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.

Advertisement




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.

Advertisement




“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 riskletters@lrp.com.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

2017 Risk All Stars

Immeasurable Value

The 2017 Risk All Stars strengthened their organizations by taking ownership of improved risk management processes and not quitting until they were in place.
By: | September 12, 2017 • 3 min read

Being the only person to hold a particular opinion or point of view within an organization cannot be easy. Do the following sound like familiar stories? Can you picture yourself or one of your risk management colleagues as the hero or heroine? Or better yet, as a Risk & Insurance® Risk All Star?

Advertisement




One risk manager took a job with a company that was being spun off, and the risk management program, which was built for a much larger company, was not a good fit for the spun-off company.
Rather than sink into inertia, this risk manager took the bull by the horns and began an aggressive company intranet campaign to instill better safety and other risk management practices throughout the organization.

The risk manager, 2017 Risk All Star Michelle Bennett of Cable One, also changed some long-standing brokerage relationships that weren’t a good fit for the risk management and insurance program. In her first year on the job she produced premium savings and in her second year is in the process of introducing ERM company-wide.

Or perhaps this one rings a bell. The news is trickling out that a company is poised to dramatically expand, increasing the workforce three- or four-fold. Having this knowledge with certainty would be a great benefit to a risk manager, who could begin girding safety, workers’ comp and related programs accordingly. But things sometimes don’t work that way, do they? Sometimes the risk manager is one of the last people to know.

The Risk All Star Award recognizes at its core, creativity, perseverance and passion. The 13 winners of this year’s award all displayed those traits in abundance.

In the case of 2017 Risk All Star winner Steve Richards of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, the news of an expansion spurred him to action. He completely overhauled the company’s workers’ compensation program and streamlined its claim management system. The results, even with a much higher headcount, were reduced legal costs, better return-to-work experiences for injured workers and a host of other improvements and savings.

The Risk All Star Award recognizes at its core, creativity, perseverance and passion. The 13 winners of this year’s award all displayed those traits in abundance. Sometimes it took years for a particular risk solution, as promoted by a risk manager, to find acceptance.

In other cases a risk manager got so excited about a solution, they never even considered getting turned down. They just kept pushing until they carried the day.

Advertisement




Butler University’s Zach Finn became obsessive about what he felt was a lackluster effort on the part of the insurance industry to bring in new talent. The former risk manager for the J.M. Smucker Co. settled on the creation of a student-run captive to give his risk management students the experience they would need to get hired right out of college.

The result was a better risk management program for the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and immediate traction in the job market for Finn’s students.

A few of our Risk All Stars told us that the results they are achieving were decades in the making. Only by year-in, year-out dedication to gaining transparency about her co-op’s risks and learning more and more about her various insurance carriers, did Growmark Inc.’s Faith Cring create a stalwart risk management and insurance program that is the envy of the agricultural sector. Now she’s been with some of her insurance carriers more than 20 years — some more than 30 years.

Having the right idea and not having a home for it can be a lonely, frustrating experience. Having the creativity, the passion and perhaps, most importantly, the perseverance to see it through and get great results makes you a Risk All Star. &

_____________________________________________

Risk All Stars stand out from their peers by overcoming challenges through exceptional problem solving, creativity, perseverance and passion.

See the complete list of 2017 Risk All Stars.

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at dreynolds@lrp.com.