Tag Archives: Richard Brindle

A Tale of Two Insurers

My negativity on the operating prospects for the reinsurance and specialty insurance sector has been articulated many times previously in this blog. Many of the same factors are impacting the broader commercial insurance market. Pricing conditions in the US and globally can be seen in the graph below.

click to enlargeUS and Global Commercial Insurance Pricing

Two insurers, at different ends of the size scale, which I have previously posted on, are AIG (more recently here and here) and Lancashire (more recently here and here). Given that a lot has happened to each since I last posted on them, I thought a quick update on both would give an interesting insight into the current market.

First up is AIG who have been under a lot of pressure from shareholders to unlock value, including a break-up plan for the insurance giant from the opportunistic rascal Carl Icahn. The graph below shows a breakdown of recent operating results (as ever with AIG longer term comparisons are hampered by their ever changing reporting segments). The improvement in the UGC mortgage insurance business has been dwarfed by the poor non-life results which were impacted by a significant reserve strengthening charge.

click to enlargeAIG PreTax Operating Income 2012 to 2015

In January, Peter Hancock (the 5th CEO since Hank Greenberg left in 2005) announced a new strategic plan to the end of 2017, the main points of which are

  • Return at least $25 billion of capital to shareholders through dividends and share buy-backs from operating profits, divestitures and other actions such as monetizing future life profits by $4-5 billion through reinsurance purchases.
  • Enhance transparency by separating into an operating portfolio with a goal of over 10% return on equity and a legacy portfolio that will focus on return of capital. Reorganize into at least nine modular, more self-contained business units to enhance accountability, transparency, and strategic flexibility.
  • Reduce general operating expenses by $1.6 billion, 14 percent of the 2015 expenses.
  • Improve the commercial P&C accident year loss ratio by six points.
  • Pursue an active divestiture program, including initially the 20% IPO of UGC.

The non-life reserve charge in 2015 amounted to $3.6 billion. 60% of the charge came from the (mainly US) casualty business, 16% from financial lines (again mainly in the US) and 15% from the run-off business. After the last material reserve strengthening in 2010, the worrying aspect of the 2015 charge is that approximately two thirds comes from accident years not yet 10 years old (which is relatively immature for long tail casualty business particularly when 42% of the charge is on excess casualty business). The impact of the reserve hikes on the commercial P&C segment can be clearly seen in the graph below.

click to enlargeAIG Commercial P&C Combined Ratio Breakdown 2008 to 2015

Perhaps the most aggressive target, given current market conditions, in the strategic plan is the 6% improvement in the commercial P&C accident year loss ratio by the end of 2017. The plan includes exiting approximately $1 billion of US casualty business, including poorly performing excess casualty business, primary and excess auto liability, health-care and financial lines business. Growth of $0.5 billion is been targeted in multi-national, financial lines, property upper middle market and major accounts which involve specialist engineering capabilities, international casualty and emerging risks such as cyber and M&A insurance. AIG also recently announced a two year reinsurance deal with Swiss Re on their US casualty book (it looks like a 25% quota share). The scale of the task for AIG in meeting this target can be seen in the exhibit below which takes a number of slides from the strategy presentation.

click to enlargeAIG Commercial P&C Metrics

I was struck by a quote from the firm on their turnaround plan – “We will use the data and analytical tools we have invested in to significantly differentiate and determine where we should focus our resources.” I suspect that every significant insurer would claim to have, or at least aspire to have, similar analytical capabilities. Big data and analytical driven underwriting is undoubtedly the future for large insurers with access to large amounts of quality data. Fortune had an interesting recent article on the analytical firm Palantir who are working with some insurers on sharpening their underwriting criteria for the social media age. An analyst in Citi even suggested that Goggle should look at buying AIG as a fintech play. The entry of the big internet firms into the insurance sector seems inevitable in some form or other, although I doubt AIG will be part of any such strategy.

As to the benefits of staying a large composite insurer, AIG cited an analysis commissioned by consultants Oliver Wyman supporting the benefits of diversification between the life and non-life business of AIG. Using the S&P consolidated model as a proxy, Oliver Wyman estimate a $7.5 billion capital benefit to AIG compared to separate life and non-life businesses, as envisaged in Icahn’s plan.

So, can AIG achieve the aggressive operational targets they have set themselves for the P&C business? Current market conditions present a considerable challenge. Combined with their recent results, an end of 2017 target for a 6% improvement is extremely aggressive. Too aggressive for my liking. However, the P&C results should improve somewhat over the short term (particularly if there is no more big reserve charges) and actions such as expense reductions, monetizing future life profits and divestitures will give AIG the fire power to hand out sweeties to shareholders. For those willing to take the punt, the return of a chunk of the $25 billion target in dividends and share buy-backs over the next 2 years for a firm with a current market value of $61 billion, trading at a 0.72 multiple to book value (trading around 0.92 of book less AOCI and DTA), may be too tempting to resist. It does have a certain allure…..

