On Market Misery

the cost of catastrophe events in 2014 would have to be massive to harden the market
The cost of catastrophe events in 2014 would have to be massive to harden the market

We are a pessimistic lot by nature but the mood in the insurance market as full trading resumes this week is more gloomy than usual for this time of year. Reinsurers were battered on price and treaty conditions during the recent renewal season; the patchy rally in some US commercial rates has come to an abrupt halt; and premium levels in almost every other geography and product line continue their journey south. Already many companies and syndicates will be worried about not achieving business plan levels of growth and profitability in 2014.

To outsiders all this may seem hard to fathom. The global economy is showing genuine signs of life following a prolonged downturn. The politicians are reminding us that the recovery remains fragile but a return of business confidence is now palpable. Our friends elsewhere will be embracing 2014 with more enthusiasm and not for the first time the insurance cycle looks out of step with the world beyond its borders

Healthy, expanding businesses will demand more policy coverage which should be good news but unfortunately growth is tapering off sharply in the developing world where low levels of market penetration provide the biggest opportunity for insurers. Worse still, as ever, on the supply side of the industry the mountain of surplus capital sloshing around continues to exert huge negative pressure on pricing.

Received wisdom is that the shake-down following the payment of a huge catastrophe event claim, or series of them, offers the best prospect of burning off capital. A couple of windstorms in 2014 of the ferocity of Typhoon Haiyan or Cyclone Phailin smashing into more densely insured coastlines would undoubtedly hit the industry’s balance sheet hard. Yet the losses would have to be real whoppers such is the volume of excess capacity in the industry.

An alternative theory of the modern time is that the new-style pension and hedge fund providers of capital will retreat from insurance with their money when higher interest rates make traditional asset holdings more attractive. Unfortunately, according to the Bank of England November inflation report an increase is unlikely before mid-2015 or much later than that according to many economists. There is little of immediate encouragement here either therefore.

Of course a soft market like the inclement weather currently is only an issue for those who get wet. It is mostly loss-making companies who cut-back and when enough of them do so sentiment does the rest and prices go up. Earnings pressure can reverse a market and with RSA and QBE joining the likes of Tower in reporting significantly lower levels of profit and balance sheet impairments in the last few weeks, some early signs of margin strain in the system might be evident.

A safe new-year prediction is that we shall see more insurers getting into trouble, paying the price for over-expansion. That there will be enough of them, sufficiently pained, to harden up the market in 2014 is a much longer shot. Sadly the agony etched on insurers’ faces looks set to continue for some time.

One thought on “On Market Misery

  1. Hi Roger,

    This is a very good overview of the state of the industry. However, would you allow me to inject two doses of optimism?

    With rate levels on a downward trend, reserve releases from prior underwriting years depleting, and investment returns on a historic low, earnings pain will hit those with poor risk selection first. Not the worst outlook from an underwriter’s perspective: Your job gets more difficult, clearly, but it will also become more crucial for the success of your company!

    And then there is another thought I wanted to contribute: When people characterize the industry as over-capitalized they are referring to the fact that an increased (and increasing) amount of capital is fighting for exposure to basically the same basket of risks. Following the laws of demand and supply this drives rates down. A complimentary way to look at the situation would be to say the industry is under-risked (see Brian E. Johnson’s post on https://openminds.swissre.com/stories/660/). And I like to belief there is at least as much truth in this as well. Our societies never stop to produce new kinds of risks through science, technology, urbanization, by just growing and developing… Those smart enough to expose their capital to the emerging risks in a profitable way can have a bright future. And by doing so deliver on the very purpose of insurance: enable progress.

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