Tag Archives: underwriting discipline

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.

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.


Arthur opens the US Hurricane Season

After Hurricane Arthur briefly made landfall in North Carolina on Thursday night, a weakened storm is now heading north. I thought this would be good time to have a look at the probable maximum losses (PMLs) published as at the Q1 2014 results by a sample of specialist (re)insurers, first presented in a post in June 2013. That post went into some detail on the uncertainties surrounding the published PMLs and should be read as relevant background to the figures presented here.

Despite predictions of an above average 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, the number of named hurricanes was the lowest since 1982. Predictions for the 2014 season are for a below average number of hurricanes primarily due to cooler sea temperatures in the Atlantic due to the transition to El Niño (although that is now thought to be slower than previously anticipated). The graph below includes the 2014 predictions.

click to enlargeHistorical Atlantic Storms & Hurricanes I like to look at PMLs as a percentage of net tangible assets (NTA) on a consistent basis across firms to assess exposures from a common equity viewpoint. Many firms include subordinated debt or other forms of hybrid debt in capital when showing their PMLS. For example, Lancashire has approximately $330 million of sub-debt which they include in their capital figures and I have show the difference with and without the sub-debt in the percentages for Lancashire in the graph below on US wind PMLs to illustrate the comparison.

Whether hybrid debt comes in before equity or alongside equity depends upon the exact terms and conditions. The detail of such instruments will determine whether such debt is classified as tier 1, 2 or 3 capital for regulatory purposes under Solvency II (although there are generous transitional timeframes of up to 10 years for existing instruments). The devil is often in the detail and that is another reason why I prefer to exclude them and use a consistent NTA basis.

As per the June 2013 post, firms often classify their US wind exposures by zone but I have taken the highest exposures for each (which may not necessarily be the same zone for each firm).

click to enlargeUS Wind PMLs Q1 2014 These exposures, although expressed as percentages of NTAs, should be considered net of potential profits made for 2014 to assess the real impact upon equity (provided, of course, that the expected profits don’t all come from property catastrophe lines!). If for example we assume a 10% return on NTA across each firm, then the figures above have to be adjusted.

Another issue, also discussed in the previous post, is the return period for similar events that each firms present. For example, the London market firms present Lloyds’ realistic disaster scenarios (RDS) as their PMLs. One such RDS is a repeat of the 1926 Miami hurricane which is predicted to cost $125 billion for the industry if it happened today. For the graph above, I have assumed a 1 in 200 return period for this scenario. The US & Bermudian firms do not present scenarios but points on their occurrence exceedance probability (OEP) curves.

As it is always earthquake season, I also include the PMLs for a California earthquake as per the graph below.

click to enlargeCalifornia EQ PMLs Q1 2014 In terms of current market conditions, the mid-year broker reports are boringly predictable. John Cavanagh, the CEO of Willis Re, commented in their report that “the tentacles of the softening market are spreading far and wide, with no immediate signs of relief. We’ve seen muted demand throughout 2014 and market dynamics are unlikely to change for some time to come. The current market position is increasingly challenging for reinsurers.” Aon Benfield, in their report, stated that “the lowest reinsurance risk margins in a generation stimulate new growth opportunities for insurers and may allow governments to reduce their participation in catastrophe exposed regions as insurance availability and affordability improves”. When people start talking about low pricing leading to new opportunities to take risk, I can but smile. That’s what they said during the last soft market, and the one before that!

Some commentators are making much of the recent withdrawal of the latest Munich Re bond on pricing concerns as an indicator that property catastrophe prices have reached a floor and that the market is reasserting discipline. That may be so but reaching a floor below the technical loss cost level sounds hollow to me when talking about underwriting discipline.

To finish, I have reproducing the graph on Flagstone Re from the June 2013 post as it speaks a thousand words about the dangers of relying too much on the published PMLs. Published PMLs are, after all, only indicators of losses from single events and, by their nature, reflect current (group) thinking from widely used risk management tools.

click to enlargeFlagstone CAT losses Follow-on: It occurred to me after posting that I could compare the PMLs for the selected firms as at Q1 2014 against those from Q1 2013 and the graph below shows the comparison. It does indicate that many firms have taken advantage of cheap reinsurance/retrocession and reduced their net profiles, as highlighted in this post on arbitrage opportunities. Some firms have gone through mergers or business model changes. Endurance, for example, has been changed radically by John Charman (as well as being an aggressive buyer of coverage). Lancashire is one of the only firms whose risk profile has increased using the NTA metric as a result of the Cathedral acquisition and the increase in goodwill.

click to enlargeUS Wind PMLs Q1 2013 vrs 2014

Insurance & capital market convergence hype is getting boring

As the horde of middle aged (still mainly male) executives pack up their chinos and casual shirts, the overriding theme coming from this year’s Monte Carlo Renez-Vous seems to be impact of the new ILS capacity or “convergence capital” on the reinsurance and specialty insurance sector. The event, described in a Financial Times article as “the kind of public display of wealth most bankers try to eschew”, is where executives start the January 1 renewal discussions with clients in quick meetings crammed together in the luxury location.

