Tag Archives: new normal

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.

Age of Change

As if we all needed proof that the people across the so called developed world are troubled about the future, the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency last Tuesday is still a shock and unfolded in a spookingly familiar manner to the Brexit vote. “Wrong!” as Alec Baldwin has so aptly mimicked could be the call to the pollsters and commentators who are now scratching around despondently for reasons.

Why, we again ask, could an electorate so recklessly vote against conventional wisdom. I think the answer is in the question. Although the factors behind Trump’s vote are multi-faceted and reflect a bizarre coalition that will be impossible to satisfy, the over-riding factor has to lie at the door of an electorate that is troubled by future prospects and rejects the status quo. Why else would they vote for a man that polls suggests a majority acknowledge as been unqualified for the job? Aspects such as the worry of aging baby boomers at the diminishing returns on savings, the insecurity of the middle and working classes over globalisation, and the realisation that the technology from the shared economy is a cover for unsecure low wage employment have all contributed. Like in the Brexit vote, Trump tapped into a nostalgia for times past as an easy answer to the complex questions facing the world we live in.

The age profile of the Brexiteers in the UK and Trump voters in the US is interesting in that it highlights that Trump’s surprise victory is slightly less of a factor of age than Brexit.

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Aging demographics in the developed world has been highlighted by many as a contributor to the current low growth. I last posted on this topic before here and the graph below is a reminder of one of the current predictions by the UN.

click to enlargeunited-nations-population-projections-2015-to-2100

The impacts of aging on future dependency ratios can be seen below, again from UN predictions.

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A fascinating report from the research department of the FED last month, entitled “Understanding the New Normal: The Role of Demographics”, argues that demographic factors alone in the US account for 1.25% decline in the nature rate of interest and real GDP growth since 1980. The report concludes that “looking forward, the model suggests that low interest rates, low output growth, and low investment rates are here to stay, suggesting that the U.S. economy has entered a new normal”.

There was an interesting article recently in the FT called “The effects of aging” which included the graph below from UBS which strikingly highlights the changes in demographic trends and financial crises.

click to enlargefinancial-crisis-demographic-turning-points

Whatever disparate concoction of economic policies that Trump will follow in an attempt to tap the ghost of Reaganomics, it is clear that lower taxes and increased US debt will be feature. Trump may surprise everyone and use debt wisely to increase productivity on items such as rebuilding infrastructure, although it’s more likely to go on wasteful expenditure to satisfy his motley crew of constituents (eh hello, a Mexico wall!).

I constructed an index to show the relative level of debt dependency of countries using the 2020 debt level predicted by the IMF and the average 2020 to 2050 dependency ratios by the UN. Both the US and the UK are above the average based upon current forecasts and really can’t afford any debt laden policy cul-de-sacs. One only has to look at Japan for enlightenment in that direction. We have to hope that policies pursued by politicians in the US and the UK in their attempt to bring back the past over the next few years don’t result in unsustainable debt levels. Maybe inflation, some are calling the outcome of Trump’s likely policies trumpflation, will inflate debts away!

click to enlargedebt-dependency-index

In his recent book, “A banquet of consequences”, Satyajit Das articulated the choice we have in terms of a choice of two bad options by using the metaphor of the ancient  mythical sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, who terrorised sailors. Das said “Today, the world is trapped between Scylla, existing policies that promise stagnation and slow decline, and Charybdis, decisive action that leads to an immediate loss in living standards.

The character of Charybdis is said to be the personification of a whirlwind. Remind you of anyone….?