Tag Archives: Product development

Pimping the Peers (Part 2)

In the last post on this topic, I highlighted how new technologies, broadly under the fintech tag, had the potential to disrupt the banking sector, primarily by means of automating processes rather than any major reinventing of business models (although I did end that post with a bit of a rant about innovation and human behaviour). Blockchain is the hot topic that seems to be cropping up everywhere (I’ll leave that for another time). This post is about insurance and new technology, or in the jargon, insurtech.

The traditional business model in the insurance industry is not reacting well to a world of low or negative interest rates. For the life insurance sector, the duration mismatch between their liabilities and their assets is having a perverse impact as interest rates have fallen. Savings returns for aging populations have been sacrificed in Central Bank’s attempt to stimulate economic growth.

In addition, the traditional distribution channel for selling life insurer’s products, and the old adage is that these products are sold rather than bought, has relied too heavily on aging tied agents whose focus is on the wealthy client that can generate more fees than the middle class. The industry is generally at a loss on how to sell products in a low interest world to the mass market and to the new tech savvy generation. As a result, the industry and others are throwing money at a rash of new start-ups in insurance, as the exhibit on some of the current hyped firms focusing on life insurance below illustrates.

click to enlargelife-insurance-big-data

As the exhibit illustrates, the focus of these new start-ups is weighted towards technologies around product development, distribution, and underwriting. Some will likely succeed in trying to differentiate further the existing clientele of life insurers (e.g. real time health data). Many will be gobbled up or disappear. Differing attitudes between those aged under 34 and the older generation towards online distribution channels can be clearly seen in the survey results in the exhibit below.

click to enlargeattitudes-to-life-insurance-distribution-channels

With longevity and low interest rates the dominant challenges for life insurers today, automation of processes will assist in cutting expenses in the provision of products (mainly to the existing customer base) but will not likely meaningfully address the twin elephants in the room.  Citigroup reckons that in 20 of the largest OECD countries the unfunded government liability for pensions is around $78 trillion which compares to approximately $50 trillion in GDP for all OECD countries in 2015. I look forward to conversing with a robo-advisor in the near future on what products it recommends for that problem!

Insurance itself is hundreds of years old and although the wonderfully namely bottomry (the earliest form of marine hull insurance) or ancient burial societies are early examples, non-life insurance really took off with mass markets after the great fire of London in 1666.

The most hyped example of insurtech in the non-life sector is the impact of technologies on the motor business like drive-less cars and car telematics. This paper from Swiss Re shows that the impact over the next 20 years of such advances on motor premia could be dramatic.

Much of the focus from insurtech innovation is on reducing expenses, an item that the industry is not light on. The graph below shows examples of the level of acquisition and overhead expenses in the non-life sector across different jurisdictions.

click to enlargenonlife-expense-ratios

A recent report from Aon Benfield went further and looked at expenses across the value chain in the US P&C insurance sector, as below. Aon Benfield estimated overall expenses make up approximately half of gross risk premium, much of which represents juicy disruption targets for new technology in the insurtech world.

click to enlargeexpenses-across-the-value-chain

Insurance itself is based upon the law of large numbers and serves a socially useful function in reducing economic volatility by transferring risks from businesses and consumers. In 1906, Alfred Manes defined insurance as “an economic institution resting on the principle of mutuality, established for the purpose of supplying a fund, the need for which arises from a chance occurrence whose probability can be estimated”.

One of the issues identified with the current non-life insurance sector is the so-called protection gap. This is in effect where insurers’ risk management practises have got incredibly adapt at identifying and excluding those risks most likely to result in a claim. Although good for profits, it does bring the social usefulness of the transference of only the pristine risks into question (for everybody else). The graph below from Swiss Re illustrates the point by showing economic and insured losses from natural catastrophe events as a % of GDP.

click to enlargeinsurance-protection-gap-uninsured-vrs-insured-losses

It’s in the context of low investment returns and competitive underwriting markets (in themselves being driven by low risk premia across asset classes) that a new technology driven approach to the mutual insurance model is being used to attack expense and protection gap issues.

Mutuals represent the original business model for many insurers (back to burial schemes and the great fire of 1666) and still represent approximately a third of the sector in the US and Europe today. Peer to peer insurers are what some are calling the new technology driven mutuals. In fact, most of the successful P2P models to date, firms like Guevara, Friendsurance, and Inspeer are really intermediaries who pool consumers together for group discounts or self-financing of high deductibles.

Lemonade, which launched in New York this week, is a peer to peer platform which issues its own insurance policies and seeks to address the protection gap issue by offering broader coverage. The firm has been heavily reinsured by some big names in insurance like Berkshire Hathaway and Lloyd’s. It offers a fee based model, whereby the policyholders pay claims through mutualisation (assumingly by pools determined by pre-defined criteria). Daniel Schreiber, CEO and co-founder of Lemonade says that the firm will be ”the only insurer that doesn’t make money by denying claims”. Dan Ariely, a big deal in the world of Behavioral Economics, has been named as Chief Behavioral Officer, presumably in an effort to assist in constructing pools of well behaved policyholders.

The graphic below tries to illustrate how the business model is evolving (or should that be repeating?). Technology offers policyholders the opportunity to join with others to pool risk, hitherto a process that was confined to associations amongst professional groups or groups bound by location. Whether technology offers the same opportunity to underwrite risks profitably (or at least not at a loss) but with a larger reach remains to be seen.

click to enlargeinsurance-business-models

It does occur to me that it may be successful in addressing areas of dislocation in the industry, such as shortfalls in coverage for flood insurance, where a common risk and mitigant can be identified and addressed in the terms of the respective pool taking the risks on.

