‘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.”
Helping Investment Advisers Hurdle New “Customer First” Government Regulation
This spring, the Department of Labor (DOL) rolled out a set of rule changes likely to raise issues for advisers managing their customers’ retirement investment accounts. In an already challenging compliance environment, the new regulation will push financial advisory firms to adapt their business models to adhere to a higher standard while staying profitable.
The new proposal mandates a fiduciary standard that requires advisers to place a client’s best interests before their own when recommending investments, rather than adhering to a more lenient suitability standard. In addition to increasing compliance costs, this standard also ups the liability risk for advisers.
The rule changes will also disrupt the traditional broker-dealer model by pressuring firms to do away with commissions and move instead to fee-based compensation. Fee-based models remove the incentive to recommend high-cost investments to clients when less expensive, comparable options exist.
“Broker-dealers currently follow a sales distribution model, and the concern driving this shift in compensation structure is that IRAs have been suffering because of the commission factor,” said Richard Haran, who oversees the Financial Institutions book of business for Liberty International Underwriters. “Overall, the fiduciary standard is more difficult to comply with than a suitability standard, and the fee-based model could make it harder to do so in an economical way. Broker dealers may have to change the way they do business.”
As a consequence of the new DOL regulation, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will be forced to respond with its own fiduciary standard which will tighten up their regulations to even the playing field and create consistency for customers seeking investment management.
Because the SEC relies on securities law while the DOL takes guidance from ERISA, there will undoubtedly be nuances between the two new standards, creating compliance confusion for both Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs)and broker-dealers.
To ensure they adhere to the new structure, “we could see more broker-dealers become RIAs or get dually registered, since advisers already follow a fee-based compensation model,” Haran said. “The result is that there will be likely more RIAs after the regulation passes.”
But RIAs have their own set of challenges awaiting them. The SEC announced it would beef up oversight of investment advisors with more frequent examinations, which historically were few and far between.
“Examiners will focus on individual investments deemed very risky,” said Melanie Rivera, Financial Institutions Underwriter for LIU. “They’ll also be looking more closely at cyber security, as RIAs control private customer information like Social Security numbers and account numbers.”
Demand for Cover
In the face of regulatory uncertainty and increased scrutiny from the SEC, investment managers will need to be sure they have coverage to safeguard them from any oversight or failure to comply exactly with the new standards.
In collaboration with claims experts, underwriters, legal counsel and outside brokers, Liberty International Underwriters revamped older forms for investment adviser professional liability and condensed them into a single form that addresses emerging compliance needs.
The new form for investment management solutions pulls together seven coverages:
- Investment Adviser E&O, including a cyber sub-limit
- Investment Advisers D&O
- Mutual Funds D&O and E&O
- Hedge Fund D&O and E&O
- Employment Practices Liability
- Fiduciary Liability
- Service Providers D&O
“A comprehensive solution, like the revamped form provides, will help advisers navigate the new regulatory environment,” Rivera said. “It’s a one-stop shop, allowing clients to bind coverage more efficiently and provide peace of mind.”
Ahead of the Curve
The new form demonstrates how LIU’s best-in class expertise lends itself to the collaborative and innovative approach necessary to anticipate trends and address emerging needs in the marketplace.
“Seeing the pending regulation, we worked internally to assess what the effect would be on our adviser clients, and how we could respond to make the transition as easy as possible,” Haran said. “We believe the new form will not only meet the increased demand for coverage, but actually creates a better product with the introduction of cyber sublimits, which are built into the investment adviser E&O policy.”
The combined form also considers another potential need: cost of correction coverage. Complying with a fiduciary standard could increase the need for this type of cover, which is not currently offered on a consistent basis. LIU’s form will offer cost of correction coverage on a sublimited basis by endorsement.
“We’ve tried to cross product lines and not stay siloed,” Haran said. “Our clients are facing new risks, in a new regulatory environment, and they need a tailored approach. LIU’s history of collaboration and innovation demonstrates that we can provide unique solutions to meet their needs.”
For more information about Liberty International Underwriters’ products for investment managers, visit www.LIU-USA.com.
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.