The relentless chatter about the new capital will likely leave many bored senseless of the subject. Many may now hope that, just like previous hot discussion topics that were worn out (Solvency II anybody?), the topic fades into the background as the reality of the office huts them next week.

The more traditional industry hands warned of the perils of the new capacity on underwriting discipline. John Nelson of Lloyds highlighted that “some of the structures being used could undermine some of the qualities of the insurance model”. Tad Montross of GenRe cautioned that “bankers looking to replace lost fee income” are pushing ILS as the latest asset class but that the hype will die down when “the inability to model extreme weather events accurately is better understood”. Amer Ahmed of Allianz Re predicted the influx “bears the danger that certain risks get covered at inadequate rates”. Torsten Jeworrek of Munich Re said that “our research shows that ILS use the cheapest model in the market” (assumingly in a side swipe at AIR).

Other traditional reinsurers with an existing foothold in the ILS camp were more circumspect. Michel Lies of Swiss Re commented that “we take the inflow of alternative capital seriously but we are not alarmed by it”.

Brokers and other interested service providers were the loudest cheerleaders. Increasing the size of the pie for everybody, igniting coverage innovative in the traditional sector, and cheap retrocession capacity were some of the advantages cited. My favourite piece of new risk management speak came from Aon Benfield’s Bryon Ehrhart in the statement “reinsurers will innovate their capital structures to turn headwinds from alternative capital sources into tailwinds”. In other words, as Tokio Millennium Re’s CEO Tatsuhiko Hoshina said, the new capital offers an opportunity to leverage increasingly diverse sources of retrocessional capacity. An arbitrage market (as a previous post concluded)?

All of this talk reminds me of the last time that “convergence” was a buzz word in the sector in the 1990s. For my sins, I was an active participant in the market then. Would the paragraph below from an article on insurance and capital market convergence by Graciela Chichilnisky of Columbia University in June 1996 sound out of place today?

“The future of the industry lies with those firms which implement such innovation. The companies that adapt successfully will be the ones that survive. In 10 years, these organizations will draw the map of a completely restructured reinsurance industry”

The current market dynamics are driven by low risk premia in capital markets bringing investors into competition with the insurance sector through ILS and collaterised structures. In the 1990s, capital inflows after Hurricane Andrew into reinsurers, such as the “class of 1992”, led to overcapacity in the market which resulted in a brutal and undisciplined soft market in the late 1990s.

Some (re)insurers sought to diversify their business base by embracing innovation in transaction structures and/or by looking at expanding the risks they covered beyond traditional P&C exposures. Some entered head first into “finite” type multi-line multi-year programmes that assumed structuring could protect against poor underwriting. An over-reliance on the developing insurance models used to price such transactions, particularly in relation to assumed correlations between exposures, left some blind to basic underwriting disciplines (Sound familiar, CDOs?). Others tested (unsuccessfully) the limits of risk transfer and legality by providing limited or no risk coverage to distressed insurers (e.g. FAI & HIH in Australia) or by providing reserve protection that distorted regulatory requirements (e.g. AIG & Cologne Re) by way of back to back contracts and murky disclosures.

Others, such as the company I worked for, looked to cover financial risks on the basis that mixing insurance and financial risks would allow regulatory capital arbitrage benefits through increased diversification (and may even offer an inflation & asset price hedge). Some well known examples* of the financial risks assumed by different (re)insurers at that time include the Hollywood Funding pool guarantee, the BAe aircraft leasing income coverage, Rolls Royce residual asset guarantees, dual trigger contingent equity puts, Toyota motor residual value protection, and mezzanine corporate debt credit enhancement  coverage.

Many of these “innovations” ended badly for the industry. Innovation in itself should never be dismissed as it is a feature of the world we live in. In this sector however, innovation at the expense of good underwriting is a nasty combination that the experience in the 1990s must surely teach us.

