Tag Archives: Hiscox

Creepy Things

It has been a while since I looked at the state of the reinsurance and specialty insurance markets. Recent market commentary and insurers’ narratives at recent results have suggested market rates are finally firming up, amidst talk of reserve releases drying up and loss creep on recent events.

Just yesterday, Bronek Masojada the CEO of Hiscox commented that “the market is in a better position than it has been for some time”. The Lancashire CEO Alex Maloney said he was “encouraged by the emerging evidence that the (re)insurance market is now experiencing the long-anticipated improvements in discipline and pricing”. The Chubb CEO Evan Greenberg said that “pricing continued to tighten in the quarter while spreading to more classes and segments of business, particularly in the U.S. and London wholesale market”.

A look at the historical breakdown of combined ratios in the Aon Benfield Aggregate portfolio from April (here) and Lloyds results below illustrate the downward trend in reserve releases in the market to the end of 2018. The exhibits also indicate the expense disadvantage that Lloyds continues to operate under (and the reason behind the recently announced modernisation drive).

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In the Willis Re mid-year report called “A Discerning Market” their CEO James Kent said “there are signs that the longstanding concern over the level of reserve redundancy in past year reserves is coming to fruition” and that in “some classes, there is a clear trend of worsening loss ratios in recent underwriting years due to a prolonged soft market and an increase in loss severity.

 In their H1 presentation, Hiscox had an exhibit that quantified some of the loss creep from recent losses, as below.

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The US Florida hurricane losses have been impacted by factors such as assignment of benefits (AOB) in litigated water claims and subsequently inflating repair costs. Typhoon Jebi losses have been impacted by overlapping losses and demand surge from Typhoon Trami, the Osaka earthquake and demand from Olympics construction. Arch CEO Marc Grandisson believes that the market missed the business interruption and contingent BI exposures in Jebi estimates.

The fact that catastrophic losses are unpredictable, even after the event, is no surprise to students of insurance history (this post on the history of Lloyds is a testament to unpredictability). Technology and advances in modelling techniques have unquestionably improved risk management in insurance in recent years. Notwithstanding these advances, uncertainty and the unknown should always be considered when model outputs such as probability of loss and expected loss are taken as a given in determining risk premium.

To get more insight into reserve trends, it’s worth taking a closer look at two firms that have historically shown healthy reserve releases – Partner Re and Beazley. From 2011 to 2016, Partner Re’s non-life business had an average reserve release of $675 million per year which fell to $450 million in 2017, and to $250 million in 2018. For H1 2019, that figure was $15 million of reserve strengthening. The exhibit below shows the trend with 2019 results estimated based upon being able to achieve reserve releases of $100 million for the year and assuming no major catastrophic claims in 2019. Despite the reduction in reserve releases, the firm has grown its non-life business by double digits in H1 2019 and claims it is “well-positioned to benefit from this improved margin environment”.

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Beazley is one of the best insurers operating from London with a long history of mixing innovation with a balanced portfolio. It has doubled its net tangible assets (NTA) per share over the past 10 years and trades today at a 2.7 multiple to NTA. Beazley is also predicting double digit growth due to an improving rating environment whilst predicting “the scale of the losses that we, in common with the broader market, have incurred over the past two years means that below average reserve releases will continue this year”.

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And that’s the rub. Although reserves are dwindling, rate improvements should help specialty (re)insurers to rebuild reserves and improve profitability back above its cost of capital, assuming normal catastrophe loss levels. However, market valuations, as reflected by the Aon Benfield price to book exhibit below, look like they have all that baked in already.

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And that’s a creepy thing.

Stressing the scenario testing

Scenario and stress testing by financial regulators has become a common supervisory tool since the financial crisis. The EU, the US and the UK all now regularly stress their banks using detailed adverse scenarios. In a recent presentation, Moody’s Analytics illustrated the variation in some of the metrics in the adverse scenarios used in recent tests by regulators, as per the graphic below of the peak to trough fall in real GDP.

click to enlargeBanking Stress Tests

Many commentators have criticized these tests for their inconsistency and flawed methodology while pointing out the political conflict many regulators with responsibility for financial stability have. They cannot be seen to be promoting a draconian scenario for stress testing on the one hand whilst assuring markets of the stability of the system on the other hand.

The EU tests have particularly had a credibility problem given the political difficulties in really stressing possible scenarios (hello, a Euro break-up?). An article last year by Morris Goldstein stated:

“By refusing to include a rigorous leverage ratio test, by allowing banks to artificially inflate bank capital, by engaging in wholesale monkey business with tax deferred assets, and also by ruling out a deflation scenario, the ECB produced estimates of the aggregate capital shortfall and a country pattern of bank failures that are not believable.”

