5G: Telecom Hype or Saviour

John Legere of T-Mobile is a canny operator and knows how to play the sycophant to Trump’s nationalist instincts in touting the ability of a combined T-Mobile & Sprint to invest in a super-charged 5G roll out, as per this presentation, playing the job creation and beat the Chinese technological advancement cards. Legere cites an Analysys Mason report commissioned by the US industry lobby group CTIA to back up such claims which in turn cites an Accenture report from 2017 on 5G in the US which claims that “telecom operators are expected to invest approximately $275 billion in infrastructure, which could create up to 3 million jobs and boost GDP by $500 billion”. In 2016, the European Commission in this report stated that 5G “investments of approximately €56.6 billion will be likely to create 2.3 million jobs in Europe”. An IHS Markit 2017 report commissioned by Qualcomm claims that in 2035, “5G will enable $12.3 trillion of global economic output” and “the global 5G value chain will generate $3.5 trillion in output and support 22 million jobs” on the basis that “the global 5G value chain will invest an average of $200 billion annually”.

These are fantastical figures. Many assumptions go into their computation including the availability, range and cost of spectrum plus infrastructure spend and policy in relation to streamlining procedures and fee structures for the deployment of the small shoe-box cell sites (between 10 to 100 more antenna are required for 5G than current networks). Larger issues such as privacy and security also need to be addressed before we enter a world of ubiquitous ultra-reliable low latency networks as envisaged by the reports referenced above. Those of us who lived through, and barely survived, the telecom boom of the late 1990s can be forgiven for having a jaundice view of a new technology saving the telecom industry. This blog illustrates some of the challenges facing the wired telecom sector and the graph below shows the pressures that the US mobile players are under in terms of recent trends in service revenues.

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The mobile service revenues trends are remarkably similar to those in the enterprise and wholesale space. The graph above also shows the rationale for the T-Mobile/Sprint merger in terms of size as well as the impact of T-Mobile’s aggressive pricing strategy. All these trends are in the context of the insatiable increase in bandwidth traffic, as illustrated by the IP figures from Cisco below.

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This report from 2017 by Oliver Wyman is one of the better ones and contains some illuminating context for the 5G era. It shows that in Europe despite a 40% annual increase in mobile subscribers and a 36% annual increase in European IP traffic from 2006 to 2016, mobile service revenue and total telecom service revenue decreased by 22% and 19% respectively, as per the graphic below.

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The Oliver Wyman report concludes as follows:

“In the next five to ten years, demand in fixed-line broadband bandwidth will grow exponentially, leading to speeds that can only be supplied by FTTH/B. Mobile broadband demand will follow in parallel. Virtual reality is the “killer app” that will drive massive demand. Mobile broadband supply will begin to reach its limits, with spectral efficiency gains and additional attractive spectrum in the current bands not growing as fast as they have in the past. High-frequency beam technology in 5G will be radically new and will be able to meet future demand. At the same time, however, it will create massive mobile backhaul demand. The outcome is likely to shake the industry, leading not only to a new balance of power between mobile-only and integrated/fixed-line operators, but also to new potential revenue growth for the first time in many years.”

Another interesting graphic from the report, as below, is the historical and projected broadband usage.

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This 2017 report from Deloitte argues that “5G, across both the core and radio access network, stands to have a potentially greater impact on the overall ecosystem than any previous wireless generation”. Deloitte sees a “convergence of supply between wireline and wireless broadband, as almost all devices become connected over short-range wireless”. Deloitte concludes that “with an increasingly converged ecosystem of network and content players, an increasingly software-managed and defined physical networking space, and the demands and needs of consumers becoming complex enough that they no longer can manage individually, 5G and its associated technologies may have the power to reset the wireless landscape”.

This paper from an Infinera executive called Jon Baldry highlights the need for “improvements to the overall network infrastructure in terms of performance, features and bandwidth” to support 5G “using software-defined networking (SDN) control and network functions virtualization (NFV) will play a major role in the optimization of the network”. I came across an interesting claim that SDN and network virtualisation can reduce opex and capex by 63% and 68% respectively compared to traditional telecom networking. Baldry concludes that “these improvements will drive new fiber builds, and fiber upgrades to an ever-growing number of cell sites, creating significant opportunity for cable MSOs and other wholesale operators to capture significant share of cell backhaul and fronthaul services for 4G and 5G mobile networks”.

