Category Archives: Insurance Market

The New Normal (Again)

I expect that next week’s reinsurance jamboree in Monte Carlo will be full of talk of innovative and technology streaming-lining business models (as per this post on AI and insurance). This recent article from the FT is just one example of claims that technology like blockchain can reduce costs by 30%. The article highlights questions about whether insurers are prepared to give up ownership of data, arguably their competitive advantage, if the technology is really to be scaled up in the sector.

As a reminder of the reinsurance sector’s cost issues, as per this post on Lloyds’, the graph below illustrates the trend across Lloyds’, the Aon Benfield Aggregate portfolio, and Munich’s P&C reinsurance business.

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Until the sector gets serious about cutting costs, such as overpaid executives on luxury islands or expensive cities and antiquated business practises such as holding get togethers in places like Monte Carlo, I suspect expenses will remain an issue. In their July review, Willis stated that a “number of traditional carriers are well advanced in their plans to reduce their costs, including difficult decisions around headcount” and that “in addition to cost savings, the more proactively managed carriers are applying far greater rigor in examining the profitability of every line of business they are accepting”. Willis highlighted the potential difficulties for the vastly inefficient MGA business that many have been so actively pursuing. As an example of the type of guff executives will trot out next week, Swiss Re CEO, Christian Mumenthaler, said “we remain convinced that technology will fundamentally change the re/insurance value chain”, likely speaking from some flash office block in one of the most expensive cities in the world!

On market conditions, there was positive developments on reinsurance pricing at the January renewals after the 2017 losses with underlying insurance rates improving, as illustrated by the Marsh composite commercial rate index (example from US below).

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However, commentators have been getting ever more pessimistic as the year progresses, particularly after the mid-year renewals. Deutsche Bank recently called the reinsurance pricing outlook “very bleak”. A.M. Best stated that “the new normal for reinsurers appears to be one with returns that are less impressive and underwriting and fee income becoming a larger contributor to profits” and predicts, assuming a normal large loss level, an 8% ROE for 2018 for the sector. Willis, in their H1 report, puts the sectors ROE at 7.7% for H1 2018. S&P, in the latest report that is part of their Global Highlights series, also expects a ROE return for 2018 around 6% to 8% and estimates that “reinsurers are likely to barely cover their cost of capital in 2018 and 2019”.

S&P does question why “the market values the industry at a premium to book value today (on average at 1.24x at year-end 2017), and at near historical highs, given the challenges” and believes that potential capital returns, M&A and interest rate rises are all behind elevated valuations.  The recent Apollo PE deal for Aspen at 1.12 times book seems a large way off other recent multiples, as per this post, but Aspen has had performance issues. Still its interesting that no other insurer was tempted to have a go at Aspen with the obvious synergies that such a deal could have achieved. There is only a relatively small number of high quality players left for the M&A game and they will not be cheap!

As you are likely aware, I have been vocal on the impact the ILS sector has had in recent years (most recently here and here). With so-called alternative capital (at what size does it stop being alternative!) now at the $95 billion-mark according to Aon, A.M. Best makes the obvious point that “any hope for near-term improvement in the market is directly correlated to the current level of excess capacity in the overall market today, which is being compounded by the continued inflow of alternative capacity”. Insurers and reinsurers are not only increasing their usage of ILS in portfolio optimisation but are also heavily participating in the sector. The recent purchase by Markel of the industry leading and oldest ILS fund Nephila is an interesting development as Markel already had an ILS platform and is generally not prone to overpaying.

I did find this comment from Bob Swarup of Camdor in a recent Clear Path report on ILS particularly telling – “As an asset class matures it inevitably creates its own cycle and beta. At this point you expect fees to decline both as a function of the benefits of scale but also as it becomes more understood, less of it becomes alpha and more of it becomes beta” and “I do feel that the fees are most definitely too high right now and to a large extent this is because people are trying to treat this as an alternative asset class whereas it is large enough now to be part of the general mix”. Given the still relatively small size of the ILS sector, it’s difficult for ILS managers to demonstrate true alpha at scale (unless they are taking crazy leveraged bets!) and therefore pressure on current fees will become a feature.