In a report from the Adam Smith Institute in July, Kevin Dowd (a vocal critic of the regulator’s approach) stated that the Bank of England’s 2014 tests were lacking in credibility and “that the Bank’s risk models are worse than useless because they give false risk comfort”. Dowd points to the US where the annual Comprehensive Capital Assessment and Review (CCAR) tests have been supplemented by the DFAST tests mandated under Dodd Frank (these use a more standard approach to provide relative tests between banks). In the US, the whole process has been turned into a vast and expensive industry with consultants (many of them ex-regulators!) making a fortune on ever increasing compliance requirements. The end result may be that the original objectives have been somewhat lost.

According to a report from a duo of Columba University professors, banks have learned to game the system whereby “outcomes have become more predictable and therefore arguably less informative”. The worry here is that, to ensure a consistent application across the sector, regulators have been captured by their models and are perpetuating group think by dictating “good” and “bad” business models. Whatever about the dangers of the free market dictating optimal business models (and Lord knows there’s plenty of evidence on that subject!!), relying on regulators to do so is, well, scary.

To my way of thinking, the underlying issue here results from the systemic “too big to fail” nature of many regulated firms. Capitalism is (supposedly!) based upon punishing imprudent risk taking through the threat of bankruptcy and therefore we should be encouraging a diverse range of business models with sensible sizes that don’t, individually or in clusters, threaten financial stability.

On the merits of using stress testing for banks, Dowd quipped that “it is surely better to have no radar at all than a blind one that no-one can rely upon” and concluded that the Bank of England should, rather harshly in my view, scrap the whole process. Although I agree with many of the criticisms, I think the process does have merit. To be fair, many regulators understand the limitations of the approach. Recently Deputy Governor Jon Cunliffe of the Bank of England admitted the fragilities of some of their testing and stated that “a development of this approach would be to use stress testing more counter-cyclically”.

The insurance sector, particularly the non-life sector, has a longer history with stress and scenario testing. Lloyds of London has long required its syndicates to run mandatory realistic disaster scenarios (RDS), primarily focussed on known natural and man-made events. The most recent RDS are set out in the exhibit below.

click to enlargeLloyds Realistic Disaster Scenarios 2015

A valid criticism of the RDS approach is that insurers know what to expect and are therefore able to game the system. Risk models such as the commercial catastrophe models sold by firms like RMS and AIR have proven ever adapt at running historical or theoretical scenarios through today’s modern exposures to get estimates of losses to insurers. The difficulty comes in assigning probabilities to known natural events where the historical data is only really reliable for the past 100 years or so and where man-made events in the modern world, such as terrorism or cyber risks, are virtually impossible to predict. I previously highlighted some of the concerns on the methodology used in many models (e.g. on correlation here and VaR here) used to assess insurance capital which have now been embedded into the new European regulatory framework Solvency II, calibrated at a 1-in-200 year level.

The Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA), now part of the Bank of England, detailed a set of scenarios last month to stress test its non-life insurance sector in 2015. The detail of these tests is summarised in the exhibit below.

click to enlargePRA General Insurance Stress Test 2015

Robert Childs, the chairman of the Hiscox group, raised some eye brows by saying the PRA tests did not go far enough and called for a war game type exercise to see “how a serious catastrophe may play out”. Childs proposed that such an exercise would mean that regulators would have the confidence in industry to get on with dealing with the aftermath of any such catastrophe without undue fussing from the authorities.

An efficient insurance sector is important to economic growth and development by facilitating trade and commerce through risk mitigation and dispersion, thereby allowing firms to more effectively allocate capital to productive means. Too much “fussing” by regulators through overly conservative capital requirements, maybe resulting from overtly pessimistic stress tests, can result in economic growth being impinged by excess cost. However, given the movement globally towards larger insurers, which in my view will accelerate under Solvency II given its unrestricted credit for diversification, the regulator’s focus on financial stability and the experiences in banking mean that fussy regulation will be in vogue for some time to come.

The scenarios selected by the PRA are interesting in that the focus for known natural catastrophes is on a frequency of large events as opposed to an emphasis on severity in the Lloyds’ RDS. It’s arguable that the probability of the 2 major European storms in one year or 3 US storms in one year is significantly more remote than the 1 in 200 probability level at which capital is set under Solvency II. One of the more interesting scenarios is the reverse stress test such that the firm becomes unviable. I am sure many firms will select a combination of events with an implied probability of all occurring with one year so remote as to be impossible. Or select some ultra extreme events such as the Cumbre Vieja mega-tsunami (as per this post). A lack of imagination in looking at different scenarios would be a pity as good risk management should be open to really testing portfolios rather than running through the same old known events.

