination of the downturn in domestic energy production, the recession and soft insurance market cycles meant greatly increased competition from carriers and resulted in the writing of untested policy language.
In effect, the industry went from an environment of tested policy language and structure to vague and ambiguous policy language.
Keep in mind that no one carrier has the capacity to underwrite a $3 billion oil refinery. Each insurance program has many carriers that subscribe and share the risk, with each carrier potentially participating on differential terms.
“Achieving clarity in the policy language is getting very complicated and potentially detrimental,” Rokicki said.
Back to Basics
Has the time come for a reset?
Rokicki proposes getting back to basics with both midstream and downstream energy risk management and risk transfer.
He recommends that the insured, the broker, and the carrier’s underwriter, engineer and claims executive sit down and make sure they are all on the same page about coverage terms and conditions.
It’s something the industry used to do and got away from, but needs to get back to.
“Having a claims person involved with policy wording before a loss is of the utmost importance,” Rokicki said, “because that claims executive can best explain to the insured what they can expect from policy coverage prior to any loss, eliminating the frustration of interpreting today’s policy wording.”
As well, having an engineer and underwriter working on the team with dual accountability and responsibility can be invaluable, often leading to innovative coverage solutions for clients as a result of close collaboration.
According to Rokicki, the best time to have this collaborative discussion is at the mid-point in a policy year. For a property policy that runs from July 1 through June 30, for example, the meeting should happen in December or January. If underwriters try to discuss policy-wording concerns during the renewal period on their own, the process tends to get overshadowed by the negotiations centered around premiums.
After a loss occurs is not the best time to find out everyone was thinking differently about the coverage,” he said.
Changes in both the energy and insurance markets require a new approach to minimizing risk. A more holistic, less siloed approach is called for in today’s climate. Carriers need to conduct more complex analysis across multiple measures and have in-depth conversations with brokers and insureds to create a better understanding and collectively develop the best solutions. LIU’s integrated business approach utilizing underwriters, engineers and claims executives provides a solid platform for realizing success in this new and ever-changing energy environment.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty International Underwriters. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.