Perceptions of Risk
Decisions we make today will shape our future. It is our experience that guides us. It is our ability to recognize the influences on each decision we make that allows us to make better decisions as we mature. Or so we hope.
The difficulty with decision-making is that our environment and influences are ever changing. Expectations are always changing. As such, leadership is difficult. Leaders must be confident enough to make decisions as they humbly seek wisdom and historical perspective from those with alternative views, experiences and understanding. As we might say, those who remember the past are less condemned to repeat it.
As a risk manager, I rely on experiential data. As I conduct strategic risk assessments, I purposely look for known threats or symptoms that may defeat a proposed decision or path. I look for flawed strategies that have caused failure in similar situations in the past. That approach is part of my craft. But is it reliable?
The insurance industry has plenty of historical failures to study. Unfortunately, we can only discuss failures that have already occurred. We cannot foresee the failures yet to play out.
The mortgage industry, specifically the subprime mortgage industry in 2006 and 2007, is an excellent example of how mimicking the success of many subprime lenders of years past looked like a fruitful and profitable venture. Many banks adopted the strategy. And why shouldn’t they have? Everyone was doing it. Risk? What risk?
But clearly the measure of risk in that situation was distorted. Huge risk existed, but at the time it was perceived that the risk of not entering the market was far greater than the risk of any financial disaster. Clearly, this turned out to be a disastrous gamble.
In the years following the meltdown, the entire banking system froze. This reaction was almost equally catastrophic. No one lent anything to anyone, at any rate, for any time, for any reason. This response was a disaster in of itself.
Except for a courageous and wise few, the opportunity to profit was missed. Decisions were made in a dangerously risk-averse environment fueled by some leaders’ loss of faith in the banking system. Those risk-averse leaders failed to seize a tremendous opportunity to make money.
During this time, I observed two environments: An environment of excessive confidence, and one of deep naiveté coupled with excessive fear and paralysis. It was a dramatic spread.
Leaders who kept their perspective and passed up the easy money maintained the ability to capitalize on tremendous opportunities after the crash. Those who stayed their course, were true to their values and recognized the distortions in the markets were able to lead their organizations through the disaster and come out stronger than their peers.
These leaders, we must cherish and embrace. The leaders who were paralyzed by fear are still immobilized or likely now unemployed.
But we shouldn’t be too hard on those leaders who only now may understand their failures.
Any point in time never seems historic when you are living through it. As we enter or exit the next realm of decision-making, I hope we are able to recognize the distortions and the opportunities, and sidestep the decisions that may cause us peril.
Coping with Cancellations
Airlines typically can offset revenue losses for cancellations due to bad weather either by saving on fuel and salary costs or rerouting passengers on other flights, but this year’s revenue losses from the worst winter storm season in years might be too much for traditional measures.
At least one broker said the time may be right for airlines to consider crafting custom insurance programs to account for such devastating seasons.
For a good part of the country, including many parts of the Southeast, snow and ice storms have wreaked havoc on flight cancellations, with a mid-February storm being the worst of all. On Feb. 13, a snowstorm from Virginia to Maine caused airlines to scrub 7,561 U.S. flights, more than the 7,400 cancelled flights due to Hurricane Sandy, according to MasFlight, industry data tracker based in Bethesda, Md.
Roughly 100,000 flights have been canceled since Dec. 1, MasFlight said.
Just United, alone, the world’s second-largest airline, reported that it had cancelled 22,500 flights in January and February, 2014, according to Bloomberg. The airline’s completed regional flights was 87.1 percent, which was “an extraordinarily low level,” and almost 9 percentage points below its mainline operations, it reported.
And another potentially heavy snowfall was forecast for last weekend, from California to New England.
The sheer amount of cancellations this winter are likely straining airlines’ bottom lines, said Katie Connell, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for major U.S. airline companies.
“The airline industry’s fixed costs are high, therefore the majority of operating costs will still be incurred by airlines, even for canceled flights,” Connell wrote in an email. “If a flight is canceled due to weather, the only significant cost that the airline avoids is fuel; otherwise, it must still pay ownership costs for aircraft and ground equipment, maintenance costs and overhead and most crew costs. Extended storms and other sources of irregular operations are clear reminders of the industry’s operational and financial vulnerability to factors outside its control.”
