Commercial Auto

Commercial Auto: A One-Way Street?

Once the darling of the P&C world, commercial auto is now its problem child. Faced with escalating losses, insurers have no choice but to continue to raise rates and write smarter.
By: | April 7, 2017 • 5 min read

American road safety had been on an upward trajectory for decades. But in the last five years that trend has gone into reverse — with disastrous consequences for commercial auto insurers.

The U.S. commercial auto insurance industry registered its fifth consecutive year in the red in 2015 with a combined ratio of 108.5. In spite of insurers’ efforts to improve underwriting performance, primarily by raising rates, 2016 will almost certainly go down as another loss year.

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Indeed, while risk management strides are reducing loss experience in virtually all lines, commercial auto is seeing an uptick in both loss frequency and loss severity.

Economic recovery and low fuel prices have led to increasing road congestion, as well as a shortage and higher turnover of commercial drivers, diminishing driver quality. Worse still, the use of smartphones behind the wheel has caused a spike in road traffic accidents, with the National Safety Council estimating that around 25 percent of all crashes are caused by drivers talking or texting. Medical costs are rising, and plaintiff lawyers smell the blood of commercial fleet owners — flocking to the sector and driving liability payouts up to catastrophic sums.

“This confluence of factors came together pretty quickly and caused an abrupt and stark deterioration in results for insurers,” said Jerry Theodorou, vice president, insurance research at Conning.

Jerry Theodorou, vice president, insurance research, Conning

He believes complacency crept into the commercial auto market following excellent results through the 2000s. But in 2011, results suddenly deteriorated, “and commercial auto has been the problem child of P&C ever since,” he said.

“The market is not collecting enough premium to cover the large number of severity losses,” said Jennifer Rowe, who runs Marsh’s Atlanta casualty placement hub, home of the broker’s transportation center of excellence.

“Many markets are paying for a historical soft rate environment where capacity exceeded demand, and underwriters were continuously lowering rates to retain business or earn new business while ignoring early signs of adverse claim development.”

A.M. Best Senior Financial Analyst David Blades pointed out that quarter-on-quarter rate increases have been the norm since Q2 2011, but even these consistent rate hikes have not kept pace with escalating claims costs.

“A lot of big public insurers — solid underwriters — are taking a step back to re-evaluate the type of risks they write in their commercial auto books,” he said.

Indeed, the sector has already seen some major names run for the turnstiles, with trucking noted as a particular problem area. Zurich pulled out of the primary market, while in the excess space, Lexington withdrew and AIG cut capacity, raised attachment points and increased pricing.

“All [insurers] have recently adjusted their pricing models upward,” said Rowe. They think they are approaching the “right” levels but are not 100 percent sure, he said. Confidence is undermined to a degree by the long-tail, recurring and potentially escalating cost of liability claims.

Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance’s vice president of casualty, Bill Smyth, for example, said that having entered the excess trucking auto liability market in 2013, his firm’s book is “too green” to know how profitable it is.

On an excess basis, Rowe predicts rates will remain unsettled at best. Additional rate pressure “will be the new norm in lead and buffer layers for the next year,” she said, noting capacity remains limited, primarily for larger transportation risks (1,000-plus units). However, she is seeing more stability now in the primary markets, which have consistently raised prices and retention layers over the past few years.

Selectivity and Sensitivity

According to Conning’s recent report “Commercial Automobile Insurance: Fix Me, Please,” there is a wide performance gap between commercial auto insurers, with the top quintile consistently outperforming on profit by around 20 points, while demonstrating superior loss and expense ratios.

But why are some insurers able to profit in this line, while others wither and die? Consensus is the convergence of risk selection and analytics.

“Companies are refining their appetites in terms of the risks they want to write,” said Blades. Some companies will drop coverage for certain risks, while others will step away from the line altogether.

“We believe this is a cyclical deterioration and results will improve with insurer corrective actions — though it is taking longer than it should.” — Jerry Theodorou, vice president, insurance research, Conning

But knowing which risks to write, which to avoid and how to accurately price them is impossible without thorough loss analysis.

