Lessons from Lloyds

There is little doubt that the financial services industry is currently facing many challenges and undergoing a generational change. The US economist Thomas Philippon opined that the finance industry over-expansion in the US means that it’s share of GDP is about 2 percentage points higher than it needs to be although he has also estimated that the unit cost of intermediation hasn’t changed significantly in recent years, despite advances in technology and the regulatory assaults upon the industry following the financial crisis.

The insurance sector has its own share of issues. Ongoing low interest rates and inflation, broader low risk premia across the capital markets, rapid technology changes such as big data and the onset of real time underwriting are just the obvious items. The Economist had an article in March that highlighted the prospective impact of data monitoring and technology on the underwriting of motor and health risks. This is another interesting post on a number of the new peer to peer business models such as Friendsurance, Bought by Many, and Guevara who are trying to disrupt the insurance sector. There can be little doubt that the insurance industry, just like other financial sectors, will be impacted by such secular trends.

However, this post is primarily focused on the short to medium term outlook for the specialty insurance and reinsurance sector. I have been asked a few of times by readers to outline what I think the next few years may look like for this sector. My views of the current market were nicely articulated by Alex Maloney, the Group CEO of Lancashire, who commented in their recent quarterly results statement as follows:

“The year to date has seen a flurry of activity on the M&A front within the industry, much of this, in my view, is driven by the need to rationalise and refocus oversized and over stretched businesses. We also continue to see a bout of initiatives and innovations in the market, the sustainability and longer term viability of which are questionable. These are symptoms of where we are in the cycle. We have seen these types of trends before and in all likelihood, will see them again.”

Lloyds of London has had a colourful past and many of its historical issues are specific to it and reflective of its own eccentric ways. However, as a proxy for the global specialty sector, particularly over the past 20 years, it provides some interesting context on the trends we find ourselves in today. Using data from Lloyds with some added flavour from my experiences, the graphic below shows the dramatic history of the market since 1950.

click to enlargeLloyds Historical Results 1950 to 2015

The impact of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 upon Lloyds illustrated a number of the fault-lines in the structure of Lloyds with the subsequent Cromer report warning on the future danger of unequal treatment between insiders (aka working Names) and “dumb” capital providers (aka all other Names). The rapid influx of such ill informed capital in the late 1970s and the 1980s laid the seeds of the market’s near destruction largely due to the tsunami of US liability claims resulting from asbestos and pollution exposures in the 1980s. These losses were exacerbated by the way Lloyds closed underwriting years to future capital providers through vastly underpriced reinsurance to close transactions and the practice of the incestuous placement of excess of loss retrocession for catastrophe losses within the market, otherwise known as the London Market Excess of Loss (LMX) spiral. There is a clever article by Joy Schwartzman from 2008 on the similarity between the LMX spiral and the financial risk transformational illusions that featured heavily in the financial crisis. Indeed, the losses from the sloppy “occurrence” liability insurance policy wordings and the tragedy of unheeded asbestos risks continued to escalate well into the 1990s, as the exhibit below from a 2013 Towers Watson update illustrates.

click to enlargeTowers Watson Asbestos Claims US P&C Insurers

What happened in Lloyds after the market settlement with Names and the creation of the “bad bank” Equitas for the 1992 and prior losses is where the lessons of Lloyds are most applicable to the market today. The graphic below shows the geographical and business split of Lloyds over the past 20 years, showing that although the underlying risk and geographical mix has changed it remains a diversified global business.

click to enlargeLloyds of London Historical Geographical & Sector Split

Released from the burden of the past after the creation of Equitas, the market quickly went on what can only be described as an orgy of indiscipline. The pricing competition was brutal in the last half of the 1990s with terms and conditions dramatically widened. Rating indices published by the market, as below, at the time show the extent of the rate decreases although the now abandoned underwriting indices published at the same time spectacularly failed to show the impact of the loosening of T&Cs.

click to enlargeLloyds of London Rating Indices 1992 to 1999

As Lloyds moved from their historical three year accounting basis in the 2000s it’s difficult to compare historical ratios from the 1990s. Notwithstanding this, I did made an attempt to reconcile combined ratios from the 1990s in the exhibit below which clearly illustrates the impact market conditions had on underwriting results.

