Tag Archives: reserve releases

The Big Wind

With four US hurricanes and one earthquake in current times, mother nature is reminding us homo-sapiens of her power and her unpredictability. As the massive Hurricane Irma is about to hit Florida, we all hope that the loss of life and damage to people’s lives will be minimal and that the coming days will prove humane. Forgive me if it comes across as insensitive to be posting now on the likely impact of such events on the insurance industry.

For the insurance sector, these events, and particularly Hurricane Irma which is now forecast to move up the west coast of Florida at strength (rather the more destruction path of up the middle of Florida given the maximum forces at the top right-hand side of a hurricane like this one), may be a test on the predictive powers of its models which are so critical to pricing, particularly in the insurance linked securities (ILS) market.

Many commentators, including me (here, here and here are recent examples), have expressed worries in recent years about current market conditions in the specialty insurance, reinsurance and ILS sectors. On Wednesday, Willis Re reported that they estimate their subset of firms analysed are only earning a 3.7% ROE if losses are normalised and reserve releases dried up. David Rule of the Prudential Regulatory Authority in the UK recently stated that London market insurers “appear to be incorporating a more benign view of future losses into their technical pricing”, terms and conditions continued to loosen, reliance on untested new coverages such as cyber insurance is increasing and that insurers “may be too sanguine about catastrophe risks, such as significant weather events”.

With the reinsurance and specialty insurance sectors struggling to meet their cost of capital and pricing terms and conditions being so weak for so long (see this post on the impact of soft pricing on risk profiles), if Hurricane Irma impacts Florida as predicted (i.e. on Saturday) it has the potential to be a capital event for the catastrophe insurance sector rather than just an earnings event. On Friday, Lex in the FT reported that the South-East US makes up 60% of the exposures of the catastrophe insurance market.

The models utilised in the sector are more variable in their output as events get bigger in their impact (e.g. the higher the return period). A 2013 post on the variation in loss estimates from a selected portfolio of standard insurance coverage by the Florida Commission on Hurricane Loss Projection Methodology (FCHLPM) illustrates the point and one of the graphs from that post is reproduced below.

click to enlarge

Based upon the most recent South-East US probable maximum losses (PML) and Atlantic hurricane scenarios from a group of 12 specialty insurers and reinsurers I selected, the graph below shows the net losses by return periods as a percentage of each firm’s net tangible assets. This graph does not consider the impact of hybrid or subordinate debt that may absorb losses before the firm’s capital. I have extrapolated many of these curves based upon industry data on US South-East exceedance curves and judgement on firm’s exposures (and for that reason I anonymised the firms).

click to enlarge

The results of my analysis confirm that specialty insurers and reinsurers, in aggregate, have reduced their South-East US exposures in recent years when I compare average figures to S&P 2014 data (by about 15% for the 1 in 100 return period). Expressed as a net loss ratio, the average for a 1 in 100  and a 1 in 250 return period respectively is 15% and 22%. These figures do look low for events with characteristics of these return periods (the average net loss ratio of the 12 firms from catastrophic events in 2005 and 2011 was 22% and 25% respectively) so it will be fascinating to see what the actual figures are, depending upon how Hurricane Irma pans out. Many firms are utilising their experience and risk management prowess to transfer risks through collaterised reinsurance and retrocession (i.e. reinsurance of reinsurers) to naïve capital market ILS investors.

If the models are correct and maximum losses are around the 1 in 100 return period estimates for Hurricane Irma, well capitalized and managed catastrophe exposed insurers should trade through recent and current events. We will see if the models pass this test. For example, demand surge (whereby labour and building costs increase following a catastrophic event due to overwhelming demand and fixed supply) is a common feature of widespread windstorm damage and is a feature in models (it is one of those inputs that underwriters can play with in soft markets!). Well here’s a thought – could Trump’s immigration policy be a factor in the level of demand surge in Florida and Texas?

The ILS sector is another matter however in my view due to the rapid growth of the private and unregulated collateralised reinsurance and retrocession markets to satisfy the demand for product supply from ILS funds and yield seeking investors. The prevalence of aggregate covers and increased expected loss attachments in the private ILS market resembles features of previous soft and overheated retrocession markets (generally before a crash) in bygone years. I have expressed my concerns on this market many times (more recently here). Hurricane Irma has the potential to really test underwriting standards across the ILS sector. The graph below from Lane Financial LLC on the historical pricing of US military insurer USAA’s senior catastrophe bonds again illustrates how the market has taken on more risk for less risk adjusted premium (exposures include retired military personnel living in Florida).

click to enlarge

The events in the coming days may tell us, to paraphrase Mr Buffet, who has been swimming naked or as Lex put it on Friday, “this weekend may be a moment when the search for uncorrelated returns bumps hard into acts of God”.