“Top quintile companies are much more aggressive users and collectors of data,” said Theodorou. From insurers’ own loss data to the driver records and loss histories of insured firms, Department of Transportation statistics and — increasingly — tools such as telematics, “there is now much more focus on rate adequacy and rating precision according to market segment,” Theorodou said.

David Blades, senior financial analyst, A.M. Best

Smyth believes that in the lower end of the trucking market, where there is still capacity and rates have not corrected as much, carriers tend to rely heavily on Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores to rate risk. “I’d rather look at the customer’s own data than government data, but many carriers in that world have a commercial auto unit rate, and deviate based on how well a customer performs on CSA,” he said.

“I don’t see the U.S. tort system slowing down, and truckers’ cargo rates aren’t going to allow them to absorb a 10 percent increase in insurance costs, so something has to give,” Smyth added. “In the future, the commercial auto market will have to be more technical and data intensive — with fewer players pricing each customer more carefully.”

For insureds — for whom tight margins are making this a bad time for rising insurance costs — this does present an opportunity to take destiny into their own hands by proving their risk management savvy: demonstrating improved route planning or investing in telematics, dashboard cameras and other technology to encourage and record better driver behavior. Still, some auto risks are unavoidable.

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“I know most of our customers are very serious about safety, how they hire people and planning their routes to avoid congested areas, but you can’t avoid New York or Chicago if that’s where the goods are heading, and it’s impossible to control other road users,” said Smyth.

Ultimately, both insurer and insured must get a better grip on risk analysis if the sector is to reverse the alarming spike in accidents while bringing profitability back to insurers.

However, industry sources are optimistic that better times are around the corner. “With better risk selection and more rate increases, we should see results improve over time,” said Blades, while Theodorou also predicted profits would return in line with more disciplined underwriting.

“We believe this is a cyclical deterioration and results will improve with insurer corrective actions — though it is taking longer than it should,” he said. “Commercial auto is still an important line of business for insurers that can operate in the new pricing environment.” &

Antony Ireland is a London-based financial journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Cyber Liability

Fresh Worries for Boards of Directors

New cyber security regulations increase exposure for directors and officers at financial institutions.
By: | June 1, 2017 • 6 min read

Boards of directors could face a fresh wave of directors and officers (D&O) claims following the introduction of tough new cybersecurity rules for financial institutions by The New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS).

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Prompted by recent high profile cyber attacks on JPMorgan Chase, Sony, Target, and others, the state regulations are the first of their kind and went into effect on March 1.

The new rules require banks, insurers and other financial institutions to establish an enterprise-wide cybersecurity program and adopt a written policy that must be reviewed by the board and approved by a senior officer annually.

The regulation also requires the more than 3,000 financial services firms operating in the state to appoint a chief information security officer to oversee the program, to report possible breaches within 72 hours, and to ensure that third-party vendors meet the new standards.

Companies will have until September 1 to comply with most of the new requirements, and beginning February 15, 2018, they will have to submit an annual certification of compliance.

The responsibility for cybersecurity will now fall squarely on the board and senior management actively overseeing the entity’s overall program. Some experts fear that the D&O insurance market is far from prepared to absorb this risk.

“The new rules could raise compliance risks for financial institutions and, in turn, premiums and loss potential for D&O insurance underwriters,” warned Fitch Ratings in a statement. “If management and directors of financial institutions that experience future cyber incidents are subsequently found to be noncompliant with the New York regulations, then they will be more exposed to litigation that would be covered under professional liability policies.”

D&O Challenge

Judy Selby, managing director in BDO Consulting’s technology advisory services practice, said that while many directors and officers rely on a CISO to deal with cybersecurity, under the new rules the buck stops with the board.

“The common refrain I hear from directors and officers is ‘we have a great IT guy or CIO,’ and while it’s important to have them in place, as the board, they are ultimately responsible for cybersecurity oversight,” she said.

