Rendez-Vous Report

Pricing Pressure

Alternative capital is shaking up the reinsurance market, while issues such as Big Data are moving onto the agenda.
By: | August 4, 2014 • 6 min read

The café terraces of Monte Carlo will be bathed in sunshine, literally and figuratively, when reinsurers and brokers meet for Les Rendez-vous de Septembre (RVS), commencing Sept. 9.

Monaco is one of the few European locations to avoid the dark economic clouds that descended on the continent in the wake of the banking sector’s meltdown and ensuing financial crisis. Following five years of austerity, voters used the European Parliament elections in May this year to voice their dissatisfaction.

Yet, despite this sullen atmosphere, the biggest casualties of boom-to-bust such as Spain, Ireland and Greece have been steadily pulling out of recession over the past year.


While Munich Re is averse to speculating on the mood that is likely to prevail at 2014 RVS, its latest Insurance Market Outlook (PDF), published in May, predicted that a broad-based economic recovery across many countries would see global insurance premium growth accelerate to 2.8 percent this year, from 2.1 percent last year, with a further improvement to 3.2 percent in 2015.

Munich Re’s chief economist, Michael Menhart, noted that the pick-up comes after three years of relatively low growth rates.

“In many cases, reinsurance has been used as a means of managing any potential earnings volatility arising from these larger retained portions.” — Charles Whitmore, managing director, head of the property solutions group, Guy Carpenter

Charles Whitmore, managing director, head of the property solutions group at Guy Carpenter, said the “improving economic environment in Europe has enabled insurance carriers to repair balance sheets and press ahead with consolidation and increased retention appetites.”

“In many cases, reinsurance has been used as a means of managing any potential earnings volatility arising from these larger retained portions.”

This generally optimistic outlook was tempered by the fact that Munich Re expects reinsurance premium growth to be more modest than that for primary insurance.

Over the next six years, the German reinsurer expects average growth in global reinsurance markets in real terms of little more than 2 percent per year. RVS attendees will also look back on this year’s January 1 and April 1 renewals, where pricing pressures saw declines of as much as 20 percent for U.S. CAT business.

As Munich Re’s report noted, while the potential of the world’s emerging markets — particularly the so-called BRIC economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China — was a hot topic a few years back, for the time being the major industrialized nations are back in the driving seat.

While the group expects China’s premium volume (which was around $284 billion in 2013) to double by the end of the decade, it will still lag way behind the United States, whose premium volume it predicts will pass the $1,624 billion level by 2020.

Possibly the biggest BRIC disappointment — which attendees may seek to explain — is Brazil. Hopes were high when the country began liberalizing its reinsurance market six years ago, ending the near-70 year monopoly of state-owned IRB.

Within four years, more than 100 reinsurers had established a presence in the country. However, this summer’s World Cup underscored how the economic optimism in 2007, when Brazil won the rights to stage the contest, has steadily dissipated.

Insurer confidence on the country’s economic outlook has fallen to a record low and Standard & Poor’s is among those warning that profitability in the Brazilian reinsurance market remains elusive.

Many reinsurers instead appear to be focusing on gaining a presence in India, once the long-delayed Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill 2008, which would allow foreign reinsurers to set up offices in the country, is finally cleared by parliament.

France’s biggest reinsurer, Scor, is among those that have signaled their intent to add an Indian operation. Such hopes will have been encouraged by the landslide election victory in May of Narendra Modi. India’s 15th prime minister swept to power on a promise to kick-start an underperforming economy, which reinsurers hope will mean an end to the stalling in opening up its market.

The Top Three

But which trio of issues is most likely to dominate the discussions in Monaco?

“We can be certain that one of the prime themes, as always, will be the prognosis for reinsurance pricing, capacity, [and] terms and conditions at the coming January renewal,” said Christopher Klein, managing director and head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) strategy at Guy Carpenter.


“A second topic will be the continuing influx of new capital into the reinsurance sector from so-called nontraditional sectors, despite the surplus of capacity.

“In the absence of a market-changing loss, continuing pressure on prices and returns can be expected. However, to date, the greatest effect has tended to be in the North American catastrophe market. We will be interested to see if the new capital will start to make significant inroads into the EMEA and Asia Pacific (APAC) regions and non-catastrophe classes.

“Finally,” Klein added, “a favorite topic of discussion at Monte Carlo is speculation about corporate activity and consolidation. This year, we have witnessed some high-profile attempts at consolidation in Bermuda. Expect this topic to continue to make headlines.”