Bringing this back to today, I recently discussed the ILS market with a well informed and active market participant. He confirmed that some of the ILS funds have experienced reinsurance professionals with the skills to question the information in the broker pack and who do their own modelling and underwriting of the underlying risks. He also confirmed however that there is many funds (some with well known sponsors and hungry mandates) that, in the words of Kevin O’Donnell of RenRe, rely “on a single point” from a single model provided by to them by an “expert” 3rd party.

This conversation got me to thinking again about the comment from Edward Noonan of Validus that “the ILS guys aren’t undisciplined; it’s just that they’ve got a lower cost of capital.” Why should an ILS fund have a lower cost of capital to a pure property catastrophe reinsurer? There is the operational risk of a reinsurer to consider. However there is also operational risk involved with an ILS fund given items such as multiple collateral arrangements and other contracted 3rd party service provided functions to consider. Expenses shouldn’t be a major differing factor between the two models. The only item that may justify a difference is liquidity, particularly as capital market investors are so focussed on a fast exit. However, should this be material given the exit option of simply selling the equity in many of the quoted property catastrophe reinsurers?

I am not convinced that the ILS funds should have a material cost of capital advantage. Maybe the quoted reinsurers should simply revise their shareholder return strategies to be more competitive with the yields offered by the ILS funds. Indeed, traditional reinsurers in this space may argue that they are able to offer more attractive yields to a fully collaterised provider, all other things being equal, given their more leveraged business model.

*As a complete aside, an article this week in the Financial Times on the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse and the financial crisis highlighted the role of poor lending practices as a primary cause of significant number of the bank failures. This article reminded me of a “convergence” product I helped design back in the late 1990s. Following changes in accounting rules, many banks were not allowed to continue to hold general loan loss provisions against their portfolio. These provisions (akin to an IBNR type bulk reserve) had been held in addition to specific loan provision (akin to case reserves). I designed an insurance structure for banks to pay premiums previously set aside as general provisions for coverage on massive deterioration in their loan provisions. After an initial risk period in which the insurer could lose money (which was required to demonstrate an effective risk transfer), the policy would act as a fully funded coverage similar to a collaterised reinsurance. In effect the banks could pay some of the profits in good years (assuming the initial risk period was set over the good years!) for protection in the bad years. The attachment of the coverage was designed in a way similar to the old continuous ratcheting retention reinsurance aggregate coverage popular at the time amongst some German reinsurers. After numerous discussions, no banks were interested in a cover that offered them an opportunity to use profits in the good times to buy protection for a rainy day. They didn’t think they needed it. Funny that.

Hedge fund attraction to the reinsurance sector

Hedge funds are becoming ever more active in the reinsurance space. Initially, the main draw was the ILS space as a source of high yields from an uncorrelated asset class. As the historical returns show (see previous post), this has been a successful strategy over the past 5 to 8 years.

However, as yield seeking investors, particularly from increased pension investment in specialist ILS funds, have flooded the market with supply over the past 12 months with the resulting downward pressure on rates (latest Willis Re report has some Florida rates down 25%), attention may switch towards strategies of getting directly involved in providing capital to the sector. Existing hedge fund backed reinsurers such as Greenlight Re, Third Point, SAC Re and PAC Re have attracted attention, most recently for their tax advantages as per this Bloomberg article in February.

Despite the obvious tax attraction of some hedge fund backed reinsurer strategies (particularly for those focussed on easy to enter commodity markets like property catastrophe), the more solid firms are driven by the leverage that medium to long term insurance float can bring to enhance their investment returns. The daddy of this strategy is of course Warren Buffet. A report entitled “Buffet’s Alpha” from 2012 co-authored by professionals in AQR Capital Management summarises the strategy.  The report concludes that “the secret to Buffett’s success is his preference for cheap, safe, high-quality stocks combined with his consistent use of leverage to magnify returns while surviving the inevitable large absolute and relative drawdowns this entails” and “that Buffett applies about 1.6-to-1 leverage financed partly using insurance float with a low financing rate, and that leveraging safe stocks can largely explain Buffett’s performance.

With current accident year underwriting margins thin and reinsurance pricing increasingly driven by black box quant underwriting, it seems inevitable that naïve newcomers will try to repeat Buffet’s formula for success by aggressively chasing insurance float for leverage. Such new capacity, if substantial, will test the sector’s relatively newfound (and hard fought) reputation for underwriting discipline at a time of building headwinds for the sector.