Hopefully, all parts of the catastrophe insurance sector will prove their worth by speedily indemnifying peoples’ material losses (nothing can indemnify the loss of life). After all, that’s its function and economic utility to society. Longer term, recent events may also lead to more debate and real action been taken to ensure that the insurance sector, in all its guises, can have an increased economic function and relevance in an increasingly uncertain world, in insuring perils such as floods for example (and avoiding the ridiculous political interference in risk transfer markets that has made the financial impact of flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Texas so severe).

Notwithstanding the insurance sector, our thoughts must be with the people who will suffer from nature’s recent wrath and our prayers are with all of those negatively affected now and in the future.

Lessons from Lloyds

There is little doubt that the financial services industry is currently facing many challenges and undergoing a generational change. The US economist Thomas Philippon opined that the finance industry over-expansion in the US means that it’s share of GDP is about 2 percentage points higher than it needs to be although he has also estimated that the unit cost of intermediation hasn’t changed significantly in recent years, despite advances in technology and the regulatory assaults upon the industry following the financial crisis.

The insurance sector has its own share of issues. Ongoing low interest rates and inflation, broader low risk premia across the capital markets, rapid technology changes such as big data and the onset of real time underwriting are just the obvious items. The Economist had an article in March that highlighted the prospective impact of data monitoring and technology on the underwriting of motor and health risks. This is another interesting post on a number of the new peer to peer business models such as Friendsurance, Bought by Many, and Guevara who are trying to disrupt the insurance sector. There can be little doubt that the insurance industry, just like other financial sectors, will be impacted by such secular trends.

However, this post is primarily focused on the short to medium term outlook for the specialty insurance and reinsurance sector. I have been asked a few of times by readers to outline what I think the next few years may look like for this sector. My views of the current market were nicely articulated by Alex Maloney, the Group CEO of Lancashire, who commented in their recent quarterly results statement as follows:

“The year to date has seen a flurry of activity on the M&A front within the industry, much of this, in my view, is driven by the need to rationalise and refocus oversized and over stretched businesses. We also continue to see a bout of initiatives and innovations in the market, the sustainability and longer term viability of which are questionable. These are symptoms of where we are in the cycle. We have seen these types of trends before and in all likelihood, will see them again.”

Lloyds of London has had a colourful past and many of its historical issues are specific to it and reflective of its own eccentric ways. However, as a proxy for the global specialty sector, particularly over the past 20 years, it provides some interesting context on the trends we find ourselves in today. Using data from Lloyds with some added flavour from my experiences, the graphic below shows the dramatic history of the market since 1950.

click to enlargeLloyds Historical Results 1950 to 2015

The impact of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 upon Lloyds illustrated a number of the fault-lines in the structure of Lloyds with the subsequent Cromer report warning on the future danger of unequal treatment between insiders (aka working Names) and “dumb” capital providers (aka all other Names). The rapid influx of such ill informed capital in the late 1970s and the 1980s laid the seeds of the market’s near destruction largely due to the tsunami of US liability claims resulting from asbestos and pollution exposures in the 1980s. These losses were exacerbated by the way Lloyds closed underwriting years to future capital providers through vastly underpriced reinsurance to close transactions and the practice of the incestuous placement of excess of loss retrocession for catastrophe losses within the market, otherwise known as the London Market Excess of Loss (LMX) spiral. There is a clever article by Joy Schwartzman from 2008 on the similarity between the LMX spiral and the financial risk transformational illusions that featured heavily in the financial crisis. Indeed, the losses from the sloppy “occurrence” liability insurance policy wordings and the tragedy of unheeded asbestos risks continued to escalate well into the 1990s, as the exhibit below from a 2013 Towers Watson update illustrates.

click to enlargeTowers Watson Asbestos Claims US P&C Insurers

What happened in Lloyds after the market settlement with Names and the creation of the “bad bank” Equitas for the 1992 and prior losses is where the lessons of Lloyds are most applicable to the market today. The graphic below shows the geographical and business split of Lloyds over the past 20 years, showing that although the underlying risk and geographical mix has changed it remains a diversified global business.