Whether all these investments and resulting new networks will halt the declining revenue trend for the telecom sector or merely provide a survival avenue for certain telecoms is something I have yet to be convinced about. One thing seems certain however and that is that tradition telecom models will change beyond recognition in the forthcoming 5G era.

Bumpy Road

After referring to last year’s report in the previous post, the latest IMF Global Financial Stability Report called “A Bumpy Road Ahead” was released yesterday. Nothing earth-shattering from the report when compared to previous and current commentary. The following statements are typical:

“Many markets still have stretched valuations and may experience bouts of volatility in the period ahead, in the context of continued monetary policy normalization in some advanced countries. Investors and policymakers should be cognizant of the risks associated with rising interest rates after years of very easy financial conditions and take active steps to reduce these risks.”

and

“Valuations of risky assets are still stretched, with some late-stage credit cycle dynamics emerging, reminiscent of the pre-crisis period. This makes markets exposed to a sharp tightening in financial conditions, which could lead to a sudden unwinding of risk premiums and a repricing of risky assets. Moreover, liquidity mismatches and the use of financial leverage to boost returns could amplify the impact of asset price moves on the financial system.”

With the US 10 year breaking 2.9% today and concerns about a flattening yield curve, the IMF puts global debt at $164 trillion or 225% of GDP (obviously a different basis from the IIF’s estimate of global debt at $237 trillion or 318% of GDP) and warns about the US projected debt increase due to its “pro-cyclical policy actions”.

In a chapter the IMF calls “The Riskiness of Credit Allocations” it presents an interesting graph, as below, using its financial conditions index which uses multiple inputs constructed using a methodology that’s wonderfully econometrically complex, as is the IMF way.

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The IMF warn that “a variety of indicators point to vulnerabilities from financial leverage, a deterioration in underwriting standards, and ever more pronounced reaching for yield behaviour by investors in corporate and sovereign debt markets around the world”.

Nero fiddles

This week it’s Syria and Russia, last week it was China. Serious in their own right as these issues are, Donald Trump’s erratic approach to off the cuff policy development is exhausting markets. In the last 60 trading days, the S&P500 has had 9 days over 1% and 12 days below -1%. For above 0.5% and more than -0.5%, the number of days is 21 and 15 respectively! According to an off the record White House insider, “a decision or statement is made by the president, and then the principals come in and tell him we can’t do it” and “when that fails, we reverse engineer a policy process to match whatever the president said”.  We live in some messed up world!

As per this post, the mounting QE withdrawals by Central Banks is having its impact on increased volatility. Credit Suisse’s CEO, Tidjane Thiam, this week said, “the tensions are showing and it’s very hard to imagine where you can get out of a scenario of prolonged extraordinary measures without some kind of, I always use the word ‘trauma’”.

Fortune had an insightful article on the US debt issue last month where they concluded that something has to give. According to an Institute of International Finance report, global debt reached a record $237 trillion in 2017, more than 317% of global GDP with the developed world higher around 380%. According to the Monthly Treasury Statement just released, the US fiscal deficit is on track for the fiscal years (Q4 to Q3 of calendar year) 2018 and 2019 to be $833 billion and $984 billion compared to $666 billion in 2017.

This week also marks the publication of the Congressional Budget Office’s fiscal projections for the US after considering the impact of the Trump tax cuts. The graphs below from the report illustrate the impact they estimate, with the fiscal deficits higher by $1.5 trillion over 10 years. It’s important to note that these estimates assume a relatively benign economic environment over the next 10 years. No recession, for example, over the next 10 years, as assumed by the CBO, would mean a period of nearly 20 years without one! That’s not likely!

The first graph below shows some of the macro-economic assumptions in the CBO report, the second showing the aging profile in the US which determines participation rates in the economy and limits its potential, with the following graphs showing the fiscal estimates.

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The respected author Satyajit Das highlighted in this article how swelling levels of debt will amplify the effect of any rate rises, with higher rates having the following impacts:

  • Increase credit risk. LIBOR has already risen, as per this post, and large sways of corporate debt is driven by LIBOR. This post shows some of debt levels in S&P500 firms, as per the IMF Global Financial Stability report from last April and the graph below tells its own tale.
  • Generate large mark-to-market losses on existing debt holdings. A 1% increase is estimated to impact US government debt by $2 trillion globally.
  • Drive investors away from risky assets such as equity, decimating the now quaint so-called TINA trade (“there is no alternative”).
  • Divert cash to servicing debt, further dampening economic activity and business investment.
  • Restrict the ability of governments to deploy fiscal stimulus.