click to enlargeLloyds of London historical combined ratio breakdown

The Franchise Board established in 2003, under the leadership of the forthright and highly effective Rolf Tolle, was created to enforce market discipline in Lloyds after the disastrous 1990s. The combined ratios from recent years illustrate the impact it has had on results although the hard market after 9/11 provided much of the impetus. The real test of the Franchise Board will be outcome of the current soft market. The rating indices published by Amlin, as below, show where rates are currently compared to the rates in 2002 (which were pushed up to a level following 2001 to recover most of the 1990s fall-off). Rating indices published by Lancashire also confirm rate decreases of 20%+ since 2012 in lines like US property catastrophe, energy and aviation.

click to enlargeLloyds of London Rating Indices 2002 to 2015

The macro-economic environment and benign claims inflation over the past several years has clearly helped loss ratios. A breakdown of the recent reserve releases, as below, show that reinsurance and property remain important sources of releases.

click to enlargeLloyds of London Reserve Release Breakdown 2004 to 2014

Better discipline and risk management have clearly played their part in the 10 year average ROE of 15% (covering 2005 to 2014 with the 2005 and 2011 catastrophe years included). The increasing overhead expenses are an issue for Lloyds, recently causing Ed Noonan of Validus to comment:

“We think that Lloyd’s remains an outstanding market for specialty business and their thrust towards international diversification is spot on from a strategic perspective. However, the costs associated with Lloyd’s and the excessive regulation in the UK are becoming significant issues, as is the amount of management and Board time spent on compliance well beyond what’s necessary to ensure a solvent and properly functioning market. Ultimately, this smothering regulatory blanket will drive business out of Lloyd’s and further the trend of placement in local markets.”

So what does all of this tell us about the next few years? Pricing and relaxed terms and conditions will inevitably have an impact, reserve releases will dry up particularly from reinsurance and property, investment returns may improve and claim inflation may increase but neither materially so, firms will focus on expense reduction whilst dealing with more intrusive regulation, and the recent run of low catastrophic losses will not last. ROEs of low double digits or high single digits does not, in my view, compensate for these risks. Longer term the market faces structural changes, in the interim it faces a struggle to deliver a sensible risk adjusted return.

The Next Wave

As part of my summer reading, I finished Paul Mason’s book “PostCapitalism: A Guide To Our Future” and although it’s an engaging read with many thoughtful insights, the concluding chapters on the future and policy implications were disappointing.

Mason points to many of the same issues as Martin Wolf did in his book (see post) as reasons for our current situation, namely the inherent instability in allowing private profit seeking banks to create fiat money, ineffective regulation (and the impossibility of effective regulation), increased financialization, global flow imbalances, aging populations, climate change and the disruptive impact of new information technologies. This 2005 paper from Gretta Krippner on the financialization of the US economy and reports from S&P (here and here) on the policy implementations of aging demographics are interesting sources cited in the book.

It is on the impact of the information technology and networks that Mason has the most interesting things to say. Mason uses Nikolai Kondratieff’s long wave theory on structural cycles of 50-60 years to frame the information technological age as the 5th wave. The graphic below tries to summarise one view of Kondratieff waves (and there are so many variations!) as per the book.

click to enlargeHistory Rhyming in Kondratieff Waves

The existence of such historical cycles are dismissed by many economists and historians, although this 2010 paper concludes there is a statistical justification in GDP data for the existence of such waves.

Mason shows his left wing disposition in arguing that a little known theory from Karl Marx’s 1858 notebook called the Fragment on Machines gives an insight into the future. The driving force of production is knowledge, Marx theorises, which is social and therefore the future system will have to develop the intellectual power of the worker, enhancing what Marx referred to as the general intellect. Mason contends that the intelligent network we are seeing unfold today fits into Marx’s theory as a proxy for the general intellect.

Mason also promotes the labour theory of value, as espoused by Marx and others, where automation is predicted to reduce the necessary labour in production and make work optional for many in a post-capitalist world. To highlight the relevance of this possibility, a 2013 study asserted that 47% of existing jobs in the US would be replaced by automation. References to Alexander Bogdanov’s sci-fi novel Red Star in 1909 may push the socialist utopia concept driven by the information age too far although Mason does give realistically harsh assessments of Soviet communism and other such misguided socialist experiments.