Lancashire, a London market specialty insurer and reinsurer with a mantra of disciplined underwriting, is at the opposite end of the scale spectrum with a niche focus. Long cherished by investors for its shareholder friendly dividend policies, Lancashire has been under pressure of late due to the heavy competition in its niche markets. The energy insurance sector, for example, has been described by the broker Willis as dismal with capacity chasing a smaller premium pool due to the turmoil in the oil market. A number of recent articles (such as here and here) highlight the dangers. Alex Maloney, the firm’s CEO, described the current market as “one of the most difficult trading environments during the last twenty years”. In addition, Lancashire lost its founder, Richard Brindle, in 2014 plus the CEO, the CFO and some senior underwriters of its Lloyds’ Cathedral unit in 2015.

The graph below shows the breakdown of reported historical calendar year combined ratios plus the latest accident year net loss ratio and paid ratio.

click to enlargeLancashire Ratio Breakdown 2008 to 2015

The underwriting discipline that Lancashire professes can be seen in the recent accident year loss ratios and in the 30% drop in gross written premiums (GWP), as per the graph below. The drop is more marked in net written premiums at 35% due to the increase in reinsurance spend to 25% of GWP (from approx 10% in its early years).

click to enlargeLancashire GWP Breakdown 2008 to 2015

The timely and astute increase in reinsurance protection spend can be seen in the decrease in their peak US aggregate exposures. The latest probable maximum loss (PML) estimates for their US peak exposures are approximately $200 million compared to historical levels of $300-350 million. Given the lower net premium base, the PML figures in loss ratio terms have only dropped to 40% from 50-60% historically. Lancashire summed up their reinsurance purchasing strategy as follows:

“Our outwards reinsurance programme provides a breadth and depth of cover which has helped us to strengthen our position and manage volatility. This helps us to continue to underwrite our core portfolio through the challenges posed by the cycle.”

As with AIG, the temptation for shareholders is that Lancashire will continue with their generous dividends, as the exhibit below from their Q4 2015 presentation shows.

click to enlargeLancashire Dividend History 2015

The other attraction of Lancashire is that it may become a take-over target. It currently trades at 1.4 times tangible book level which is rich compared to its US and Bermudian competitors but low compared to its peers in Lloyds’ which trade between 1.58 and 2.0 times tangible book. Lancashire itself included the exhibit below on tangible book values in its Q4 2015 presentation.

click to enlargeInsurance Tangible Book Value Multiple 2012 to 2015

It is noteworthy that there has been little activity on the insurance M&A front since the eye boggling multiples achieved by Amlin and HCC from their diversification hungry Japanese purchasers. Many in the market thought the valuations signaled the top of the M&A frenzy.

Relatively, AIG looks more attractive than Lancashire in terms of the potential for shareholder returns. However, fundamentally I cannot get away from current market conditions. Risk premia is just too low in this sector and no amount of tempting upside through dividends, buy-backs or M&A multiples can get me comfortable with the downside potential that comes with this market. As per the sentiment expressed in previous posts, I am happy with zero investment exposure to the insurance sector right now. I will watch this one play out from the sidelines.

Thoughts on ILS Pricing

Valuations in the specialty insurance and reinsurance sector have been given a bump up with all of the M&A activity and the on-going speculation about who will be next. The Artemis website reported this week that Deutsche Bank believe the market is not differentiating enough between firms and that even with a lower cost of capital some are over-valued, particularly when lower market prices and the relaxation in terms and conditions are taken into account. Although subject to hyperbole, industry veteran John Charman now running Endurance, stated in a recent interview that market conditions in reinsurance are the most “brutal” he has seen in his 44 year career.

One interesting development is the re-emergence of Richard Brindle with a new hybrid hedge fund type $2 billion firm, as per this Bloomberg article. Given the money Brindle made out of Lancashire, I am surprised that he is coming back with a business plan that looks more like a jump onto the convergence hedge fund reinsurer band wagon than anything more substantive given current market conditions. Maybe he has nothing to lose and is bored! It will be interesting to see how that one develops.

There have been noises coming out of the market that insurance linked securities (ILS) pricing has reached a floor. Given that the Florida wind exposure is ground zero for the ILS market, I had a look through some of the deals on the Artemis website, to see what pricing was like. The graph below does only have a small number of data points covering different deal structures so any conclusions have to be tempered. Nonetheless, it does suggest that rate reductions are at least slowing in 2015.

click to enlargeFlorida ILS Pricing

Any review of ILS pricing, particularly for US wind perils, should be seen in the context of a run of low storm recent activity in the US for category 3 or above. In their Q3-2014 call, Renaissance Re commented (as Eddie pointed out in the comments to this post) that the probability of a category 3 or above not making landfall in the past 9 years is statistically at a level below 1%. The graph below shows some wind and earthquake pricing by vintage (the quake deals tend to be the lower priced ones).

click to enlargeWind & Quake ILS Pricing by year

This graph does suggest that a floor has been reached but doesn’t exactly inspire any massive confidence that pricing in recent deals is any more adequate than that achieved in 2014.