New scenarios are constantly being suggested by researchers. Swiss Re recently published a paper on a reoccurrence of the New Madrid cluster of earthquakes of 1811/1812 which they estimated could result in $300 billion of losses of which 50% would be insured (breakdown as per the exhibit below). Swiss Re estimates the probability of such an event at 1 in 500 years or roughly a 10% chance of occurrence within the next 50 years.

click to enlarge1811 New Madrid Earthquakes repeated

Another interesting scenario, developed by the University of Cambridge and Lloyds, which is technologically possible, is a cyber attack on the US power grid (in this report). There have been a growing number of cases of hacking into power grids in the US and Europe which make this scenario ever more real. The authors estimate the event at a 1 in 200 year probability and detail three scenarios (S1, S2, and the extreme X1) with insured losses ranging from $20 billion to $70 billion, as per the exhibit below. These figures are far greater than the probable maximum loss (PML) estimated for the sector by a March UK industry report (as per this post).

click to enlargeCyber Blackout Scenario

I think it will be a very long time before any insurer willingly publishes the results of scenarios that could cause it to be in financial difficulty. I may be naive but I think that is a pity because insurance is a risk business and increased transparency could only lead to more efficient capital allocations across the sector. Everybody claiming that they can survive any foreseeable event up to a notional probability of occurrence (such as 1 in 200 years) can only lead to misplaced solace. History shows us that, in the real world, risk has a habit of surprising, and not in a good way. Imaginative stress and scenario testing, performed in an efficient and transparent way, may help to lessen the surprise. Nothing however can change the fact that the “unknown unknowns” will always remain.

Smart money heading for the exits?

Private equity is rushing to the exits in London with such sterling businesses as Poundland and Pets at Home coming to the market. PE has exited insurance investments, following the successful DirectLine float, for names like Esure, Just Retirement, and Partnership. It was therefore interesting to see Apollo and CVC refloat 25% of BRIT Insurance last week after taking them off the market just 3 short years ago.

The private equity guys made out pretty good. They bought BRIT in 2011 for £890 million, restructured the business & sold the UK retail business and other renewal rights, took £550 million of dividends, and have now floating 25% of the business at a value of £960 million. To give them their due, they are now committing to a 6 month lock-up and BRIT have indicated a shareholder friendly dividend of £75 million plus a special dividend if results in 2014 are good.

I don’t really know BRIT that well since they have been given the once over by Apollo/CVC. Their portfolio looks like fairly standard Lloyds of London business. Although they highlight that they lead 50% of their business, I suspect that BRIT will come under pressure as the trend towards the bigger established London insurers continues. Below is a graph of the tangible book value multiples, based off today’s price, against the average three year calendar year combined ratio.

click to enlargeLondon Specialty Insurers NTA multiples March 2014

Lancashire’s recent lackluster share performance

Lancashire (LRE.L) is a London quoted specialty insurer that writes short tail (mainly insurance) business in aviation, marine, energy, property catastrophe and terrorism classes. Set up after Hurricane Katrina, the company operates a high risk high reward business model, tightly focussed by the experienced hand of CEO Richard Brindle, with an emphasis on disciplined underwriting, tight capital management and generous shareholder returns. Shareholder’s equity is managed within a range between $1 billion and $1.5 billion with numerous shareholder friendly actions such as special dividends resulting in a cumulative shareholder return of 177% since the company’s inception over 7 years ago.

I am a fan of the company and own some shares, although not as many as in the past. I like their straight forward approach and their difference in a sector full of firms that seem to read from each other’s scripts (increasingly peppered with the latest risk management speak). That said, it does have a higher risk profile than many of its peers, as a previous post on PMLs illustrated. That profile allows it to achieve such superior shareholder returns. The market has rewarded Lancashire with a premium valuation based upon the high returns achieved over its short history as a March post on valuations showed.

However, over the past 6 months, Lancashire’s share price has underperformed against its peers, initially due to concerns over property catastrophe pricing pressures and more recently it’s announcement of the purchase of Lloyds of London based Cathedral Capital.

click to enlargeLondon Market Specialty Insurers Share Price 2012 to August 2013

Cathedral’s results over the past 5 years have been good, if not in the same league as Lancashire’s, and the price paid by Lancashire at 160% of net tangible assets is not cheap. Given the financing needs of the acquisition, the lack of room for any of Lancashire’s usual special dividend treats in the near term has been a contributing factor to the recent share price declines in my opinion.

