‘Shadow’ Transactions Raising More Risks
U.S. life insurers transferred more than $360 billion worth of liabilities to unrated affiliate reinsurers in less regulated onshore and offshore jurisdictions last year to reduce their taxes and capital requirements, a new report by two leading academics revealed.
The study into reinsurance agreements for U.S. life insurers between 2002 and 2012, published by Ralph Koijen, a professor at the London Business School, and Motohiro Yogo of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, found that insurers have been put at substantial financial risk by an “unprecedented rise” in this “shadow insurance” over the past 10 years.
The increase in shadow insurance has resulted in operating companies moving their risks to off-balance-sheet reinsurers in domiciles such as Bermuda, Barbados, Vermont and South Carolina, after regulatory changes that increased reserve requirements for life insurers were introduced a decade ago.
Koijen told Risk & Insurance®: “There has been a massive trend towards these shadow entities. For every dollar of insurance that is sold in the U.S., it used to be the case 10 years ago that two cents went to the shadow entity, but now it is more like 30 cents.
“This means a major trade-off for the industry. On the one hand, the system gets riskier as a result of shadow insurance, with a significant decrease in risk-based capital and greater expected losses if the reinsurer’s liabilities were to be transferred back to the operating company.
“But the flipside is that the removal of shadow insurance would result in a price increase and a decline in the quantity of insurance sold, very similar to the effect of shutting down the shadow banking system,” he said.
U.S. regulators have become increasingly concerned about the increase in shadow insurance.
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has formed a Captives and Special Purpose Vehicle Use Subgroup to assess the tightening of rules for captives and special purpose vehicles used by U.S. insurers.
Separately, New York State’s Superintendent of Financial Services Ben Lawsky has called for a moratorium on future approval of shadow insurance pending further investigation.
According to figures released by the NAIC, the report found that shadow insurance increased 33-fold from $11 billion in 2002 to $363 billion in 2012.
Although the shift toward shadow insurance has enabled many U.S. life insurers to set aside less reserve for future claims, it has also left companies vulnerable to a sudden spike in claims, the study revealed.
Furthermore, the report estimated that, on average, in the absence of shadow insurance, an insurer’s risk-based capital would fall dramatically as the amount of capital required by the operating company to support the additional liabilities would significantly rise.
Such a decline would be equivalent to a credit ratings drop of three notches and would imply an increase in additional expected losses of at least $15.7 billion for the industry, a cost ultimately borne by state taxpayers and other companies through state guaranty funds, the study said.
The report concluded: “We find that shadow insurance adds a tremendous amount of financial risk for the companies involved, which is not reflected in their ratings. When we adjust measures of financial risk for shadow insurance, risk-based capital drops by 49 percentage points for the median company, which is equivalent to three rating notches. Hence, default probabilities are likely to be higher than what may be inferred from their reported ratings.
“Our adjustments for shadow insurance implies an increase in the expected asset shortfall of $19 billion for the life insurance industry, which is a cost to the state guaranty funds (and ultimately taxpayers).”
However, the study also found that the removal of shadow insurance would result in a 1.8 percent rise in marginal costs on average for each company and a $1.4 billion decrease in the amount of annual insurance underwritten on aggregate, based on structural models.
Koijen concluded that the only “obvious rationale” for an increase in shadow insurance schemes was to “circumvent regulation.”
He said the surge in affiliated life and annuity reinsurance over the last decade pointed to capital and tax management as the main driver behind the use of shadow insurance.
American Council of Life Insurers spokesman Jack Dolan said: “Lack of transparency is a theme of this report. But it is important to recognize that captive reinsurance transactions are not only legitimate and safe but a carefully regulated means of fully satisfying required reserve requirements.
“At the same time, life insurers support added transparency and disclosure, which would dispel the notion that these transactions are ‘shadow’ arrangements. The states are currently working constructively to assure that captive transactions are appropriately disclosed and handled uniformly from state to state.”
Brad Kading, president and executive director of the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers, concurred: “In group supervision, the impact of legal entity and affiliate transactions needs to be transparent and understood by the group supervisor and members of the regulatory college.”
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.”
Buyers Beware: General Liability Outlook May be Shifting
The soothing drumbeat of “excess capital” and “soft market” to describe the general liability (GL) market is a familiar sound for brokers and buyers. Emerging GL trends, however, suggest the calm may not last.
Increasing severity of GL claims may hit some sectors like a light rain at first, if they have not already, but they could quickly feel like a pelting thunderstorm in others. A number of factors could contribute to the potential jump in GL prices for certain industry segments or exposures, possibly creating “micro” or niche hard markets in the short-term, and maybe even turning the broader market over the longer-term.
