‘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.”
Managing Construction’s True Risk Exposure
When it comes to the construction industry, the path to success is never easy.
After a long, deep recession of historic proportions, the sector is finally on the mend. But as opportunities to win new projects grow, experience shows that more contractors go out of business during a recovery than during a recession.
Skilled labor shortages, legal rulings in various states that push construction defects onto general liability policies, and New York state’s labor laws that assign full liability to project owners and contractors for falls from elevations that injure workers are just some of the established issues that are making it ever harder for firms to succeed.
And now, there are new emerging risks, such as the potential for more expensive capital, should the Federal Reserve increase its rates. This would tighten already stressed margins, perhaps making it harder for contractors and project owners to invest in safety and quality assurance, and raising the cost of treating injured workers.
Liberty Mutual’s Doug Cauti reviews the top three risks facing contractors and project owners.
“Our customers are very clear about the challenges they are facing in the market,” said Doug Cauti, the Boston-based chief underwriting officer for Liberty Mutual’s construction practice.
“Now more than ever, construction risk buyers – and the brokers who serve them – are leveraging our team’s deep expertise to find solutions for complicated risks. This goes way beyond what many consider the traditional role of an insurance carrier.”
Other leading risks facing contractors and project owners.
Given the current risk environment, firms that simply seek out the cheapest coverage could leave themselves exposed to these emerging risks. And that could result in them becoming just another failed statistic.
So what is the best way to approach your risk management program?
Understanding the Emerging Picture
Construction firms have been dealing with multiple challenges over the last several years. Now, several new emerging risks could further complicate the business.
After an extended period of historically low interest rates, the Federal Reserve is indicating that rates could rise in late 2015 or sometime in 2016. That would surely impact construction firms’ cost of capital.
“At the end of the day, an increased cost of capital is going to impact many construction firm’s margins, which are already thin,” Cauti said.
“The trickle-down effect is that less money may be available for other operational activities, including safety and quality programs. Firms may need to underbid and/or place low bids just to get jobs and keep the cash flow going,” Cauti said.
“Now more than ever, construction risk buyers – and the brokers who serve them – are leveraging our team’s deep expertise to find solutions for complicated risks.”
— Doug Cauti, Chief Underwriting Officer, Liberty Mutual National Insurance Specialty Construction
“Experience shows us that shortcuts in safety and quality often lead to more construction defect claims, general liability claims and workers’ compensation claims,” Cauti said.
Currently, the frequency of worker injuries is down on a national basis but the severity of injuries is on the rise. If those frequencies start creeping up due to less robust safety programs, the costs could grow fast.
And if this possible trend is not cause enough for concern, the growing costs associated with medical care should have the attention of all risk managers.
“Five years ago medical costs represented 56 percent of a claim,” said Jack Probolus, a Boston-based manager of construction risk financing programs for Liberty Mutual.
“By 2020, that medical cost will likely grow to 76 percent of an injured worker’s claim, according to industry experts,” Probolus said.
Rising interest rates and rising medical costs could form a perfect storm.
Focusing on the Total Cost of Risk
For risk managers, the approach they utilize to mitigate the myriad of existing and emerging risks is more important than ever. The ideal insurance partner will be one that can integrate claims management, quality assurance and loss control solutions to better manage the total cost of construction risk, and do it for the long term.
Liberty Mutual’s Doug Cauti reviews the partnership between buyers, brokers and insureds that helps better manage the total cost of insurance.
In the case of rising medical costs, that means using claims management tools and workflows that help eliminate the runaway expense of things such as duplicate billings, inappropriate prescriptions for powerful painkillers, and over-utilization of costly medical procedures.
“We’re committed to making sure that the client isn’t burdened in unnecessary costs, while working to ensure that injured employees return to productive lives in the best possible health,” Probolus said.
The right partner will also have the construction industry expertise and the willingness to work with a project owner or contractor from the very beginning of a project. That enables them to analyze risk on the front end and devise the best risk management program for the project or contractor, thereby protecting the policyholder’s vulnerable margins.
“We want to be there from the very beginning,” Liberty Mutual’s Cauti said.
“This isn’t merely a transaction with us,” he added. “It’s a partnership that extends for years, from binding coverage, through the life of the project and deeper as claims come in and are resolved over time,” he said.
In other words, it’s a relationship focused on value.
Today’s construction insurance market – with an abundance of capacity – can lead to new carriers entering the market and/or insurers seeking to gain market share by underpricing policies.
“We see it all the time,” Liberty Mutual’s Cauti said.
Where does this leave insureds? Frustrated at pricing instability, or by the need to find a new carrier. And wiser, having learned the wisdom of focusing on value, that is the ability to better control the total cost of risk.
“Premium is always important,” notes Liberty Mutual’s Cauti. “But smart buyers also understand the importance of value, the ability of an insurer to partner with a buyer and their broker to develop a custom blend of coverages and services that better protect a project’s or contractor’s bottom line and reputation. This is the approach our dedicated construction practice takes.
Why Liberty Mutual?
For more information on how Liberty Mutual Insurance can help assess your construction risk exposure, contact your broker or Doug Cauti at [email protected].
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.