Risk Management

Seven Questions for Michael Liebowitz

Is risk management becoming too specialized? NYU's risk executive ponders that and other questions on risk management.
By: | March 13, 2017 • 4 min read
Topics: ERM | Risk Managers

Michael Liebowitz, senior director of insurance and enterprise risk management at New York University, has come a long way from his very first job as a paperboy for the “Long Island Press.”

He came to the risk management profession in a “circuitous route,” he said, working in outside and inside claims before the “really bad underwriting” at a former company caused his department to become so “inundated with claims,” that he opted to leave the business.

Michael Liebowitz, senior director of insurance and enterprise risk management, New York University

He joined NYU Medical Center as an insurance specialist, handling primarily property, workers’ comp and medical malpractice, and later become director of risk management at NYU. In 2006, he served as president of RIMS.

I think the biggest thing I am proud of is that probably every place I’ve been employed, I’ve been able to go into the organization and create a risk management program where there wasn’t one, or identify deficiencies in risk management programs that had been in place and improve them,” he said.

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As for emerging risks, it’s cyber risk that most concerns Liebowitz. “Because the bad guys are always one step ahead of us. We are always playing catch up.”

These seven questions explore some of his thoughts on the risk management profession:

What is the risk management community doing right?

That’s a tough question. Risk management has now been fragmented. We have traditional risk management based upon an insurance model with loss control and safety and claim. Then you have enterprise risk management and looking at strategic risks. We are becoming subspecialists within a specialty.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad yet. It’s something that is still developing. There are very few people that have experience in all three disciplines.

What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?

We are going from generalists to specialists and subspecialists. And I just don’t know if it’s good. It’s too early on to come up with a definitive opinion. It’s a concern. I have all of that experience so it doesn’t bother me, but a person coming out of school, they don’t know what they are getting into. We are siloing ourselves. I don’t think anybody sees it coming.

What’s been the biggest change in the risk management and insurance industry since you’ve been in it?

I don’t think the insurance industry has changed all that much since I entered 30-odd years ago. We still don’t have contract certainty. They still do things the old way. Instead of mailing a spreadsheet, we are emailing a spreadsheet and sending the same information to multiple different carriers and filling out multiple different applications.

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One way they have changed is they have decided that shareholder value is in some instances more important than insured interests. They put their shareholders before their insureds. This is a service industry; provide me with service. I am paying for it. That’s the negative.

The good side is they are putting more emphasis on loss control, loss reduction and claims identification and mitigation activities. They are trying to get ahead of the curve but those services don’t run that deep. They are very superficial. Some carriers don’t even understand what the four corners of their policy insure and I will leave it at that.

Was the contingent commission controversy overblown?

Yes. The way brokers get compensated hasn’t changed. What has changed is they are now telling you what they are making on your book of business and they are obligated to do that versus you having to ask them.

I would flip it around and say if you were really a diligent risk manager, you would have asked the question: What is the true cost of risk. And to get the true cost of risk, you have to know what you are paying your broker. It’s all about transparency and being smart enough to ask the question.

What is the most unusual/interesting place you have ever visited?

China. It’s just so foreign from a Westerner’s point of view. Shanghai is a very modern city but you can walk two blocks in any direction and contrast it with old China. Chinese food there isn’t Chinese food here. From a food perspective, it’s very different. Culturally, it’s very different. As much as I love China and don’t mind going there – I’ve been there seven or eight times – it’s very difficult to wrap my head around it.

What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

Cycling on the street. It’s dangerous between the potholes and cars and sand and leaves. You need to have eyes in the back of your head.

What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?

I like everything I do. It’s the variety, trying to solve problems and to make my clients able to do their business by protecting not only my client but the larger organization from the business some of them might engage in.

Anne Freedman is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at afreedman@lrp.com.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Alternative Energy

A Shift in the Wind

As warranties run out on wind turbines, underwriters gain insight into their long-term costs.
By: | September 12, 2017 • 6 min read

Wind energy is all grown up. It is no longer an alternative, but in some wholesale markets has set the incremental cost of generation.

As the industry has grown, turbine towers have as well. And as the older ones roll out of their warranty periods, there are more claims.

This is a bit of a pinch in a soft market, but it gives underwriters new insight into performance over time — insight not available while manufacturers were repairing or replacing components.

Charles Long, area SVP, renewable energy, Arthur J. Gallagher

“There is a lot of capacity in the wind market,” said Charles Long, area senior vice president for renewable energy at broker Arthur J. Gallagher.

“The segment is still very soft. What we are not seeing is any major change in forms from the major underwriters. They still have 280-page forms. The specialty underwriters have a 48-page form. The larger carriers need to get away from a standard form with multiple endorsements and move to a form designed for wind, or solar, or storage. It is starting to become apparent to the clients that the firms have not kept up with construction or operations,” at renewable energy facilities, he said.

Third-party liability also remains competitive, Long noted.