A.M. Best articulated my views on ILS succinctly as follows: “The uncorrelated nature of the industry to traditional investments does appear to have value—so long as the overall risk-adjusted return remains appropriate”. The graph below from artemis.bm shows the latest differential between returns and expected cost across the portfolio they monitor.

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In terms of the returns from ILS funds, the graph below shows the underlying trend (with 2018 results assuming no abnormal catastrophic activity) of insurance only returns from indices calculated by Lane Financial (here) and Eurekahedge (here). Are recent 5 year average returns of between 500 and 250 basis points excess risk free enough to compensation for the risk of a relatively concentrated portfolio? Some think so. I don’t.

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Whether reinsurers and specialty insurers will be able to maintain superior (albeit just above CoC) recent returns over ILS, as illustrated in this post, through arbitrating lower return ILS capital or whether their bloated costs structures will catch them out will be a fascinating game to watch over the coming years. I found a section of a recent S&P report, part of their Global Highlights series, on cat exposures in the sector, amusing. It stated that in 2017 “the reinsurance industry recorded an aggregate loss that was assessed as likely to be incurred less than once in 20 years” whilst “this was the third time this had happened in less than 20 years“.

So, all in all, the story is depressingly familiar for the sector. The new normal, as so many commentators have recently called it, amounts to overcapacity, weak pricing power, bloated cost structures, and optimistic valuations. Let’s see if anybody has anything new or interesting to say in Monte Carlo next week.

As always, let’s hope there is minimal human damage from any hurricanes such as the developing Hurricane Florence or other catastrophic events in 2018.

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“.

Artificial Insurance

The digital transformation of existing business models is a theme of our age. Robotic process automation (RPA) is one of the many acronyms to have found its way into the terminology of businesses today. I highlighted the potential for telecoms to digitalise their business models in this post. Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum in his book “Fourth Industrial Revolution” refers to the current era as one whereby “new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human”.

The financial services business is one that is regularly touted as been rife for transformation with fintech being the much-hyped buzz word. I last posted here and here on fintech and insurtech, the use of technology innovations designed to squeeze out savings and efficiency from existing insurance business models.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is used as an umbrella term for everything from process automation, to robotics and to machine learning. As referred to in this post on equity markets, the Financial Stability Board (FSB) released a report called “Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in Financial Services” in November 2017. In relation to insurance, the FSB report highlights that “some insurance companies are actively using machine learning to improve the pricing or marketing of insurance products by incorporating real-time, highly granular data, such as online shopping behaviour or telemetrics (sensors in connected devices, such as car odometers)”. Other areas highlighted include machine learning techniques in claims processing and the preventative benefits of remote sensors connected through the internet of things. Consultants are falling over themselves to get on the bandwagon as reports from the likes of Deloitte, EY, PwC, Capgemini, and Accenture illustrate.

One of the better recent reports on the topic is this one from the reinsurer SCOR. CEO Denis Kessler states that “information is becoming a commodity, and AI will enable us to process all of it” and that “AI and data will take us into a world of ex-ante predictability and ex-post monitoring, which will change the way risks are observed, carried, realized and settled”. Kessler believes that AI will impact the insurance sector in 3 ways:

  • Reducing information asymmetry and bringing comprehensive and dynamic observability in the insurance transaction,
  • Improving efficiencies and insurance product innovation, and
  • Creating new “intrinsic“ AI risks.

I found one article in the SCOR report by Nicolas Miailhe of the Future Society at the Harvard Kennedy School particularly interesting. Whilst talking about the overall AI market, Miailhe states that “the general consensus remains that the market is on the brink of a revolution, which will be characterized by an asymmetric global oligopoly” and the “market is qualified as oligopolistic because of the association between the scale effects and network effects which drive concentration”.  When referring to an oligopoly, Miailhe highlights two global blocks – GAFA (Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon) and BATX (Baidu/Alibaba/Tencent/Xiaomi). In the insurance context, Miailhe states that “more often than not, this will mean that the insured must relinquish control, and at times, the ownership of data” and that “the delivery of these new services will intrude heavily on privacy”.