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Back in the land of Nero, or Trump in our story, his new talking head in chief, Larry Kudlow, recently said the White House would propose a “rescission bill” to strip out $120 billion from nondefense discretionary spending. Getting that one past either the Senate or the House ahead of the November midterm elections is fanciful and just not probable after the elections. So that’s what the Nero of our time is planning in response to our hypothetical Rome burning exasperated by his reckless fiscal policies (and hopefully there wouldn’t be any unjustified actual burning as a result of his ill thought out foreign policies over the coming days and weeks).

Generational Music

People of my generation, like those before us no doubt, like to moan on about the quality of modern music. When I look back at the diversity of the music from the 1980’s that I grew up listening to, I cannot but help feel that this generation is missing out.

As it happens, the 2018 Global Music Report from IFPI indicated that the multi-year decline in global music revenues has bottomed out. The 2017 industry revenues grew by 8% over 2016, with streaming revenues up 41%. This represents three consecutive years of growth after many years of decline. The music sector is one of the earliest examples of the awesome creative destructive ability of the digital revolution, as the graph below shows.

click to enlargeGlobal Music Industry Revenues 1972 to 2020 April 2018

The physical, digital and streaming revenues are obvious (e.g. CDs & vinyl, downloads & streaming). Performance rights includes the revenues generated by the use of recorded music by broadcasters and public venues. Synchronisation revenues include the revenues from the use of music in advertising, film, games and television programmes.

As a regular theme of this blog is the impact of the digital revolution under way on so many industries and the need for sectors to adapt through digital transformation of their business models, the graph above is both thought provoking and scary.

Listening to the investment pitch by Spotify this week over the future of the sector, I can’t but help think that the democratisation and disintermediation promised by the internet age has resulted, for the music sector at least, in dominant players dictating homogeneous tastes and culture. The death of individualism seems to be the result, at least until this or future generations get fed up with it.

Befuddled Lloyd’s

Lloyd’s of London always provides a fascinating insight into the London insurance market and beyond into the global specialty insurance market, as this previous post shows. It’s Chairman, Bruce Carnegie-Brown, commented in their 2017 annual report that he expects “2018 to be another challenging year for Lloyd’s and the Corporation continues to refine its strategy to address evolving market conditions”. Given the bulking up of many of its competitors through M&A, Willis recently called it a reinvigoration of the “big balance sheet” reinsurance model, Lloyd’s needs to get busy sharpening its competitive edge. In a blunter message Brown stressed that “the market’s 2017 results are proof, if any were needed, that business as usual is not sustainable”.

A looked at the past 15 years of underwriting results gives an indicator of current market trends since the underwriting quality control unit, called the Franchise Board, was introduced at the end of 2002 after the disastrous 1990’s for the 330-year-old institution.

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The trend of increasing non-CAT loss ratios after years of soft pricing coupled with declining prior year reserve releases is clear to see. That increases the pressure on the insurance sector to control expenses. To that end, Inga Beale, Lloyd’s CEO, is pushing modernisation via the London Market Target Operating Model programme hard, stating that electronic placement will be mandated, on a phased basis, “to speed up the adoption of the market’s modernisation programme, which will digitise processes, reduce unsustainable expense ratios, and make Lloyd’s more attractive to do business with”.

The need to reduce expenses in Lloyd’s is acute given its expense ratio is around 40% compared to around 30% for most of its competitors. Management at Lloyd’s promised to “make it cheaper and easier to write business at Lloyd’s, enabling profitable growth”. Although Lloyd’s has doubled its gross premium volumes over the past 15 years, the results over varying timeframes below, particularly the reducing underwriting margins, show the importance of stressing profitable growth and expense efficiencies for the future.

