‘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.”
Hot Hacks That Leave You Cold
Thousands of dollars lost at the blink of an eye, and systems shut down for weeks. It might sound like something out of a movie, but it’s becoming more and more of a reality thanks to modern hackers. As technology evolves and becomes more sophisticated, so do the occurrence of cyber breaches.
“The more we rely on technology, the more everything becomes interconnected,” said Jackie Lee, associate vice president, Cyber Liability at Nationwide. “We are in an age where our car is a giant computer, and we can turn on our air conditioners with our phones. Everyone holds data. It’s everywhere.”
Phishing Out Fraud
According to Lee, phishing is on the rise as one of the most common forms of cyber attacks. What used to be easy to identify as fraudulent has become harder to distinguish. Gone are the days of the emails from the Nigerian prince, which have been replaced with much more sophisticated—and tricky—techniques that could extort millions.
“A typical phishing email is much more legitimate and plausible,” Lee said. “It could be an email appearing to be from human resources at annual benefits enrollment or it could be a seemingly authentic message from the CFO asking to release an invoice.”
According to Lee, the root of phishing is behavior and analytics. “Hackers can pick out so much from a person’s behavior, whether it’s a key word in an engagement survey or certain times when they are logging onto VPN.”
On the flip side, behavior also helps determine the best course of action to prevent phishing.
“When we send an exercise email to test how associates respond to phishing, we monitor who has clicked the first round, then a second round,” she said. “We look at repeat offenders and also determine if there is one exercise that is more susceptible. Once we understand that, we can take the right steps to make sure employees are trained to be more aware and recognize a potentially fraudulent email.”
Lee stressed that phishing can affect employees at all levels.
“When the exercise is sent out, we find that 20 percent of the opens are from employees at the executive level,” she said. “It’s just as important they are taking the right steps to ensure they are practicing what they are preaching.”
Locking Down Ransomware
Another hot hacking ploy is ransomware, a type of property-related cyber attack that prevents or limits users from accessing their system unless a ransom is paid. The average ransom request for a business is around $10,000. According to the FBI, there were 2,400 ransomware complaints in 2015, resulting in total estimated losses of more than $24 million. These threats are expected to increase by 300% this year alone.
“These events are happening, and businesses aren’t reporting them,” Lee said.
In the last five years, government entities saw the largest amount of ransomware attacks. Lee added that another popular target is hospitals.
After a recent cyber attack, a hospital in Los Angeles was without its crucial computer programs until it paid the hackers $17,000 to restore its systems.
Lee said there is beginning to be more industry-wide awareness around ransomware, and many healthcare organizations are starting to buy cyber insurance and are taking steps to safeguard their electronic files.
“A hospital holds an enormous amount of data, but there is so much more at stake than just the computer systems,” Lee said. “All their medical systems are technology-based. To lose those would be catastrophic.”
And though not all situations are life-or-death, Lee does emphasize that any kind of property loss could be crippling. “On a granular scale, you look at everything from your car to your security system. All data storage points could be controlled and compromised at some point.”
The Future of Cyber Liability
According to Lee, the Cyber product, which is still in its infancy, is poised to affect every line of business. She foresees underwriting offering more expertise in crime and becoming more segmented into areas of engineering, property, and automotive to address ongoing growing concerns.”
“Cyber coverage will become more than a one-dimensional product,” she said. “I see a large gap in coverage. Consistency is evolving, and as technology evolves, we are beginning to touch other lines. It’s no longer about if a breach will happen. It’s when.”
About Nationwide’s Cyber Solutions
Nationwide’s cyber liability coverage includes a service-based solution that helps mitigate losses. Whether it’s loss prevention resources, breach response and remediation expertise, or an experienced claim team, Nationwide’s comprehensive package of services will complement and enhance an organization’s cyber risk profile.
Nationwide currently offers up to $15 million in limits for Network Security, Data Privacy, Technology E&O, and First Party Business Interruption.
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This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Nationwide. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.