“There are trends we’re seeing that will play out slowly. Industries that carry more general liability exposure will and have been hit first and hardest, but it won’t apply across the board initially,” said David Perez, Senior Vice President and Chief Underwriting Officer, for Liberty Mutual Insurance’s National Insurance Specialty operation. “There is ample capital in the market today, which allows a poor performing account to move its policy frequently from carrier to carrier. Poorer performing classes, however, will likely face increased pricing for GL policies and a reduction in capacity.”
The good news for buyers is that they can take action today to lessen the impact these trends and the evolving market may have on their GL programs.
David Perez on the state of the GL market.
Medical and Litigation Trends Drive Severity
One factor increasing claim severity is the rising cost of health care, driven both by greater demand and by medical inflation that is growing faster than the Consumer Price index.
The impact of rising medical costs on commercial auto is well-known. Businesses with heavy transportation exposures are finding it more difficult to obtain coverage, or are paying more for it.
That same trend will impact general liability, just on a slower and more fragmented basis.
“In light of these trends, brokers and buyers should seek to understand how effectively their current or potential insurers defend GL claims, particular in using evidence-based medicine to assess and value the medical portion of a claim, and how they can provide necessary care to claimants while still helping clients control their total cost of risk.”
— David Perez, Senior Vice President & Chief Underwriting Officer, National Insurance Specialty, Liberty Mutual Insurance
“It takes longer for medical inflation to register through the tort system in general liability than it does in auto liability (AL) because auto claims are generally resolved more quickly,” Perez said. “But the same factors affecting severity in AL also exist in GL and as a result, it’s foreseeable that we will not only see similar severity trends in GL, but they may in fact be worse than we’ve seen in commercial auto.”
Industries with greater exposure to severity in general liability claims should be the first wave of companies to notice the impact of medical inflation.
“Medical inflation will drive up costs across the board, but sectors like construction and product manufacturing have a higher relative exposure for personal injury lawsuits.”
The impact of medical inflation on the GL market.
Beyond medical inflation, two litigation trends are increasing GL damages. First, plaintiffs’ lawyers are seeking to migrate the use of life care plans—traditionally employed only for truly catastrophic injuries—to more routine claims. Perez recalled one claimant with a broken thumb and torn ligaments who sought as much as $1 million in care for the injury for the rest of his life.
Second, the number of allegations of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in GL claims is growing. It can be difficult to predict TBI outcomes initially and poor outcomes can be expensive and long tailed.
“In light of these trends, brokers and buyers should seek to understand how effectively their current or potential insurers defend GL claims, particular in using evidence-based medicine to assess and value the medical portion of a claim, and how they can provide necessary care to claimants while still helping clients control their total cost of risk,” notes Perez.
Changing Legal Landscape
Medical inflation and litigation trends are not the only issues impacting general liability.
Unanticipated changes in court interpretations of policy language can throw unexpected pressure on GL pricing and capacity.
Courts sometimes issue rulings interpreting policy language in a manner that expands coverage well beyond the underwriter’s original intent. Such opinions may sometimes have a retroactive effect, resulting in an immediate impact on not only open, but also closed cases in some circumstances.
Shifts in the Marketplace
In addition to facing price increases, GL brokers and buyers will be challenged by slightly shrinking capacity due to consolidation and repositioning among carriers in the marketplace. “Some major carriers have scaled back their GL writing, resulting in a migration of experienced senior management. As these executives leave, they take their GL expertise and relationships with them, resulting in fewer market leaders and less innovation,” Perez said.
“Additionally, there are new carriers coming into the business that may not have the historical GL loss data to proactively identify trends or the financial strength and experience to effectively service their GL customers and brokers. Both trends make it important for brokers and buyers to work with an insurer that is committed to the GL market and has the understanding and resources to help better manage risks impacting customers.”
Last year saw a high level of mergers and acquisitions in the insurance industry. Buyers should take advantage of that disruption to re-evaluate their needs and whether their insurers are meeting them. Or better yet, anticipating them.
What’s a Buyer to Do?
Buyers—and their brokers— should look to partner with insurers that can spot emerging trends and offer creative solutions to address them proactively.
What should buyers and brokers do, given the trends facing the GL market?
“Brokers and buyers should value insurers that have not only durability and a long history in the general liability business, but also a strong risk management infrastructure,” Perez said. “Your insurer should be able to help you mitigate your specific risks, and complement that with coverage that works for you.”
Beyond robust GL claims and legal management, Liberty Mutual also provides access to one of the insurance industry’s largest risk control departments to help improve safety and mitigate both claim frequency and severity.
In addition, notes Perez, “Even if a company has a less than optimal loss history in general liability, there can be options to provide adequate coverage for that company. The key is to partner with an insurer that has the best-in-class expertise, creativity, and flexibility to make it happen.”
By working closely with their insurers to understand trends and their potential impacts, brokers and buyers can better prepare for the possible GL storm on the horizon.
To learn more about Liberty Mutual’s general liability offering, visit https://business.libertymutualgroup.com/business-insurance/coverages/general-liability-insurance-policy.
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.