Bob Mann, an independent airline analyst and consultant who is principal of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y., said that two-thirds of costs — fuel and labor — are short-term variable costs, but that fixed charges are “unfortunately incurred.” Airlines just typically absorb those costs.
“I am not aware of any airline that has considered taking out business interruption insurance for weather-related disruptions; it is simply a part of the business,” Mann said.
Chuck Cederroth, managing director at Aon Risk Solutions’ aviation practice, said carriers would probably not want to insure airlines against cancellations because airlines have control over whether a flight will be canceled, particularly if they don’t want to risk being fined up to $27,500 for each passenger by the Federal Aviation Administration when passengers are stuck on a tarmac for hours.
“How could an insurance product work when the insured is the one who controls the trigger?” Cederroth asked. “I think it would be a product that insurance companies would probably have a hard time providing.”
But Brad Meinhardt, U.S. aviation practice leader, for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., said now may be the best time for airlines — and insurance carriers — to think about crafting a specialized insurance program to cover fluke years like this one.
“I would be stunned if this subject hasn’t made its way up into the C-suites of major and mid-sized airlines,” Meinhardt said. “When these events happen, people tend to look over their shoulder and ask if there is a solution for such events.”
Airlines often hedge losses from unknown variables such as varying fuel costs or interest rate fluctuations using derivatives, but those tools may not be enough for severe winters such as this year’s, he said. While products like business interruption insurance may not be used for airlines, they could look at weather-related insurance products that have very specific triggers.
For example, airlines could designate a period of time for such a “tough winter policy,” say from the period of November to March, in which they can manage cancellations due to 10 days of heavy snowfall, Meinhardt said. That amount could be designated their retention in such a policy, and anything in excess of the designated snowfall days could be a defined benefit that a carrier could pay if the policy is triggered. Possibly, the trigger would be inches of snowfall. “Custom solutions are the idea,” he said.
“Airlines are not likely buying any of these types of products now, but I think there’s probably some thinking along those lines right now as many might have to take losses as write-downs on their quarterly earnings and hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “There probably needs to be one airline making a trailblazing action on an insurance or derivative product — something that gets people talking about how to hedge against those losses in the future.”
Passion for the Prize
In his 1990 book, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, Pulitzer Prize winning author Daniel Yergin documented the passion that drove oil exploration from the first oil well sunk in Titusville, Penn. by Col. Edwin Drake in 1859, to the multinational crusades that enriched Saudi Arabia 100 years later.
Even with the recent decline in crude oil prices, the quest for oil and its sister substance, natural gas, is as fevered now as it was in 1859.
While lower product prices are causing some upstream oil and gas companies to cut back on exploration and production, they create opportunities for others. In fact, for many midstream oil and gas companies, lower prices create an opportunity to buy low, store product, and then sell high when the crude and gas markets rebound.
The current record supply of domestic crude oil and gas largely results from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing methods, which make it practical to extract product in formerly played-out or untapped formations, from the Panhandle to the Bakken.
But these technologies — and the current market they helped create — require underwriters that are as passionate, committed and knowledgeable about energy risk as the oil and gas explorers they insure.
Liability fears and incessant press coverage — from the Denton fracking ban to the Heckmann verdict — may cause some underwriters to regard fracking and horizontal drilling with a suppressed appetite. Other carriers, keen to generate premium revenue despite their limited industry knowledge, may try to buy their way into this high-stakes game with soft pricing.
For Matt Waters, the chief underwriting officer of Liberty Mutual Commercial Insurance Specialty – Energy, this is the time to employ a deep underwriting expertise to embrace the current energy market and extraction methods responsibly and profitably.
“In the oil and gas business right now, you have to have risk solutions for the new market, fracking and horizontal drilling, and it can’t be avoidance,” Waters said.
Matt Waters, chief underwriting officer of Liberty Mutual Commercial Insurance Specialty – Energy, reviews some risk management best practices for fracking and horizontal drilling.
Waters’ group underwrites upstream energy risks — those involved in all phases of onshore exploration and production of crude oil and natural gas from wells sunk into the earth — and midstream energy risks, those that involve the distribution or transportation of oil and gas to processing plants, refineries and consumers.
