A few weeks ago there was a piece published on AIR’s In Focus blog about how to use a cat model for underwriting. The piece immediately caught my attention because I spend my days discerning the difference between underwriting and accumulation management/financial modeling. They’re different, and here was an article about how to use one for the other.
This week I am in Atlanta hanging out at the annual NAPSLO convention. NAPSLO is the Nat’l Association of Professional Surplus Lines Offices – but if you don’t know that already, it probably still doesn’t make much sense. After all, what’s a “surplus line”? It sounds like an empty subway, or maybe the third line at a square dance.
Here is NAPSLO’s definition: surplus lines insurers fill the need for coverage in the marketplace by insuring those risks that are declined by the standard underwriting and pricing processes of admitted insurance carriers.
Further, there are three categories of such risks:
- Non-standard risks, which have unusual underwriting characteristics.
- Unique risks for which admitted carriers do not offer a filed policy form or rate.
- Capacity risks where an insured seeks a higher level of coverage than most insurers are willing to provide.
Just because it’s surplus, though, doesn’t mean it’s a small sector - $38B in annual written premium in the US is a significant portion of the market.
But why am I here?
Last week, Risks of Hazard explored a new way to view flood risk – Where, not When. The general concept was that floods are going to happen in the US every year, and underwriters should be more concerned with where the floods will cause damage, and not when the floods will come.
Insurers are posting results for the second quarter now, and cat losses are making headlines. There were certainly a lot of claims, with Q2 driving the highest cat losses seen since Sandy in 2012. The One Brief (from Aon) published an excellent synopsis of the losses here and it makes bleak reading.
On the same day as the Aon article, Travelers published their results. Sure enough, they shared some discouraging news:
- Catastrophe losses of $333 million, up from $221 million for the same period last year, driven by wildfires at Fort McMurray in Canada and hail storms in Texas.
- Net and operating income of $664 million and $649 million, respectively, declined from the prior year quarter, primarily due to the higher catastrophe losses, higher non-catastrophe weather-related losses and lower net investment income.
- It was the smallest quarterly profit since 2012 after superstorm Sandy.
While it might seem pretty obvious to most readers that good underwriting is an important part of a healthy insurance industry, it has not always been. When interest rates were high in the past decades, underwriting was the scoop with which insurers piled as much premium as possible into their coffers. With rates of return on capital at historic lows, for a long time now, underwriting is no longer a scoop – it needs to be a finely honed source of profit.
In a recent article on AM Best, Pat Gallagher – chairman and president of the eponymous brokerage giant, made this point. Here is the relevant bit:
For more than five years he (Mr. Gallagher) said he’s warned about the lack of investment income, and thinks the renewed emphasis on underwriting helps carriers and customers.
“From 1986 to 2001 we saw a ton of insurance companies go broke,” said Gallagher, as pricing “went down and down, and then after 9/11 everyone went up 100%. That’s not a good thing.”
At first, I thought it was an odd thing to say, and even more odd to publish. It seemed a bit like reading: people eating is good for the restaurant industry. But, I filed it in my ideas folder and kept coming back to it…why?