The network effect was first discussed by Theodore Vail of Bell Telephone 100 years ago with Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet switch, claiming in 1980 that a network’s value is the number of users squared. Mason argues that the intelligent network, whereby every person and thing (through the internet of things) is wired to the network, could even reduce the marginal cost of energy and physical goods in the same way the internet has for digital products. Many of these ideas are also present in Jeremy Rifken’s 2014 book “Zero Marginal Cost Society”. Mason further argues that the network makes it possible to organise production in a decentralized and collaborative way, utilizing neither the market nor management hierarchy, and that info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected person.

The weakest part of the book are the final chapters on possible policy responses which Mason calls Project Zero with the following aims: a zero carbon energy system, the production of products and services with near zero marginal costs, and the goal of pushing the necessary labour time close to zero for workers. Mason proposes a trial and error process using agent based modelling to be adopted by policy makers to test post-capitalism concepts. He refers to a Wiki-State, a state that acts like the business model of Wikipedia nurturing new economic forms without burdensome bureaucracies. Such a state should promote collaborative business models, suppress or socialize info-monopolies, end fractional banking (as per the Chicago Plan), and follow policies such as a minimum basic wage for all to accommodate the move to new ways of working. All very laudable but a bit too Red Star-ish for me!

Nonetheless, Mason’s book has some interesting arguments that make his book worth the read.


An aside – As highlighted above, there are many variations on the Kondratieff long wave out there. An interesting one is that included in a 2010 Allianz report which, using the 10 year average yield on the S&P500 as the determinant, asserts that we are actually entering the 6th Kondratieff wave (I have updated it to Q3 2015)!

click to enlarge6th Kondratieff Wave

Looking through some of the mountain of theories on long waves reminds me of a 2004 quote from Benoit Mandelbrot that “Human nature yearns to see order and hierarchy in the world. It will invent it if it cannot find it.

Time for a gamble?

While waiting for earnings season to show how firms are forecasting the impact of macro trends, it’s a good time to look over some investing ideas for the future. Having a few names selected that can be picked up in market weakness is always a good way of building quality positions. It also helps in viewing current positions to see if they stack up to alternatives.

Regular readers will know that I think the insurance sector is best left alone given pricing and competitive pressures. Despite the odd look from afar, I have never been able to get comfortable with hot sectors such as the Chinese internet firms (as per this July post). The hype around new technologies such as 3D printing has taken a battering with firms like 3D Systems and Stratasys bursting the bubble. A previous post in 2014 highlighted that a focussed play on 3D printing such as Sirona Dental makes better sense to me. The Biotech sector is not one I am generally comfortable in as it seems to me to be akin to leveraged one way bets (loss making firms with massive potential trading a large multiples of revenue). Firms such as GW Pharma which are looking at commercializing cannabinoid medicines for multiple sclerosis, cancer and epilepsy have had the shine taken off their gigantic runs in the recent volatility. My views on Trinity Biotech (which is not really a biotech firm) were expressed in a recent post in May and haven’t really changed despite a subsequent 25% drop. I need to see more results from TRIB to get comfortable that the core business justifies the current valuation with the upside being in the FDA approval of the Troponin point-of-care cardiac tests. Other ideas such as online education firm Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (in this post) have failed to sparkle.

click to enlargeInvesting Ideas October 2015

This leads me to the online gambling sector that I have posted on many times (here and here for example) and specifically to the Paddy Power/Betfair merge. My interest in this sector has not been one from an investment point of view (despite highlighting that PP and Betfair would make a good combination in May!) but I can’t get the recent performance of these two firms out of my head. The graph below shows the profit before tax margins of each (with my estimate for 2015).

click to enlargePaddy Power Betfair Historical PBT Margins

One of the things that stand out is how Betfair’s margin has improved, despite the recent headwinds such as the UK point of consumption (POC) tax. Indeed the market view that Betfair CEO Breon Corcoran is the new messiah can best be illustrated in the graph below on the firm’s performance since he took charge (revenue in sterling). It shows solid revenue growth (particularly from sustainable markets) and the incredible recent growth in EBITDA margin despite the drag of 9% of EBITDA margin from the POC tax.