“The traditional markets are doing liability very well. There are opportunities for us to market to multiple carriers. There is a lot of generation out there, but the bulk of the writing is by a handful of insurers.”

Broadly the market is “still softish,” said Jatin Sharma, head of business development for specialty underwriter G-Cube.

“There has been an increase in some distressed areas, but there has also been some regional firming. Our focus is very much on the technical underwriting. We are also emphasizing standardization, clean contracts. That extends to business interruption, marine transit, and other covers.”

The Blade Problem

“Gear-box maintenance has been a significant issue for a long time, and now with bigger and bigger blades, leading-edge erosion has become a big topic,” said Sharma. “Others include cracking and lightning and even catastrophic blade loss.”

Long, at Gallagher, noted that operationally, gear boxes have been getting significantly better. “Now it is blades that have become a concern,” he said. “Problems include cracking, fraying, splitting.

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“In response, operators are using more sophisticated inspection techniques, including flying drones. Those reduce the amount of climbing necessary, reducing risk to personnel as well.”

Underwriters certainly like that, and it is a huge cost saver to the owners, however, “we are not yet seeing that credited in the underwriting,” said Long.

He added that insurance is playing an important role in the development of renewable energy beyond the traditional property, casualty, and liability coverages.

“Most projects operate at lower capacity than anticipated. But they can purchase coverage for when the wind won’t blow or the sun won’t shine. Weather risk coverage can be done in multiple ways, or there can be an actual put, up to a fixed portion of capacity, plus or minus 20 percent, like a collar; a straight over/under.”

As useful as those financial instruments are, the first priority is to get power into the grid. And for that, Long anticipates “aggressive forward moves around storage. Spikes into the system are not good. Grid storage is not just a way of providing power when the wind is not blowing; it also acts as a shock absorber for times when the wind blows too hard. There are ebbs and flows in wind and solar so we really need that surge capacity.”

Long noted that there are some companies that are storage only.

“That is really what the utilities are seeking. The storage company becomes, in effect, just another generator. It has its own [power purchase agreement] and its own interconnect.”

“Most projects operate at lower capacity than anticipated. But they can purchase coverage for when the wind won’t blow or the sun won’t shine.”  —Charles Long, area senior vice president for renewable energy, Arthur J. Gallagher

Another trend is co-location, with wind and solar, as well as grid-storage or auxiliary generation, on the same site.

“Investors like it because it boosts internal rates of return on the equity side,” said Sharma. “But while it increases revenue, it also increases exposure. … You may have a $400 million wind farm, plus a $150 million solar array on the same substation.”

In the beginning, wind turbines did not generate much power, explained Rob Battenfield, senior vice president and head of downstream at JLT Specialty USA.

“As turbines developed, they got higher and higher, with bigger blades. They became more economically viable. There are still subsidies, and at present those subsidies drive the investment decisions.”

For example, some non-tax paying utilities are not eligible for the tax credits, so they don’t invest in new wind power. But once smaller companies or private investors have made use of the credits, the big utilities are likely to provide a ready secondary market for the builders to recoup their capital.

That structure also affects insurance. More PPAs mandate grid storage for intermittent generators such as wind and solar. State of the art for such storage is lithium-ion batteries, which have been prone to fires if damaged or if they malfunction.

“Grid storage is getting larger,” said Battenfield. “If you have variable generation you need to balance that. Most underwriters insure generation and storage together. Project leaders may need to have that because of non-recourse debt financing. On the other side, insurers may be syndicating the battery risk, but to the insured it is all together.”

“Grid storage is getting larger. If you have variable generation you need to balance that.” — Rob Battenfield, senior vice president, head of downstream, JLT Specialty USA

There has also been a mechanical and maintenance evolution along the way. “The early-generation short turbines were throwing gears all the time,” said Battenfield.

But now, he said, with fewer manufacturers in play, “the blades, gears, nacelles, and generators are much more mechanically sound and much more standardized. Carriers are more willing to write that risk.”

There is also more operational and maintenance data now as warranties roll off. Battenfield suggested that the door started to open on that data three or four years ago, but it won’t stay open forever.

“When the equipment was under warranty, it would just be repaired or replaced by the manufacturer,” he said.

“Now there’s more equipment out of warranty, there are more claims. However, if the big utilities start to aggregate wind farms, claims are likely to drop again. That is because the utilities have large retentions, often about $5 million. Claims and premiums are likely to go down for wind equipment.”

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Repair costs are also dropping, said Battenfield.

“An out-of-warranty blade set replacement can cost $300,000. But if it is repairable by a third party, it could cost as little as $30,000 to have a specialist in fiberglass do it in a few days.”

As that approach becomes more prevalent, business interruption (BI) coverage comes to the fore. Battenfield stressed that it is important for owners to understand their PPA obligations, as well as BI triggers and waiting periods.

“The BI challenge can be bigger than the property loss,” said Battenfield. “It is important that coverage dovetails into the operator’s contractual obligations.” &

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 riskletters@lrp.com.