Bryon Ehrhart, chief executive, Aon Benfield Americas

Bryon Ehrhart, chief executive, Aon Benfield Americas

Bryon Ehrhart, chief executive of Aon Benfield Americas, predicted at last year’s RVS that a further $100 billion of alternative capital would enter the reinsurance market by 2018 and said that so far, this prediction is on track.

He cited the decision in early June by the European Central Bank to cut its main interest rate to a record low of 0.15 percent and entering into what the headlines call “uncharted territory” by reducing its interest rate on deposits to a negative figure for the first time, of -0.1 percent.

This could mean that the predicted figure of $100 billion needs revising upwards. As he pointed out, major pension funds are making promises to retirees of returns of 4 percent upwards, against returns on conventional investments that are typically 1.25 percent to 1.5 percent.

Ehrhart cited two relatively recent entrants: Stone Ridge Asset Management — which launched two reinsurance-linked funds as recently as November 2012 and already has $2.5 billion under management — and LGT Capital Partners.

“The impact of the hedge fund reinsurers has been fairly transformative,” he said.

“They have put forward material capacity at very low prices and opened up a whole new set of opportunities for our clients.”

Inevitably, these pricing pressures continue to impact the long-established carriers. As A.M. Best commented earlier this summer, global reinsurance companies in the first quarter of 2014 benefited from below-average catastrophe losses and most continued to report favorable reserve releases, yet those that are publicly traded saw their stock lag the market. From a group of 20, only Bermuda’s Maiden Holdings managed a strong gain (of over 14 percent). The ratings agencies will doubtless dissect this overall sluggish performance at Monte Carlo.

Big Data and El Niño

What else is likely to be on this year’s agenda? The big keynote session or “presentation-debate” will be on Big Data and its potential to significantly change how reinsurers do business. While details of participants were sketchy at the time of writing, the session will be chaired by Michel Liès, chief executive of Swiss Re and the reinsurer said that it “wants to examine with RVS participants and clients how Big Data can enable new business opportunities and how privacy concerns can be addressed.”

Gretchen Hayes, managing director, global strategic advisory at Guy Carpenter, noted the “reinsurance industry is still at the beginning stages when it comes to the potential and competitive advantages of Big Data in combination with predictive analytics.”

“As these technologies continue to advance, insurance companies are reaping the benefits of gathering and analyzing vast amounts of information that come through their own internal networks as well as that of their business partners and even through new external sources.”

Video: The Weather Channel reports on some of the possibilities associated with an El Niño in 2014.

With reports suggesting that there is a 90 percent chance that an El Niño will disrupt global weather patterns this year, the recurring climate phenomenon could also force itself on the discussions.

Beginning as a vast expanse of water in the Pacific that becomes abnormally warm, El Niño has the potential for adverse weather effects ranging from a weaker-than-usual monsoon season in India that starves its paddy fields of vital rain, to scorching heat and bush fires in Australia and sharply reduced fishing catches in South America.


The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts predicts that the El Niño phenomenon is highly likely to occur this year; indeed, the organization believes it could potentially be the most damaging since 1997-98, which produced the hottest year on record and a string of natural catastrophes, an estimated 23,000 deaths and total economic losses in the region of $35 billion to $47 billion.

Graham Buck is editor of He can be reached at

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Report: Marine

Crewless Ships Raise Questions

Is a remote operator legally a master? New technology confounds old terms.
By: | March 5, 2018 • 6 min read

For many developers, the accelerating development of remote-controlled and autonomous ships represents what could be the dawn of a new era. For underwriters and brokers, however, such vessels could represent the end of thousands of years of maritime law and risk management.

Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk

While crewless vessels have yet to breach commercial service, there are active testing programs. Most brokers and underwriters expect small-scale commercial operations to be feasible in a few years, but that outlook only considers technical feasibility. How such operations will be insured remains unclear.

“I have been giving this a great deal of thought, this sits on my desk every day,” said Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk, a major UK underwriter. Johnson sits on the loss-prevention committee of the International Union of Maritime Insurers.

“The agreed uncertainty that underpins marine insurance is falling away, but we are pretending that it isn’t. The contractual framework is being made less relevant all the time.”

Defining Autonomous Vessels

Two types of crewless vessels are being contemplated. First up is a drone with no one on board but actively controlled by a human at a remote command post on land or even on another vessel.