click to enlargeLloyds of London Historical Geographical & Sector Split

Released from the burden of the past after the creation of Equitas, the market quickly went on what can only be described as an orgy of indiscipline. The pricing competition was brutal in the last half of the 1990s with terms and conditions dramatically widened. Rating indices published by the market, as below, at the time show the extent of the rate decreases although the now abandoned underwriting indices published at the same time spectacularly failed to show the impact of the loosening of T&Cs.

click to enlargeLloyds of London Rating Indices 1992 to 1999

As Lloyds moved from their historical three year accounting basis in the 2000s it’s difficult to compare historical ratios from the 1990s. Notwithstanding this, I did made an attempt to reconcile combined ratios from the 1990s in the exhibit below which clearly illustrates the impact market conditions had on underwriting results.

click to enlargeLloyds of London historical combined ratio breakdown

The Franchise Board established in 2003, under the leadership of the forthright and highly effective Rolf Tolle, was created to enforce market discipline in Lloyds after the disastrous 1990s. The combined ratios from recent years illustrate the impact it has had on results although the hard market after 9/11 provided much of the impetus. The real test of the Franchise Board will be outcome of the current soft market. The rating indices published by Amlin, as below, show where rates are currently compared to the rates in 2002 (which were pushed up to a level following 2001 to recover most of the 1990s fall-off). Rating indices published by Lancashire also confirm rate decreases of 20%+ since 2012 in lines like US property catastrophe, energy and aviation.

click to enlargeLloyds of London Rating Indices 2002 to 2015

The macro-economic environment and benign claims inflation over the past several years has clearly helped loss ratios. A breakdown of the recent reserve releases, as below, show that reinsurance and property remain important sources of releases (the reinsurance releases are also heavily dependent on property lines).

click to enlargeLloyds of London Reserve Release Breakdown 2004 to 2014

Better discipline and risk management have clearly played their part in the 10 year average ROE of 15% (covering 2005 to 2014 with the 2005 and 2011 catastrophe years included). The increasing overhead expenses are an issue for Lloyds, recently causing Ed Noonan of Validus to comment:

“We think that Lloyd’s remains an outstanding market for specialty business and their thrust towards international diversification is spot on from a strategic perspective. However, the costs associated with Lloyd’s and the excessive regulation in the UK are becoming significant issues, as is the amount of management and Board time spent on compliance well beyond what’s necessary to ensure a solvent and properly functioning market. Ultimately, this smothering regulatory blanket will drive business out of Lloyd’s and further the trend of placement in local markets.”

So what does all of this tell us about the next few years? Pricing and relaxed terms and conditions will inevitably have an impact, reserve releases will dry up particularly from reinsurance and property, investment returns may improve and claim inflation may increase but neither materially so, firms will focus on expense reduction whilst dealing with more intrusive regulation, and the recent run of low catastrophic losses will not last. ROEs of low double digits or high single digits does not, in my view, compensate for these risks. Longer term the market faces structural changes, in the interim it faces a struggle to deliver a sensible risk adjusted return.

Same old guff

Now that the US hurricane season is over without any material events, I had a quick look over a few transcripts of conference calls in the specialty insurance and reinsurance sectors to see if there was any interesting comments on where the market is going.

Nearly everybody claims to be mitigating the challenging market conditions by ducking & diving between business classes whilst keeping their overall underwriting discipline. The softness in the reinsurance market has spread into the insurance market, albeit not to the same extent. The reality is that results continue to be flattered by reserve releases, low loss activity and improved loss trends. Market realities are slowly being reflected in ROEs which are coming down to the low double digits.

Nearly all of the reinsurers are claiming to be the winners in the structural changes in the “tiering” of the market whereby cedants are reducing their reinsurance spend and concentrating that spend amongst a select group of reinsurers. Everybody has special relationships and the gravity defying underwriters! That same old guff was the typical response in the late 1990s.

The only interesting comment that I could find was from the ever colourful Ed Noonan of Validus who, after claiming that not everybody is as disciplined as they claim (he was talking about the large generalist reinsurers), said the following:

“It’s unfortunate because the market has had such strong discipline for the last decade. There are no magical segments that are beautifully priced, and the idea that a well-diversified portfolio poorly priced risk makes sense is an economic capital model-based fantasy.”

The last sentence reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from Jim Leitner of Falcon Management that “there is no real diversification in owning a portfolio of overvalued assets“.

My view is that few economic capital models in the insurance market which are currently being used to allocate capital to business classes are taking such arguments seriously enough and most are likely over-estimating the benefit of diversification across soft or under-priced portfolios.