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A peer comparison of Lloyd’s results over the past 15 years illustrates further the need for the market to modernise, as below. Although the 2017 combined ratio for some of the peer groupings have yet to finalised and published (I will update the graph when they do so), the comparison indicates that Lloyd’s has been doing worse than its reinsurance and Bermudian peers in recent years. It is suspicious to see, along with the big reinsurers and Bermudians, Lloyd’s included Allianz, CNA, and Zurich (and excluded Mapfe) in their competitor group from 2017. If you can’t meet your target, just change the metric behind the target!

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A recent report from Aon Benfield shows the breakdown of the combined ratio for their peer portfolio of specialist insurers and reinsurers from 2006 to 2017, as below.

click to enlargeAon Benfield Aggregate Combined Ratio 2006 to 2017

So, besides strong competitors, increasing loss ratios and heavy expense loads, what does Lloyd’s have to worry about? Well, in common with many, Lloyd’s must contend with structural changes across the industry as a result of, in what Willis calls in their latest report, “the oversupply of capital” from investors in insurance linked securities (ILS) with a lower cost of capital, whereby the 2017 insured losses appears to have had “no impact upon appetite”, according to Willis.

I have posted many times, most recently here, on the impact ILS has had on property catastrophe pricing. The graph of the average multiple of coupon to expected loss on deals monitored by sector expert Artemis again illustrates the pricing trend. I have come up with another angle to tell the story, as per the graph below. I compared the Guy Carpenter rate on line (ROL) index for each year against an index of the annual change in the rolling 10-year average global catastrophe insured loss (which now stands at $66 billion for 2008-2017). Although it is somewhat unfair to compare a relative measure (the GC ROL index) against an absolute measure (change in average insured loss), it makes a point about the downward trend in property catastrophe reinsurance pricing in recent years, particularly when compared to the trend in catastrophic losses. To add potentially to the unfairness, I also included the rising volumes in the ILS sector, in an unsubtle finger point.

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Hilary Weaver, Lloyd’s CRO, recognises the danger and recently commented that “the new UK ILS regulation will, if anything, increase the already abundant supply of insurance capital” and “this is likely to mean that prices remain low for many risks, so we need to remain vigilant to ensure that the prices charged for them are proportionate to the risk”.

The impact extends beyond soft pricing and could impact Lloyd’s risk profile. The loss of high margin (albeit not as high as it once was) and low frequency/high severity business means that Lloyd’s will have to fish in an already crowded pond for less profitable and less volatile business. The combined ratios of Lloyd’s main business lines are shown below illustrating that all, except casualty, have had a rough 2017 amid competitive pressures and large losses.

As reinsurance business is commoditised further by ILS, in a prelude to an increase in machine/algorithm underwriting, Lloyd’s business will become less volatile and as a result less profitable. To illustrate, the lower graph below shows Lloyd’s historical weighted average combined ratio, using the 2017 business mix, versus the weighted average combined ratio excluding the reinsurance line. For 2003 to 2017, the result would be an increase in average combined ratio, from 95.8% to 96.5%, and a reduction in volatility, the standard deviation from 9.7% to 7%.

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To write off Lloyd’s however would be a big mistake. In my view, there remains an important role for a specialist marketplace for heterogeneous risks, where diverse underwriting expertise cannot be easily replicated by machines. Lloyd’s has shown its ability in the past to evolve and adapt, unfortunately however usually when it doesn’t have any choice. Hopefully, this legendary 330-year-old institution will get ahead of the game and dictate its own future. It will be interesting to watch.

 

Epilogue – Although this analogy has limitations, it occurs to me that the insurance sector is at a stage of evolution that the betting sector was at about a decade ago (my latest post on the sector is here). Traditional insurers, with over-sized expenses, operate like old traditional betting shops with paper slips and manual operations. The onset of online betting fundamentally changed the way business is transacted and, as a result, the structure of the industry. The upcoming digitalisation of the traditional insurance business will radically change the cost structure of the industry. Lloyd’s should look to the example of Betfair (see an old post on Betfair for more) as a means of digitalising the market platform and radically reducing costs.

Follow-on 28th April – Many thanks to Adam at InsuranceLinked for re-posting this post. A big welcome to new readers, I hope you will stick around and check out some other posts from this blog. I just came across this report from Oliver Wyam on the underwriter of the future that’s worth a read. They state that the “commercial and wholesale insurance marketplaces are undergoing radical change” and they “expect that today’s low-price environment will continue for the foreseeable future, continuing to put major pressure on cost“.