While some debate whether the controllers of drone aircrafts are pilots or operators, the very real question yet to be addressed is if a vessel controller is legally a “master” under maritime law.


The other type of crewless vessel would be completely autonomous, with the onboard systems making decisions about navigation, weather and operations.

Advocates tout the benefits of larger cargo capacity without crew spaces, including radically different hull designs without decks people can walk on. Doubters note a crew can fix things at sea while a ship cannot.

Rolls-Royce is one of the major proponents and designers. The company tested a remote-controlled tug in Copenhagen in June 2017.

“We think the initial early adopters will be vessels operating on fixed routes within coastal waters under the jurisdiction of flag states,” the company said.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.”

Once autonomous ships are a reality, “the entire current legal framework for maritime law and insurance is done,” said Johnson. “The master has not been replaced; he is just gone. Commodity ships (bulk carriers) would be most amenable to that technology. I’m not overly bothered by fully automated ships, but I am extremely bothered by heavily automated ones.”

He cited two risks specifically: hacking and fire.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.” — Rolls-Royce Holdings study

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, asked an even more existential question: “From an insurance standpoint, are we even still talking about a vessel as it is under law? Starting with the legal framework, the duty of a flag state is ‘manning of ships.’ What about the duty to render assistance? There cannot be insurance coverage of an illegal contract.”

Several sources noted that the technological development of crewless ships, while impressive, seems to be a solution in search of a problem. There is no known need in the market; no shippers, operators, owners or mariners advocate that crewless ships will solve their problems.

Kinsey takes umbrage at the suggestion that promotional material on crewless vessels cherry picks his company’s data, which found 75 percent to 90 percent of marine losses are caused by human error.


“Removing the humans from the vessels does not eliminate the human error. It just moves the human error from the helm to the coder. The reports on development by the companies with a vested interest [in crewless vessels] tend to read a lot like advertisements. The pressure for this is not coming from the end users.”

To be sure, Kinsey is a proponent of automation and technology when applied prudently, believing automation can make strides in areas of the supply chains. Much of the talk about automation is trying to bury the serious shortage of qualified crews. It also overshadows the very real potential for blockchain technology to overhaul the backend of marine insurance.

As a marine surveyor, Kinsey said he can go down to the wharf, inspect cranes, vessels and securements, and supervise loading and unloading — but he can’t inspect computer code or cyber security.

New Times, New Risks

In all fairness, insurance language has changed since the 17th century, especially as technology races ahead in the 21st.

“If you read any hull form, it’s practically Shakespearean,” said Stephen J. Harris, senior vice president of marine protection UK, Marsh. “The language is no longer fit for purpose. Our concern specifically to this topic is that the antiquated language talks about crew being on board. If they are not on board, do they still legally count as crew?”

Harris further questioned, “Under hull insurance, and provided that the ship owner has acted diligently, cover is extended to negligence of the master or crew. Does that still apply if the captain is not on board but sitting at a desk in an office?”

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty

Several sources noted that a few international organizations, notably the Comite Maritime International and the International Maritime Organization, “have been very active in asking the legal profession around the world about their thoughts. The interpretations vary greatly. The legal complications of crewless vessels are actually more complicated than the technology.”

For example, if the operational, insurance and regulatory entities in two countries agree on the voyage of a crewless vessel across the ocean, a mishap or storm could drive the vessel into port or on shore of a third country that does not recognize those agreements.

“What worries insurers is legal uncertainty,” said Harris.

“If an operator did everything fine but a system went down, then most likely the designer would be responsible. But even if a designer explicitly accepted responsibility, what matters would be the flag state’s law in international waters and the local state’s law in territorial waters.


“We see the way ahead for this technology as local and short-sea operations. The law has to catch up with the technology, and it is showing no signs of doing so.”

Thomas M. Boudreau, head of specialty insurance, The Hartford, suggested that remote ferry operations could be the most appropriate use: “They travel fixed routes, all within one country’s waters.”

There could also be environmental and operational benefits from using battery power rather than conventional fuels.

“In terms of underwriting, the burden would shift to the manufacturer and designer of the operating systems,” Boudreau added.

It may just be, he suggested, that crewless ships are merely replacing old risks with new ones. Crews can deal with small repairs, fires or leaks at sea, but small conditions such as those can go unchecked and endanger the whole ship and cargo.

“The cyber risk is also concerning. The vessel may be safe from physical piracy, but what about hacking?” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]