William Kelly, senior vice president, underwriting, Argo Pro

William Kelly, senior vice president, underwriting at Argo Pro, said that unknown cyber threats, untested policy language and developing case laws would all make it more difficult for the D&O market to respond accurately to any such new claims.

“Insurers will need to account for the increased exposures presented by these new regulations and charge appropriately for such added exposure,” he said.

Going forward, said Larry Hamilton, partner at Mayer Brown, D&O underwriters also need to scrutinize a company’s compliance with the regulations.

“To the extent that this risk was not adequately taken into account in the first place in the underwriting of in-force D&O policies, there could be unanticipated additional exposure for the D&O insurers,” he said.

Michelle Lopilato, Hub International’s director of cyber and technology solutions, added that some carriers may offer more coverage, while others may pull back.

“How the markets react will evolve as we see how involved the department becomes in investigating and fining financial institutions for noncompliance and its result on the balance sheet and dividends,” she said.

Christopher Keegan, senior managing director at Beecher Carlson, said that by setting a benchmark, the new rules would make it easier for claimants to make a case that the company had been negligent.

“If stock prices drop, then this makes it easier for class action lawyers to make their cases in D&O situations,” he said. “As a result, D&O carriers may see an uptick in cases against their insureds and an easier path for plaintiffs to show that the company did not meet its duty of care.”

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One area that regulators and plaintiffs might seize upon is the certification compliance requirement, according to Rob Yellen, executive vice president, D&O and fiduciary liability product leader, FINEX at Willis Towers Watson.

“A mere inaccuracy in a certification could result in criminal enforcement, in which case it would then become a boardroom issue,” he said.

A big grey area, however, said Shiraz Saeed, national practice leader for cyber risk at Starr Companies, is determining if a violation is a cyber or management liability issue in the first place.

“The complication arises when a company only has D&O coverage, but it doesn’t have a cyber policy and then they have to try and push all the claims down the D&O route, irrespective of their nature,” he said.

“Insurers, on their part, will need to account for the increased exposures presented by these new regulations and charge appropriately for such added exposure.” — William Kelly, senior vice president, underwriting, Argo Pro

Jim McCue, managing director at Aon’s financial services group, said many small and mid-size businesses may struggle to comply with the new rules in time.

“It’s going to be a steep learning curve and a lot of work in terms of preparedness and the implementation of a highly detailed cyber security program, risk assessment and response plan, all by September 2017,” he said.

The new regulation also has the potential to impact third parties including accounting, law, IT and even maintenance and repair firms who have access to a company’s information systems and personal data, said Keegan.

“That can include everyone from IT vendors to the people who maintain the building’s air conditioning,” he said.

New Models

Others have followed New York’s lead, with similar regulations being considered across federal, state and non-governmental regulators.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Cyber-security Taskforce has proposed an insurance data security model law that establishes exclusive standards for data security and investigation, and notification of a breach of data security for insurance providers.

Once enacted, each state would be free to adopt the new law, however, “our main concern is if regulators in different states start to adopt different standards from each other,” said Alex Hageli, director, personal lines policy at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

“It would only serve to make compliance harder, increase the cost of burden on companies, and at the end of the day it doesn’t really help anybody.”

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Richard Morris, partner at law firm Herrick, Feinstein LLP, said companies need to review their current cybersecurity program with their chief technology officer or IT provider.

“Companies should assess whether their current technology budget is adequate and consider what investments will be required in 2017 to keep up with regulatory and market expectations,” he said. “They should also review and assess the adequacy of insurance policies with respect to coverages, deductibles and other limitations.”

Adam Hamm, former NAIC chair and MD of Protiviti’s risk and compliance practice, added: “With New York’s new cyber regulation, this is a sea change from where we were a couple of years ago and it’s soon going to become the new norm for regulating cyber security.” &

Alex Wright is a U.K.-based business journalist, who previously was deputy business editor at The Royal Gazette in Bermuda. You can reach him at [email protected]