‘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.”
7 Questions to Answer before Choosing a Captive Insurance Domicile
Risk managers: Do your due diligence!
It seems as if every state in America, as well as many offshore locations, believes that they can pass captive legislation and declare, “We are open for business!”
In fact, nearly 40 states and dozens of offshore locations have enabling captive insurance legislation to do just that.
With so many choices how do you decide who is experienced enough to support the myriad of fiscal and regulatory requirements needed to ensure the long term success of your captive insurance company?
“There are certainly a lot of choices,” said Mike Meehan, a consultant with Milliman, an actuarial firm based out of Boston, Massachusetts, “but not all domiciles are created equal.”
Among the crowd, there are several long-standing domiciles that offer the legislative, regulatory and infrastructure support that makes captive ownership not only a successful risk management tool but also an efficient entity to manage and operate.
Selecting a domicile depends on many factors, but answering these seven questions will help focus your selection process on the domiciles that best fit your needs.
1. Is the domicile stable, proven and committed to the industry for the long term?
The more economic impact that the captive industry has on the domicile, the more likely it is that captives will receive ongoing regulatory and legislative support. The insurance industry moves very quickly and a domicile needs to be constantly adapting to stay up to date. How long has the domicile been operating and have they been consistent in their activity over the long term?
The number of active captive licenses, amount of gross premium written in a domicile and the tax revenue and fees collected can indicate how important the industry is to the jurisdiction’s bottom line. The strength of the infrastructure and the number of jobs created by the captive industry are also very relevant to a domicile’s commitment.
“It needs to be a win – win situation between the captives and the jurisdiction because if not, the domicile is often not committed for the long term,” said Dan Kusalia, Partner with Crowe Hortwath LLP focused on insurance company tax.
Vermont, for example, has been licensing captives since 1981 and had 589 active captives at the end of 2015, making it the largest domestic domicile and third largest in the world. Its captive insurance companies wrote over $25 billion in gross written premiums. The Vermont State Legislature actively supports an industry that creates significant tax revenue, jobs and tourist activity.
2. Are the domicile’s captives made up of your peer group?
The demographics of a domicile’s captive companies also indicate how well-suited the location may be for a business in a particular industry sector. Making sure that the jurisdiction has experience in the type and form of captive you are looking to establish is critical.
“Be among your peer group. Look around and ask, ‘Who else is like me?’” said Meehan. “Does the jurisdiction have experience licensing and regulating the lines of coverage for other businesses in your industry sector?”
3. Are the regulators experienced and consistent?
It takes captive-specific expertise and broad experience to be an effective regulator.
A domicile with a stable and long-term, top-tier regulator is able to create a regulatory environment that is consistent and predictable. Simply put, quality regulation and longevity matter a lot.
“If domicile regulators are inexperienced, turnaround time will be slower with more hurdles. More experience means it is much easier operating your business, especially as your captive grows over time,” said Kusalia.
For example, over the past 35 years, only three leaders have helmed Vermont’s captive regulatory team. Current Deputy Commissioner David Provost is one of the longest tenured chief regulators and is a 25-year veteran in the captive insurance industry. That experienced and consistent leadership enables the domicile to not only attract quality companies, but also to provide expert guidance on the formation process and keep the daily operations running smoothly.
4. Are there world-class support services available to help manage your captive?
The quality of advisors and managers available to assist you will have a large impact on the success of your captive as well as the ease of managing the ongoing operations.
“Most companies don’t have the expertise to operate an insurance company when you form a captive, so you need to help build them a team,” Jeffrey Kenneson, a Senior Vice President with R&Q Quest Management Services Limited.
Vermont boasts arguably the most stable and experienced captive infrastructure in the world. Many of the leading captive management companies have their headquarters for their Global, North America and U.S. operations based in Vermont. Experienced options for captive managers, accountants, auditors, actuaries, bankers, lawyers, and investment professionals are abundant in Vermont.
5. Can the domicile both efficiently license and provide on-going support to your captive as it grows to cover new lines of coverage and risks?
Licensing a new captive is just the beginning. Find out how long it takes for the application to get approved and how long it takes for an approval of a plan change of your captive’s operations.
A company’s risks will inevitably change over time. The captive will need to make plan changes which can include adding new lines of business. The speed with which your domicile’s regulatory branch reviews and approves these plan changes can make a critical difference in your captive’s growth and success.
The size of a captive division’s staff plays a big role in its speed and efficiency. Complex feasibility studies and actuarial analyses required for an application can take a lot of expertise and resources. A larger regulatory team will handle those examinations more efficiently. A 35-person staff like Vermont’s, for example, typically licenses a completed application within 30 days and reviews plan changes in a matter of days.
6. What are the real costs to establishing and managing your captive?
It is important to factor in travel costs, the local costs of service providers, operating fees, and examination fees. Some states that do not impose a premium tax make up for it in high exam fees, which captives must be prepared for. Though Vermont does charge a premium tax, its examination fees are considered some of the least expensive options in the marketplace.
It is also important to consider the ease and professionalism of doing business with a domicile in the ongoing operations of your captive insurance company.
“The cost of doing business in a domicile goes far beyond simply the fixed cost required. If you can’t efficiently operate due to slow turn-around time or added obstacles, chances are you have made the wrong choice,” said Kenneson.
7. What is the domicile’s reputation?
Make sure to ask around and see what industry experts with experience in multiple domiciles have to say about the jurisdiction. Make sure the domicile isn’t known for only licensing certain types of captives that don’t fit your profile. Will it matter to your board of directors if your local newspaper decides to print a story announcing your new insurance subsidiary licensed in some far away location?
Are companies leaving the jurisdiction in high numbers and if so, why? Is the domicile actively licensing redomestications — when an existing captive moves from one domicile to another? This type of movement can often be a positive indicator to trends in a domicile. If companies of a particular size or sector are consistently moving to one state, it may indicate that the domicile has expertise particularly suited to that sector.
Redomestications made up 11 of the 33 new captives in Vermont in 2015. This trend is a positive one as it speaks to the strength of Vermont. It reinforces why Vermont is known throughout the world as the ‘Gold Standard’ of domiciles.
Asking the right questions and choosing a domicile that meets your needs both today and for the long term is vital to your overall success. As a risk manager you do not want surprises or headaches because you did not ask the right questions. Do the due diligence today so that you can ensure your peace of mind by choosing the right domicile to meet your needs.
For more information about the State of Vermont’s Captive Insurance, visit their website: VermontCaptive.com.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with the State of Vermont. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.