click to enlargeBetfair Revenue Split & EBITDA Margin to July 2015

At the most recent results, Corcoran did highlight some headwinds that would bring the margins down (e.g. phasing of marketing spend and increased product investment) but emphasised the “high level of operational gearing” in the business and the “top-line momentum”. The merger of these two high class firms under a proven management team does make one giddy with the possibilities. The brokers Davy have a price target of €129 on the Paddy Power shares (currently trading just below €100). More information should emerge as documents for the shareholder votes are published (closing date expected in Q1 2016). An investor presentation does offer some insight (for example, as per the graphic below).

click to enlargeOnline Gambling Sector

I have calculated some initial estimates of what the combined entity will look like. Using an assumed constant sterling to euro FX rate of 1.30 and trying to adjust for Betfair’s funny reporting calendar, I estimate calendar year revenue growth 2016 to 2015 at 17% assuming a sterling reporting currency, as per the split below.

click to enlargePaddy Power Betfair pro-forma revenue split

I also calculated a profit before tax margin for the combined entity of 18% which increases to 21% post cost savings. Given approx 91 million shares in the new entity, my estimated EPS for 2016 is therefore approx £3.85 or approx €5.00 which gives a 20 multiple at the Paddy Power share price around €100 today.

So is buying into the merger of two quality firms with top management in a sector that is undergoing rapid change at a multiple of 20 sensible in today’s market? That depends whether you think it’s time for a gamble or whether patience will provide a more opportune time.

Model Ratings

An interesting blog from PwC on the new European Solvency II regulatory regime for insurers commented that “analysts were optimistic about the level of detail they could expect from the Solvency II disclosures” and that it “was hoped that this would enable the volatility of cash generation and the fungibility of capital within a group to be better understood”.

The publication of insurer’s solvency ratios, under the Solvency II regulations to be introduced from next year, using the common mandated template called the standard formula is hoped to prove to be a good comparative measure for insurers across Europe. In the technical specifications for Solvency II (section 6 in this document), the implied credit ratings of the solvency ratios as calculated using the standard formula are shown below.

click to enlargeImplied Ratings in Solvency II Standard Formula

Firm specific internal models present a different challenge in comparing results as, by definition, there is no comment standard or template. The PwC blog states “the outcome of internal model applications remains uncertain in many jurisdictions and different national practices are emerging in implementing the long-term guarantee package including the transitional measures”. It’s therefore interesting to look at a number of Solvency II ratios published to date using insurer’s own models (or partial internal models) and compare them to their financial strength ratings (in this case S&P ratings), as per the graphic below.

click to enlargeInternal Model Solvency II Ratios & S&P Ratings

As firms start to publish their Solvency II ratios, whether under the standard formula or using an internal model, it will be interesting to see what useful insights for investors emerges. Or …..eh, based upon the above sample, otherwise.

Patience on earnings

With the S&P500 up 100 points since last week’s low of 1882, the worry about global growth and earnings has been given a breather in the last few days trading. Last weeks low was about 12% below the May high (today’s close is at -8.6%). Last week, the vampire squid themselves lowered their S&P500 EPS forecast for 2015 and 2016 to $109 and $120 respectively, or approximately 18.2 and 16.6 times today’s close with the snappy by-line that “flats the new up”.

The forward PE, according this FACTSET report, as at last Thursday’s close (1924) was at 15.1, down from 16.8 in early May (as per this post).

click to enlargeForward 12 month PE S&P500 October2015

Year on year revenue growth for the S&P500 is still hard to find with Q3 expected to mark the third quarter in a row of declines, with energy and materials being a particular drag. Interestingly, telecom is a bright spot with at over 5% revenue growth and 10% earnings growth (both excluding AT&T).

Yardeni’s October report also shows the downward estimates of earnings and profit margins, as per below.

click to enlargeS&P500 EPS Profit Margin 2015 estimates

As usual, opinion is split on where the market goes next. SocGen contend that “US profits growth has never been this weak outside of a recession“. David Bianco of Deutsche Bank believes “earnings season is going to be very sobering“. While on the other side Citi strategist Tobias Levkovich opined that there is “a 96 percent probability the markets are up a year from now“.

Q3 earnings and company’s forecasts are critical to determining the future direction of the S&P500, alongside macro trends, the Fed and the politics behind the debt ceiling. Whilst we wait, this volatility presents an opportune time to look over your portfolio and run the ruler over some ideas.