From looking through the statistics on the Artemis website, I thought that a comparison to corporate bond spreads would be interesting. In general (and again generalities temper the validity of conclusions), ILS public catastrophe bonds are rated around BB so I compared the historical spreads of BB corporate against the average ILS spreads, as per the graph below.

click to enlargeILS Spreads vrs BB Corporate Spread

The graph shows that the spreads are moving in the same direction in the current environment. Of course, it’s important to remember that the price of risk is cheap across many asset classes as a direct result of the current monetary policy across the developed world of stimulating economic activity through encouraging risk taking.

Comparing spreads in themselves has its limitation as the underlying exposure in the deals is also changing. Artemis uses a metric for ILS that divides the spread by the expected loss, referred to herein as the ILS multiple. The expected loss in ILS deals is based upon the catastrophe modeller’s catalogue of hurricane and earthquake events which are closely aligned to the historical data of known events. To get a similar statistic to the ILS multiple for corporate bonds, I divided the BB spreads by the 20 year average of historical default rates from 1995 to 2014 for BB corporate risks. The historical multiples are in the graph below.

click to enlargeILS vrs BB Corporate Multiples

Accepting that any conclusions from the graph above needs to consider the assumptions made and their limitations, the trends in multiples suggests that investors risk appetite in the ILS space is now more aggressive than that in the corporate bond space. Now that’s a frightening thought.

Cheap risk premia never ends well and no fancy new hybrid business model can get around that reality.

Follow-up: Lane Financial LLC has a sector report out with some interesting statistics. One comment that catch my eye is that they estimate a well spread portfolio by a property catastrophic reinsurer who holds capital at a 1-in-100 and a 1-in-250 level would only achieve a ROE of 8% and 6.8% respectively at todays ILS prices compared to a ROE of 18% and 13.3% in 2012. They question “the sustainability of the independent catastrophe reinsurer” in this pricing environment and offer it as an explanation “why we have begun to see mergers and acquisitions, not between two pure catastrophe reinsurers but with cat writers partnering with multi-lines writers“.

Lancashire finds the love

After going ex-dividend in November, investors went mega bearish on Lancashire (LRE.L) when it nearly dropped below the 500p level, as the graph below shows. A previous post highlighted the reasons behind the change in sentiment over the first half of 2014 on the once darling of the specialty insurance sector.

click to enlargeLancashire Insurance Group 2014 Share Price

The firm released its Q4 today and announced another special dividend of $0.50 on top of the regular $0.10 dividend. Driven by stable results, as per the graph below, and by the chatter that Lancashire could be an M&A target, the price today reflects a respectable 160% multiple to diluted tangible book. It was odd that although the firm’s executives joked about having prepared an answer to the M&A question, no analyst actually asked the question in the conference call today!

click to enlargeLancashire Historical Combined Loss 2008 to 2014

One of the big positives from the call today was the news that the firm has restructured their reinsurance programme that protects their book to give them more event coverage with reinstatements (away from previous aggregate cover). This provides more protection to Lancashire from multiple events. The PMLs as at January expressed as a percentage of the calendar year earned premiums (estimated figures for 2015) show the reduced net risk profile of this arbitrage strategy.

click to enlargeLancashire PMLs January 2015

It’s nice to see Lancashire recover some of its shine and it will be intriguing to see if it does become an M&A target in the coming months.

Lancashire is looking unloved

With exposure adjusted rates in the specialty insurance and reinsurance sector continually under pressure and founder/former CEO, Richard Brindle, making an unseemly quick exit with a generous pay-out, Lancashire’s stock has been decidedly unloved with the price trading well below the key £7 threshold highlighted in my last post on the subject in February. Although we remain in the middle of the US hurricane season (and indeed the Napa earthquake is a reminder that its always earthquake season), I thought it was a good time to have a quick look over Lancashire’s figures again, particularly as the share price broke below the £6 threshold earlier this month, a level not seen since early 2011. The stock has clearly now lost its premium valuation compared to others in the London market as the graph below shows.

click to enlargeLondon Market Specialty Insurers Tangible Book Value Multiples August 2014

Results for H1-2014, which include full numbers from the November 2013 acquisition of Cathedral, show a continuing trend on the impact of rate reductions on loss ratios, as per the graph below.

click to enlargeLancashire Historical Combined Loss 2006 to H12014

The impact of the Cathedral deal on reserve levels are highlighted below. The graph illustrates the consistent relative level of IBNR to case reserves compared to the recent past which suggests a limited potential for any cushion for loss ratios from prior year reserve releases.