Risk in Motion
Seven to eight years ago, the technologies to horizontally drill and use fluids to fracture shale formations were barely in play. Now they are well established and have changed the domestic energy market, and consequently risk management for energy companies.
One of those changes is in the area of commercial auto and related coverages.
Fracking and horizontal drilling have dramatically altered oil and gas production, significantly increasing the number of vehicle trips to production and exploration sites. The new technologies require vehicles move water for drilling fluids and fracking, remove these fluids once they are used, bring hundreds of tons of chemicals and proppants, and transport all the specialty equipment required for these extraction methods.
The increase in vehicle use comes at a time when professional drivers, especially those with energy skills, are in short supply. The unfortunate result is more accidents.
“In the oil and gas business right now, you have to have risk solutions for the new market, fracking and horizontal drilling, and it can’t be avoidance.”
— Matt Waters, chief underwriting officer, Liberty Mutual Commercial Insurance Specialty – Energy
For example, in Pennsylvania, home to the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, overall traffic fatalities across the state are down 19 percent, according to a recent analysis by the Associated Press. But in those Pennsylvania counties where natural gas and oil is being sought, the frequency of traffic fatalities is up 4 percent.
Increasing traffic volume and accidents is also driving frequency trends in workers compensation and general liability.
In the assessment and transfer of upstream and midstream energy risks, however, there simply isn’t enough claims history in the Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania or the Bakken formation in North Dakota for underwriters to rely on data to price environmental, general and third-party liability risks.
That’s where Liberty Mutual’s commitment, experience and ability to innovate come in. Liberty Mutual was the first carrier to put together a hydraulic fracking risk assessment that gives companies using this extraction method a blueprint to help protect against litigation down the road.
Liberty Mutual insures both lease operators and the contractors essential to extracting hydrocarbons. As in many underwriting areas, the name of the game is clarity around what the risk is, and who owns it.
When considering fracking contractors, Waters and his team work to make sure that any “down hole” risks, be that potential seismic activity, or the migration of methane into water tables, is born by the lease holder.
For the lease holders, Waters and his team of specialty underwriters recommend their clients hold both “sudden and accidental” pollution coverage — to protect against quick and clear accidental spills — and a stand-alone pollution policy, which covers more gradual exposure that unfolds over a much longer period of time, such as methane leaking into drinking water supplies.
Those are two different distinct coverages, both of which a lease holder needs.
Matt Waters discusses the need for stand-alone environmental coverage.
The Energy Cycle
Domestic oil and gas production has expanded so drastically in the past five years that the United States could now become a significant energy exporter. Billions of dollars are being invested to build pipelines, liquid natural gas processing plants and export terminals along our coasts.
While managing risk for energy companies requires deep expertise, developing insurance programs for pipeline and other energy-related construction projects demands even more experience. Such programs must manage and mitigate both construction and operation risks.
Matt Waters discusses future growth for midstream oil and gas companies.
In the short-term, domestic gas and oil production is being curtailed some as fuel prices have recently plummeted due to oversupply. In the long-term, those domestic prices are likely to go back up again, particularly if legislation allows the fuel harvested in the United States to be exported to energy deficient Europe.
Waters and his underwriting team are in this energy game for the long haul — with some customers being with the operation for more than 25 years — and have industry-leading tools to play in it.
Beyond Liberty Mutual’s hydraulic fracturing risk assessment sheet, Waters’ area created a commercial driver scorecard to help its midstream and upstream clients select and manage drivers, which are in such great demand in the industry. The safety and skill of those drivers play a big part in preventing commercial auto claims, Waters said.
Liberty Mutual’s commitment to the energy market is also seen in Waters sending every member of his underwriting team to the petroleum engineering program at the University of Texas and hiring underwriters that are passionate about this industry.
Matt Waters explains how his area can add value to oil and gas companies and their insurance brokers and agents.
For Waters, politics and the trends of the moment have little place in his long-term thinking.
“We’re committed to this business and to deeply understanding how to best manage its risks, and we have been for a long time,” Waters said.
And that holds true for the latest extraction technologies.
“We’ve had success writing fracking contractors and horizontal drillers, helping them better manage the total cost of risk,” Waters said.
To learn more about how Liberty Mutual Insurance can meet your upstream and midstream energy coverage needs, contact your broker, or Matt Waters at email@example.com.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty Mutual Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.