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Moody's: US P/C Insurers' Reserve Level Close to Break-even

Source: Moody's

Posted on 23 Mar 2009

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Loss reserves for the US property and casualty (P&C) insurance industry appear to have slid from a comfortable redundancy to a level close to break-even sometime during the second half of 2008, according to a new report by Moody's Investors Service.

Nevertheless, Moody's concludes that "overall reserve adequacy is still within reasonable bounds and close to a break-even level, so that we do not expect to take broad rating actions as a result of this analysis," though it notes that there is "a wide range of reserve levels among individual companies" and "those insurers with significant shortfalls could see their ratings affected, particularly if such a shortfall is combined with other stresses."

The report compares Moody's earlier estimates of the industry's reserve adequacy entering 2008 to the total amounts that insurance companies released from their loss reserves during the year.

"Given the size of the industry's announced reserve releases in relation to Moody's earlier redundancy estimates," says the report's author, Vice President Paul Bauer, "we believe that P&C insurers have fully harvested their reserve redundancies, leaving them little or nothing in the way of a cushion."

Moody's estimated that the industry carried about $5 to $12 billion in excess loss reserves entering 2008. As of the end of the third quarter, about $9 billion of this amount had been depleted. "Based on an early look at regulatory financial statements, the pattern of reducing loss reserves accelerated in the fourth quarter, with a total of about $14 billion in reserves being released for the year," Mr. Bauer explains. Moreover, this situation has occurred across the entire industry, among personal and commercial lines, and diversified carriers.

"The reduction in loss reserve strength warrants caution for two reasons," he continues. First, it implies lower profits for 2009, because P&C companies will be much less able to bolster current calendar-year earnings by using prior-year reserve releases, which has been the case in the recent past. "Secondly," the analyst states, "the decline in reserve adequacy implies a further weakening of balance sheet strength in what is already a difficult market environment."

Mr. Bauer points out that the industry's normal cyclical trend is one where reserves are often built-up during years with rising insurance prices, and then are drawn down later, thereby benefiting future reported earnings -- if, of course, those reserves have not already been depleted by policyholder loss payouts.

"To put this reserve decline in full perspective, however," the analyst says, "we note that the trend is negative, but we still believe the P&C industry's overall capital adequacy remains relatively strong, with generally conservative underwriting leverage and with adequate -- although no longer comfortably redundant -- reserve levels." "As a result," he continues, "we would not expect to take any broad rating actions in the near- or medium-terms based solely on this trend."

"As the industry moves through 2009," Mr. Bauer states, "improved underwriting discipline and pricing will be key factors in reversing the current downward trend in reserve adequacy." He adds that "vigilance and discipline will be required to insure that a modest weakness does not turn into a more serious threat to capital adequacy."