click to enlargeLancashire Historical Net Loss Reserves

The management at Lancashire have clearly stated their strategy of maintaining their discipline whilst taking advantage of arbitrage opportunities “that allow us to maintain our core insurance and reinsurance portfolios, whilst significantly reducing net exposures and enhancing risk adjusted returns”. In my last post, I looked at post Cathedral gross and net PMLs as a percentage of earned premiums against historical PMLs. More applicable figures as per July for each year, against calendar year gross and net earned premiums (with an estimate for 2014), are presented below. They clearly show that the net exposures have reduced from the 2012 peak. It is important to note however that the Gulf of Mexico net 1 in 100 figures are high at 35%, particularly compared to many of its peers.

click to enlargeLancashire PMLs July 2010 to July 2014

There is of course always the allure of the special dividend. Lancashire has indicated that in the absence of attractive business opportunities they will look at returning most, if not all, of their 2014 earnings to shareholders. Assuming the remainder of 2014 is relatively catastrophe free; Lancashire is on track to make $1-$1.10 of EPS for the full year. If they do return, say, $1 to shareholders that represents a return of just below 10% on today’s share price of £6.18. Not bad in today’s environment! There may be a short term trade there in October after the hurricane season to take advantage of a share pick-up in advance of any special dividend.

Others in the sector are also holding out the prospect of special dividends to reward patient shareholders. The fact that other firms, some with more diverse businesses and less risky risk profiles, offer potential upside through special dividends may also explain why Lancashire has lost its premium tangible book multiple, as per the first graph in this post.

Notwithstanding that previously Lancashire was a favorite of mine due to its nimble and focused approach, I cannot get past the fact that the sector as a whole is mired in an inadequate risk adjusted premia environment (the impact of which I highlighted in a previous post). In the absence of any sector wide catalyst to change the current market dynamic, my opinion is that it is expedient to pass on Lancashire here, even at this multi-year low.

The game of chicken that is unfolding across this sector is best viewed from the side-lines in my view.

Pricing Pressures & Risk Profiles

There have been some interesting developments in the insurance market this week. Today, it was announced that Richard Brindle would retire from Lancashire at the end of the month. The news is not altogether unexpected as Brindle was never a CEO with his ego caught up in the business. His take it or leave it approach to underwriting and disciplined capital management are engrained in Lancashire’s DNA and given the less important role of personalities in the market today, I don’t see the sell-off of 5% today as justified. LRE is now back at Q3 2011 levels and is 25% off its peak approximately a year ago. As per a previous post, the smaller players in the specialty business face considerable challenges in this market although LRE should be better placed than most. A recent report from Willis on the energy market illustrates how over-capacity is spreading across specialist lines. Some graphs from the report are reproduced below.

click to enlargeEnergy Insurance Market Willis 2013 Review

One market character who hasn’t previously had an ego check issue is John Charman and this week he revealed a hostile take-over of Aspen at a 116% of book value by his new firm Endurance Specialty. The bid was quickly rejected by Aspen with some disparaging comments about Endurance and Charman. Aspen’s management undoubtedly does not relish the prospect of having Charman as a boss. Consolidation is needed amongst the tier 2 (mainly Bermudian) players to counter over-capacity and compete in a market that is clustering around tier 1 global full service players. Although each of the tier 2 players has a different focus, there is considerable overlap in business lines like reinsurance so M&A will not be a case of one and one equalling two. To be fair to Charman the price looks reasonable at a 15% premium to Aspen’s high, particularly given the current market. It will be fascinating to see if any other bidders emerge.

After going ex-dividend, Swiss Re also took a dive of 9% this week and it too is at levels last seen a year ago. The dive was unusually deep due to the CHF7 dividend (CHF3.85 regular and CHF4.15 special). Swiss Re’s increasingly shareholder friendly policy makes it potentially attractive at its current 112% of book value. It is however not immune from the current market pricing pressures.

After doing some work recently on the impact of reducing premium rates, I built a very simple model of a portfolio of 10,000 homogeneous risks with a loss probability of 1%. Assuming perfect burning cost rating (i.e. base rate set at actual portfolio mean), the model varied the risk margin charged. I ran the portfolio through 10,000 simulations to get the resulting distributions. As the graph below shows, a decreasing risk margin not only shifts the distribution but also changes the shape of the distribution.

click to enlargeRisk Premium Reductions & Insurance Portfolio Risk Profile

This illustrates that as premium rates decline the volatility of the portfolio also increases as there is less of a buffer to counter variability. In essence, as the market continues to soften, even with no change in loss profile, the overall portfolio risk increases. And that is why I remain cautious on buying back into the sector even with the reduced valuations of firms like Lancashire and Swiss Re.