Based upon the proforma net tangible assets of Lancashire at end Q2 as per the Cathedral presentation and the circular for the share offering, the graph below shows the net tangible valuation multiples of a number of the London market insurers using net tangible asset values as at end Q2 with market values based upon todays’ closing prices.

click to enlargeLondon Market Specialty Insurers Net Tangible Book Multiples August 2013

The multiples show that the market is now valuing Lancashire’s business at a level more akin to its peers rather than the premium valuation it previously enjoyed. Clearly, the acquisition of Cathedral raises questions over whether Lancashire will maintain its uniqueness in the future. That is certainly a concern. Also, integrating the firms and their cultures is an execution risk and heading into the peak of the US wind session could prove to be unwise timing.

Notwithstanding these issues, Brindle is an experienced operator and I would suspect that he is taking full advantage of the current arbitrage opportunities (as outlined in another post). It may take a quarter or two to fully understand the impact of the Cathedral acquisition on Lancashire’s risk/reward profile. I, for one, look forward to stalking the company to find an attractive entry point for increasing my position in anticipation of the return of Lancashire’s premium multiple.

Relative valuations of selected reinsurers and wholesale insurers

It’s been a great 12 months for wholesale insurers with most seeing their share price rise by 20%+, some over 40%. As would be expected, there has been some correlation between the rise in book values and the share price increase although market sentiment to the sector and the overall market rally have undoubtedly also played their parts. The graph below shows the movements over the past 12 months (click to enlarge).

12 month share price change selected reinsurers March 2013The price to tangible book is one of my preferred indicators of value although it has limitations when comparing companies reporting under differing accounting standards & currencies and trading in different exchanges. The P/TBV valuations as at last weekend are depicted in the graph below. The comments in this post are purely made on the basis of the P/TBV metric calculated from published data and readers are encouraged to dig deeper.

I tend to look at the companies relative to each other in 4 broad buckets – the London market firms, the continental European composite reinsurers, the US/Bermuda firms, and the alternative asset or “wannabe buffet” firms.  Comparisons across buckets can be made but adjustments need to be made for factors such as those outlined in the previous paragraph. Some firms such as Lancashire actually report in US$ as that is where the majority of their business is but trade in London with sterling shares. I also like to look at the relative historical movements over time & the other graph below from March 2011 helps in that regard.

Valuations as at March 2013 (click to enlarge):

Price to net tangible book & 5 year average ROE reinsurers March 2013

Valuations as at March 2011 (click to enlarge):

Price to net tangible book & 5 year average ROE reinsurers March 2011 The London market historically trades at the highest multiples – Hiscox, Amlin, & Lancashire are amongst the leaders, with Catlin been the poor cousin. Catlin’s 2012 operating results were not as strong as the others but the discount it currently trades at may be a tad unfair. In the interest of open disclosure, I must admit to having a soft spot for Lancashire. Their consistent shareholder friendly actions result in the high historical valuation. These actions and a clear communication of their straight forward business strategy shouldn’t distract investors from their high risk profile. The cheeky way they present their occurrence PMLs in public disclosures cannot hide their high CAT exposures when the occurrence PMLs are compared to their peers on a % of tangible asset basis. Their current position relative to Hiscox and Amlin may be reflective of this (although they tend to go down when ex dividend, usually a special dividend!).

Within the continental European composite reinsurer bucket, the Munich and Swiss, amongst others, classify chunky amounts of present value of future profits from their life business as an intangible. As this item will be treated as capital under Solvency II, further metrics need to be considered when looking at these composite reinsurers. The love of the continental Europeans of hybrid capital and the ability to compare the characteristics of the varying instruments is another factor that will become clearer in a Solvency II world. Compared to 2011 valuations Swiss Re has been a clear winner. It is arguable that the Munich deserves a premium given it’s position in the sector.

The striking thing about the current valuations of the US/Bermudian bucket is how concentrated they are, particularly when compared to 2011. The market seems to be making little distinction between the large reinsurers like Everest and the likes of Platinum & Montpelier. That is surely a failure of these companies to distinguish themselves and effectively communicate their differing business models & risk profiles.

The last bucket is the most eccentric. I would class firms such as Fairfax  in this bucket. Although each firm has its own twist, generally these companies are interested in the insurance business as the provider of cheap “float”, a la Mr Buffet, with the focus going into the asset side. Generally, their operating results are poorer than their peers and they have a liking for the longer tail business if the smell of the float is attractive enough (which is difficult with today’s interest rate). This bucket really needs to be viewed through different metrics which we’ll leave for another day.

Overall then, the current valuations reflect an improved sentiment on the sector. Notwithstanding the musings above, nothing earth shattering stands out based solely on a P/TBV analysis.  The ridiculously low valuations of the past 36 months aren’t there anymore. My enthusiasm for the sector is tempered by the macro-economic headwinds, the overall run-up in the market (a pull-back smells inevitable), and the unknown impact upon the sector of the current supply distortions from yield seeking capital market players entering the market.