On Ship-breaking, Investors, Volcanoes, Fire-fighting and the Euro

Dangerous conditions for workers in the Bangladeshi ship breaking industry

By imposing strict environmental and safety guidelines, the EU announced plans to address the grim conditions in Bangladeshi breaking yards where young men earn a £1 a day and one of them dies each week. Unfortunately the measures apply only to European registered vessels. We also learnt recently that P&O, whose ships are registered in Bermuda, pay their mostly Indian and Filipino service staff a basic rate of 75p per hour. That too many ships and cruise liners are chasing cargo and passengers is only adding to the brutal economics facing the shipping industry at this time. Despite the closeness of our business, even if there was the will, there is little insurers can do to discourage exploitative practices, but when reputations suffer and revenue is lost, change might occur, just ask Nike or Apple.

For an amount incidently equivalent to a twenty percent pay rise to all 20,000 Bangladeshi ship breakers, surviving a photo finish, bookmakers William Hill at their AGM squeaked past shareholders a £1.2m retention bonus to boss Ralph Topping for simply staying at the firm he joined over forty years ago. Less successful in their vote were Aviva soundly beaten on remuneration proposals and the CEO Andrew Moss has since paid the ultimate price. The weather might be autumnal currently but the shareholder spring is taking hold. The regulators, in protecting public policy and the consumer, have been the stakeholders hogging the limelight for many of us. The deeper consequence of the investor revolt is that insurers in addition will need to understand and respond to the broader agenda of capital providers. The implications for investor relations and the role of stockbrokers and advisors in the process could be considerable.

From the world of commerce to academia and Bill McGuire, a professor of geophysics from UCL, is one of the first authoritative voices to propose that global warming will increase the intensity of volcanic activity. So the argument goes, the defrosting of the colder parts of the globe is shifting the sea weight on the earth’s crust, squashing and releasing the land beneath, pushing magma to the surface as it does. If true, not great news for insurers with memories of the costly disruption caused by the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 as Iceland, where the ice cap has been thinning for a century, is likely to feel the greatest impact of this geological phenomenon.

Closer to home but back in time, in the 19th century property owners in London paid private fire fighting teams to protect their houses and the badges affixed to the front of the buildings have since become an eBay favourite. When the Fire Brigade was eventually formed in 1904 it provided an emergency service to all the community. There the story might end except that today few may be aware that the brigade’s equipment, 500 appliances and 50,000 pieces of critical safety kit, is in fact owned by a private company, AssetCo. More worryingly the finances of the firm are in dire straits, with reports this week of them about to default on borrowing of close to £80m. Property insurers may want to take note, lest they have to start getting fire marks back on the walls of London.

Once again Europe is back in news. As the Greeks move ever closer to the exit door and the evolving banking crisis in Spain nudges them also towards the departure lane, a mischievous report from JP Morgan claims that the Euro project may have been doomed from the start. So it appears, countries beginning with the letter M or those formerly comprising the Ottoman Empire have more highly correlated currencies then those who adopted the Euro. Be that as it may, the impact of a monetary breakup is being reviewed by Lloyd’s but one imagines the direct financial consequences to be quite manageable. Generally the market is underweight on the continent and particularly so as regards Euro dominated assets. However, the secondary effect of a further round of economic recession and political instability is bound to challenge everyone including Lloyd’s.

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