‘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.”
A Wake up Call for Any Company That Touches Food
It’s not easy to be in the food industry these days.
First, there is tougher regulation. On August 30, 2015, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) required companies to file planning paperwork for Preventive Controls for Human Food. The final FSMA rules take effect on August 30, 2016.
Next, increases in food recalls, some deadly, are on the rise. In early September, 9,000 cases of frozen corn were pulled from shelves after a listeria scare. A few days later, a salmonella outbreak in cucumbers imported from Mexico resulted in one death, while sickening hundreds of consumers nationwide.
Courts are getting tougher, too, as owners/executives in particularly egregious cases involving consumer deaths have been prosecuted criminally, with one receiving a recommendation for a life sentence.
Finally, advances in science – including whole-genome sequencing technology, which maps DNA of microbes to more easily pinpoint precisely where contamination occurs – can expose every player in the supply chain to potential losses and lawsuits.
“Few companies have the balance sheet or brand loyalty to survive a serious recall. Outbreaks, new regulations, prosecutions and science have made purchasing product recall and contamination insurance literally an act of survival for companies of all ages and sizes,” said Jane McCarthy, Senior Vice President of Global Crisis Management at Liberty International Underwriters (LIU), who has over 30 years of industry experience.
Working with growers, processors, manufacturers, importers, shippers, packagers, distributors, wholesalers or retailers, LIU’s policy provides indemnity to pay for losses a company might incur from a recall, including logistic expenses, lost income and access to crisis management and public relations consultants.
Legislation tightens on food-related companies
Passed in 2011, the FSMA gives the Food and Drug Administration a far more proactive weapon in the war on tainted food, as the focus shifts to prevention combined with the FDA’s newfound authority to close businesses that aren’t complying with FSMA rules and regulations.
In addition to the August 30, 2015 deadline for filing paperwork for preventive controls, as part of the law, all companies need to be registered if they do anything with food in the United States, or a company is a foreign entity bringing food into the U.S.
“It’s the law and every regulation and benchmark has to be met,” McCarthy said. “The FDA will shut someone down if they don’t think a company is handling a food product properly. With these new rules and regulations, the whole industry has to change.”
With LIU’s product contamination policy, companies have 24/7 access to pre-loss consultancy through red24, one of the world’s leading security consultants and global crisis management consultancies. For example, they’ll work with clients to best prepare them to meet the FDA’s 48-hour response deadline should a food contamination or product recall incident occur.
Costly outbreaks on the rise
According to a Wall Street Journal article, food recalls from 2012 to 2014 increased more than five times compared to the total number of recalls from the prior eight years combined. The Journal also reported that foodborne illness is often never formally reported, so about 48 million Americans, or one in six, get sick each year from food. The CDC estimates 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths from tainted food.
Food contaminations happen in two main categories: allergens (peanuts, etc.) and pathogens (bacteria). There were four listeria outbreaks in 2014 alone, compared with one in each year from 2011 to 2013. Listeria is a particularly tricky and virulent pathogen that continues to survive and blossom, even in refrigerated environments. Listeria does not impact the appearance, taste or smell of food it invades, so a company in the food industry can only confirm contamination through testing or, unfortunately, once a customer becomes ill.
“Listeria is one of the worst nightmares. Not only is it deadly, but once it gets into a plant, it’s very difficult to eradicate,” said industry veteran Meg Sutton, LIU’s Senior Claim Officer. “It sneaks into drains and crevices that you thought were clean. Attempts to clean those drains and crevices, if done improperly, can result in aerosolizing the listeria and spreading it throughout the facility. In some cases, companies are forced to shut down the plant for extended periods of time, resulting in significant business interruption and loss of revenue.”
Courts get tough on deadly cases
With the increase and severity of food contamination recalls rising, the courts are getting tougher too. The food industry was rocked last month by a recommended life sentence for the ex-CEO of a peanut manufacturing company following a multiple-felony conviction for knowingly selling tainted peanut butter that ended up killing nine people.
“The judge ended up sentencing him to 28 years in federal prison, still the harshest penalty ever in a case of food contamination. While our policy won’t cover your defense if you’ve committed a crime, the penalty is another wake up call for the food industry that executives at the highest levels will be held accountable,” McCarthy said.
Science boosts detection, transparency
By using today’s scientific methods to trace back to the source (grocery store, restaurant, wholesaler, etc.), experts can determine the production facility or farm that originated the food or food additive. They can swab the facility for DNA matches and pinpoint the contamination.
Considering those four prime drivers, it’s not surprising that interest in food product recall and contamination coverage from companies of all sizes is gaining momentum.
“We don’t want them to just buy our insurance,” McCarthy said. “We want them to be better for it with us as their partner by making sure they have the right coverage in place and improving their business from a health, safety and compliance standpoint.”
Liberty International Underwriters is the marketing name for the broker-distributed specialty lines business operations of Liberty Mutual Insurance. Certain coverage may be provided by a surplus lines insurer. Surplus lines insurers do not generally participate in state guaranty funds and insureds are therefore not protected by such funds. This literature is a summary only and does not include all terms, conditions, or exclusions of the coverage described. Please refer to the actual policy issued for complete details of coverage and exclusions.
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.