On Climate Change, Whiplash, Lawyers, Beirut and Air Traffic Control

Climate Liability is an emerging risk for insurers

Reticent by nature, yet insurers’ profile in the climate debate could hardly be lower which is curious given the obvious impact global warming could have on claim patterns. A report published this week by Yale University offers a plausible explanation. Evidently climate liability, the attempt by third parties to base claims for damages on greenhouse emissions, rather than climate change itself is seen by US insurers to be their major risk. It probably explains why insurance companies are reluctant to enter policy discussion let alone send much of a signal to the economy, in terms of risk pricing, about the impact of shifting environmental patterns. So the argument goes, if insurers were to tackle the topic at a political level, in so doing they overtly acknowledge climate change to exist and that would be unhelpful when they may soon be defending carbon emitters against the looming wave of litigation.

Whiplash claims are costing the industry in the UK over £2 billion each year and that a substantial number of those incidents are bogus or exaggerated prompted last weeks government convened insurance summit. Ironically on the same day, in announcing that its fund to compensate those mis-sold payment protection insurance (PPI) policies will increase to £3.2 billion, Lloyds bank revealed that at least 25% of the claims they handle are fictitious. That this is all fraud, a crime pure and simple, is often left unsaid. The economic cost of insurance fraud far exceeds the £1.2 billion illegally claimed from the welfare system. The industry has set up the Insurance Fraud Bureau but frankly needs government to crack down harder on those who view trying it on with their insurers as fair game in the same way as they do benefits cheats.

Indebted and in disarray, LeBoeufs, the legal heavyweight, central players in Lloyd’s renewal and reconstruction of the 1990s teeters on the edge this week. Insurance law specialists Clydes and Barlows merged recently; a marriage out of necessity as much as strategy one could postulate. Of the magic circle, redundancies at Herbert Smith, a pay freeze at Slaughters; and one of those partner “restructures” at Clifford Chance have all been reported so far this year. Preoccupied by our own issues in 2011, gone almost unnoticed in the London insurance market is the turmoil amongst the law firms. We may often moan and groan but the effective response and support of the lawyers is central to what we do so this shake-out could well matter.

Later this month the industry gathers for the biannual GAIF conference and much has changed in the Middle East and North Africa since 2010. Reeling then from the financial crisis, bursting the Dubai bubble, the Arab Spring has since added to the political uncertainty in this combustible part of the world. That Lebanon has had its past issues is of course an understatement, but for the country to be now viewed as a safe haven, enjoying significant capital flows in the last couple of years, testifies to the country’s resurgence. Having seen for myself on the ground the quiet renaissance of Beirut, blessed with an industrious commercially hungry pool of talent, the city could easily regain its place as the main insurance hub for the region, supplanting the pretensions of Dubai and Qatar to that spot.

For those with a fear of flying turn away now, as worryingly there are growing concerns about air traffic control systems. Dating back to the 1940s, controllers can be sure of the precise location of the planes they are directing only when their radar sweeps once every six seconds. Clearly GPS style navigation would be far safer and that would be good for all of us, including insurers, but the cost of replacing the technology runs into the many billions. Nevertheless encouragingly in June an FAA endorsed experiment using satellite guidance is to start at Seattle airport. The exercise should demonstrate that there are plenty of environmental and efficiency benefits to be won in addition to lowering the hazards of flying by bringing air traffic control into the modern world.

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