Posted on 25 Nov 02
A panel of financial experts at the 15th Annual Professional Liability Underwriters Society Conference concluded that the hard market could run longer and be deeper than some might hope, as insurers look to bring their companies back to profitability.
"Jan. 1 will be very tough on casualty," predicted Vincent J. Dowling, managing partner at Hartford, Conn.-based Partners Securities, LLC., adding that no one at this point understands "how stiff" price increases are going to be. His assessment was supported by Jay A. Cohen, first vice president at Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., and Ronald W. Frank, an analyst with Salomon Smith Barney, both based in New York City.
Mr. Dowling said that this cycle could last longer than others only because the financial holes are bigger and the "implosion" of European financial markets is just beginning to be felt here. "We are only in the third or fourth inning; there is a lot to be played out," Mr. Dowling suggested.
"It is not a question of how long [the hard market] will last, but is there the discipline to keep it at its peak cycle," observed Mr. Frank.
He said that once insurers have reached the level of return they need, they need to maintain that level to continue underwriting profitability. However, he said that, historically, once companies reach their peak, the underwriting discipline lasts two to three years before another cycle begins.
Explaining today's hard market, there are a number of factors to attribute it to besides the terror attack of Sept. 11, said Mr. Cohen. Prices were beginning to go up before then, but the erosion in interest rates and claims inflation have eaten into insurance company returns on earnings.
All of these pressures, coming at the same time, have conspired to create the current hard market situation, he surmised.
In order to get adequate returns, Mr. Dowling suggested, combined ratios will need to be in the low- to mid-80s, far below the 92 to 93% combined ratios some insurance executives have said they need to be in. "The math just doesn't work," Mr. Dowling said of the higher combined ratio assessments. "There is a little disconnect going on."
Regarding the major insurance brokers, Mr. Cohen said that they are profiting from the fruits of the hardening market more immediately than companies are.
Brokers' business interests, he said, are more diversified than insurers, and when pricing levels off, they can still expect gains. Insurers on the other hand, he noted, are not seeing quite the same immediate gains, but will as premium increases begin to multiply.
While insurance companies have some work to do to get their financial houses back on track, none of the analysts felt that there would be major company insolvency. Instead, companies will continue to restructure or shut down units as they leave unprofitable lines they never should have entered because they lacked the expertise to underwrite them, Mr. Franks said.