For specialty re/insurers, we have already seen a bifurcation between the capital providers/risk takers and the risk portfolio managers in the ILS arena. Newer technology driven mutual based insurers also offer the industry a separation of the management of risk pools and the risk capital provided to underwrite them. I wish them well in their attempts at updating this most ancient of businesses and I repeat what I said in part 1 of this post – don’t let the sweet scent of shiny new technology distract you from the smell of the risk…..

The fascinating case of Betfair

With the ending of the World Cup, my attention turned again to my attempts at understanding the issues facing the betting and gambling sector. For the sake of full disclosure, I am a novice on the sector (I am not a gambler if investing and the odd poker game are not included as such) and have no positions in any betting or gaming stock. My ramblings here, and in previous posts, simply illustrate my attempts to satisfy my curiosity about a sector that is at a fascinating point of change.

In a previous post, I highlighted the changes that the internet has had on the betting and gaming sectors. At that time, I thought the impact of the disintermediating betting exchanges on traditional business models could provide interesting insights into other disintermediating businesses in the financial sector. However, as I have found out more about the sector, such as the results of the traditional betting firms in the UK as per this post, there are a multitude of issues facing the sector such that a review of the impact of the betting exchanges in isolation is not that informative and (frankly) outdated given current developments. Recent developments include regulatory changes such as those in the US which has prompted the purchase of the largest online poker firm Pokerstars by approximately $5 billion by Amaya Gaming and new online taxes such as the forthcoming UK point of consumption (POC) tax of 15% due in December.

As the graph of Betfair’s share price since its floatation in late 2010 shows, the betting exchange model clearly has not had much of a disruptive impact on the traditional business models in recent years.

click to enlargeBetfair historical share price

Rather than go over Betfair’s eventful past in detail here, I will focus on current issues. Niall O’Connor in his blog, bettingmarket.com, has a number of informative articles on the history of Betfair, including this one. Below, I show a graph of Betfair’s profit before tax against the other UK betting firms which illustrates its difficulties in the recent past. The 2012 results (which are Betfair’s YE 2013 results as their year ends in April) exclude some write-offs and adjustments as a result of Betfair’s turnaround plan (which are included in the dotted line). The plan involved refocusing on sustainable geographical betting markets with accommodative regulations and developing a fixed odds betting business alongside the exchange to optimise the liquidity advantages of each model.

The new plan, in effect, admitted that the stand alone betting exchange model was flawed and that some markets “may not have sufficient liquidity to offer an optimal betting experience, notably in ante post and ancillary markets“. The firm estimates its share of the sophisticated bettor market of £150 million at 60-70% but its share of the recreational and occasional bettor market of £500 million at less than 10%. This market is where they see growth and Breon Corcoran, previously Paddy Power’s COO, was brought in as Betfair’s new CEO in August 2012 to execute on the new direction. The most recent results show that the new strategy is delivering better results.

click to enlargeBetfair 10 year Profit Before Tax margins

The focus on sustainable betting markets and cost cutting whilst increasing marketing spending (Betfair were high profile in recent World Cup advertising) can be seen in the graph below. Product development in features such as cash out and price rush (automatically gives the best odds from fixed odds and exchange) are being heavily pushed, particularly in the growingly important mobile market.

click to enlargeBetfair Revenue & Expense Breakdown

As mentioned in the previous post, there is a vast body of academic research on the gambling market and with the wealth of data that Betfair offers, the betting exchange market has been no exception in the studies. The Institute for Strategy and Business Economics in the University of Zurich in particular has some interesting papers. This one, for example, contends that there is a growing body of evidence that exchange markets “exhibit high prediction accuracy as they regularly outperform non-market forecasting methods”. The well-documented long-shot bias where the tendency to overvalue underdogs by fixed odd markets “is less pronounced in person-to-person betting” and this can be used by traders on the betting exchange to arbitrage price differences.

There is a particularly interesting paper by Egon Franck, Raphael Flepp and Stephan Nüesch in the University of Zurich from December 2013 on the importance of liquidity in determining price competitiveness which the authors offer as one of the reasons behind BetFair’s move into fixed odds online betting. Other arbitrage opportunities indentified by research include bookmakers actively shading prices in the presence of a partly irrational betting audience in order to increase their profit (e.g. sentiment bias in football games by the home fans) or the movement in odds prior and during games with the growth of in-play betting.

The development of sports investment funds was previously highlighted in a Bloomberg article and despite an early hic-cup with the collapse of a fund called Centaur there are many now developing predictive algorithms which try to take advantage of arbitrage opportunities. BetFair is consistently looking at how it can optimise its pricing (on the exchange it earns its commissions on winnings by a sliding scale on volume) in different geographical areas and sports to maximise its commissions, despite an outcry from a pricing charge change a few years ago.

Although BetFair face considerable challenges (e.g. I estimate that 95% of BetFair’s sustainable revenues are concentrated in the UK and the firm disclosed that the POC tax, if implemented as currently envisaged, would of cost them £36 million for their 2014 year, one with £61 million of operating profit!) in the short to medium term, one of their strengths is the balance sheet with a net asset ratio of 55% and a cash pile of over £200 million and a strong cash generating business. In their latest results Corcoran commented that “the flexibility we retain through our strong balance sheet provides a competitive advantage during uncertain times for the gaming sector. We will continue to review our balance sheet on a regular basis.” Although Betfair are a fascinating case to keep an eye on, the uncertainties on the POC tax issues outweigh any positive investment case for now.

In my attempts at understanding the sector more, these comments led me to look at some other models (and possible acquisition targets) in the other publically traded online firms, mainly on the gaming side. Names that I have looked at include 888, BWIN (currently looking at strategic options!) and 32Red. I am also intrigued by the software gaming firm Playtech which provides the underlying software to many firms in the sector. I will follow-up with a post on further musings.