Tag Archives: price to book value

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….

Lancashire…so much to answer for.

My bearishness on the reinsurance and specialty insurance sector is based upon my view of a lack of operating income upside due to the growing pricing pressures and poor investment income. I have posted many times (most recently here) on the book value multiple expansion that has driven valuations over the past few years. With operating income under pressure, further multiple expansion represents the only upside in valuations from here and that’s not a very attractive risk/reward profile in my view. So I am happy to go to the sidelines to observe from here.

So, what does this mean for my previously disclosed weak spot for Lancashire, one the richest valued names in the sector? Lancashire posted YE2013 results last week and disappointed the market on the size of its special dividend. As previously highlighted, its Cathedral acquisition marked a change in direction for Lancashire, one which has confused observers as to its future. During the conference call, in response to anxious analysts, management assured the market that M&A is behind it and that its remains a nimble lead specialist high risk/high return underwriter dedicated to maximising shareholder returns from a fixed capital base, despite the lower than expected final special dividend announced for 2013.

The graph below illustrates the past success of Lancashire. Writing large lead lines on property, energy, marine and aviation business has resulted in some astonishingly good underwriting returns for Lancashire in the past. The slowly increasing calendar year combined ratios for the past 5 years and the lack of meaningful reserve releases for the past two year (2013 even saw some reserve deterioration on old years) show the competitive pressures that have been building on Lancashire’s business model.

click to enlargeLancashire Combined Ratio Breakdown 2006 to 2013

The Cathedral acquisition offers Lancashire access to another block of specialist business (which does look stickier than some of Lancashire’s business, particularly on the property side). It also offers Lancashire access to Lloyds which could have some capital arbitrage advantages if Lancashire starts to write the energy and terrorism business through the Lloyds’ platform (as indicated by CEO Richard Brindle on the call). Including the impact of drastically reducing the property retrocession book for 2014, I estimate that the Cathedral deal will add approx 25% to GWP and NEP for 2014. Based upon indications during the call, I estimate that GWP breakdown for 2014 as per the graph below.

click to enlargeLancashire GWP Split

One attractive feature of Lancashire is that it has gone from a net seller of retrocession to a net buyer. Management highlighted the purchase of an additional $100 million in aggregate protection. This is reflected in the January 1 PML figures. Although both Lancashire and Cathedral write over 40% of their business in Q1, I have taken the January 1 PML figures as a percentage of the average earned premium figures from the prior and current year in the exhibit below.

click to enlargeLancashire PMLs January 2010 to January 2014

The graphs above clearly show that Lancashire is derisking its portfolio compared to the higher risk profile of the past two years (notably in relation to Japan). This is a clever way to play the current market. Notwithstanding this de-risking, the portfolio remains a high risk one with significant natural catastrophic exposure.

It is hard to factor in the Cathedral results without more historical data than the quarterly 2013 figures provided in the recent supplement (another presentation does provide historical ultimate loss ratio figures, which have steadily decreased over time for the acquired portfolio) and lsome of the CFO comments on the call referring to attritional loss ratios & 2013 reserve releases. I estimate a 68% combined ratio in 2014, absent significant catastrophe losses, which means an increase in the 2013 underwriting profit of $170 million to $220 million. With other income, such as investment income and fee income from the sidecar, 2014 could offer a return of the higher special dividend.

So, do I make an exception for Lancashire? First, even though the share price hasn’t performed well and currently trades around Stg7.30, the stock remains highly valued around 180% tangible book.  Second, pricing pressures mean that Lancashire will find it hard to make combined ratios for the combined entities significantly lower than the 70% achieved in 2013, in my view. So overall, although Lancashire is tempting (and will be more so if it falls further towards Stg7.00), my stance remains that the upside over the medium term does not compensate for the potential downside. Sometimes it is hard to remain disciplined……

New valuation realities

As the market pulls back again this week in a much-needed dose of worry about where QE is leading us and how it will end, there is another interesting article from Buttonwood in this week’s Economist. Based upon work of analysts in investment banks BNP Paribas, Société Générale, and Goldman Sachs (Andrew Lapthorne of SG does high quality analysis and his work generally makes for insightful reading), the article highlights how valuations based upon price to book ratios have broken with pre-crisis history and currently differentiate more acutely between “quality” stocks (depending upon varying criteria as applied by the said analysts).

The article highlights the limited pool of “quality” stocks no-matter what criteria is used and Buttonwood also makes a point (which I fully agree with), namely that “investors have been flocking to equities because interest rates are so low; some, perhaps, on the naive view that using a lower discount rate on future cashflows translates into higher share prices today“.

As readers of this blog will be aware, two sectors that I follow are the wholesale insurance and the alternative telecom sectors. In previous posts, I have presented my historical valuation metrics for both sectors (albeit from limited samples) and they are combined in the graph below (one based upon price to tangible book, the other an EV/ebitda metric). The alternative telecom sector is as far away from any “quality” stock criteria that one could imagine and would be in the lowest quintile (on volatility alone!) of any sensible criteria. Although results are volatile by definition in the wholesale insurance sector, some of the bigger names like Munich Re may get higher ratings, maybe a 2 or 3 on Buttonwood’s graph.

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wholesale insurer & altnet valuation metric comparison

The main point I am trying to make in this post is that relying on valuations returning to levels prior to the financial crisis for certain sectors is just not realistic or sensible. Unless the market goes into fantasy land on the upside (this may seem idle speculation given the market’s current mood but just think where sentiment was a few short weeks ago), the differentiation currently been made in the market between business models and their inherent volatility is rational. The worry, as the article points out, is that there is not enough “quality” stocks around currently to wet the appetite of hungry investors and historically that has been a negative indicator for future stock returns.