At a more mundane level, Miailhe highlights the difficulty for stakeholders such as auditors and regulators to understand the business models of the future which “delegate the risk-profiling process to computer systems that run software based on “black box” algorithms”. Miailhe also cautions that bias can infiltrate algorithms as “algorithms are written by people, and machine-learning algorithms adjust what they do according to people’s behaviour”.

In a statement that seems particularly relevant today in terms of the current issue around Facebook and data privacy, Miailhe warns that “the issues of auditability, certification and tension between transparency and competitive dynamics are becoming apparent and will play a key role in facilitating or hindering the dissemination of AI systems”.

Now, that’s not something you’ll hear from the usual cheer leaders.

Insurance M&A Pickup

It’s been a while since I posted on the specialty insurance sector and I hope to post some more detailed thoughts and analysis when I get the time in the coming months. M&A activity has picked up recently with the XL/AXA and AIG/Validus deals being the latest examples of big insurers bulking up through M&A. Deloitte has an interesting report out on some of the factors behind the increased activity. The graph below shows the trend of the average price to book M&A multiples for P&C insurers.

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As regular readers will know, my preferred metric is price to tangible book value and the exhibit below shows that the multiples on recent deals are increasing and well above the standard multiple around 1.5X. That said, the prices are not as high as the silly prices of above 2X paid by Japanese insurers in 2015. Not yet anyway!

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Unless there are major synergies, either on the operating side or on the capital side (which seems to be AXA’s justification for the near 2X multiple on the XL deal), I just can’t see how a 2X multiple is justified in a mature sector. Assuming these firms can earn a 10% return on tangible assets over multiple cycles, a 2X multiple equates to 20X earnings!

Time will tell who the next M&A target will be….

Cloudfall

More and more business is moving to the cloud and, given the concentration of providers and their interlinkages, it’s creating security challenges. In the US, 15 cloud providers account for 70% of the market.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) describes the cloud as a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.

 A cloud solution is typically architected with multiple regions, where a region is a geographical location where users can run their resources, and is typically made up of multiple zones. All major cloud providers have multiple regions, located across the globe and within the US. For example, Rackspace has the fewest number of regions at 7 whereas Microsoft Azure has the most at 36.

The industry is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 36% between 2014 and 2026, as per the graph below. Software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), and infrastructure as a service (IaaS) are the types of cloud services sold.

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Control of the underlying cloud infrastructure of networks, servers, operating systems, and storage is the responsibility of the cloud provider, with the user having control over the deployed applications and possibly configuration settings for the application-hosting environment.

Amazingly however, the main responsibility for protecting corporate data in the cloud lies not with the cloud provider but with the cloud customer, unless specifically agreed otherwise. Jay Heiser of Gartner commented that “we are in a cloud security transition period in which focus is shifting from the provider to the customer” and businesses “are learning that huge amounts of time spent trying to figure out if any particular cloud service provider is secure or not has virtually no payback”.

An organisation called the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) issued its report on the security threats to the cloud.  These include the usual threats such as data breaches, denial of service (DoS), advanced persistent threats (APTs) and malicious insiders. For the cloud, add in threats including insufficient access management, insecure user interfaces (UIs) and application programming interfaces (APIs), and shared technology vulnerabilities.

Cyber security is an important issue today and many businesses, particularly larger business are turning to insurance to mitigate the risks to their organisations, as the graph below on cyber insurance take-up rates shows.

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Lloyds of London recently released an interesting report called Cloud Down that estimated the e-business interruption costs in the US arising from the sustained loss of access to a cloud service provider. The report estimates, using a standard catastrophic modelling framework from AIR, a cyber incident that takes a top 3 cloud provider offline in the US for 3-6 days would result in ground-up loss central estimates between $7-15 billion and insured losses between $1.5-3 billion. By necessity, the assumptions used in the analysis are fairly crude and basic.

Given the number of bad actors in the cyber world, particularly those who may intend to cause maximum disruption, security failings around the cloud could, in my view, result in losses of many multiples of those projected by Lloyds if several cloud providers are taken down for longer periods. And that’s scary.