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Surety

The Buzz Over Bonds

Bonding requirements in the weed business are wildly inconsistent and sometimes seem biased against the industry.
By: | May 2, 2017 • 6 min read

Now that medical and/or recreational use of marijuana is legal in nearly a quarter of U.S. states, several are now requiring marijuana dispensaries and growers to obtain surety bonds to make sure the businesses are viable and upstanding.

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But some are questioning the high bond amounts required by states like Arkansas, Florida and Connecticut, claiming it’s “cannabigotry” in a drive to stamp out the controversial businesses. Colorado last year relaxed its surety bond requirements after too many mom and pop firms went out of business due to the tightening of the surety bond market there.

Some marijuana bonds guarantee compliance with a state license, but most often the bonds guarantee payment of tax revenue on the sale of marijuana, said Victor J. Lance, president and owner of Lance Surety Bond Associates Inc. in Doylestown, Pa.

“These bonds are currently very difficult to place, and most bond companies avoid writing them for primarily two reasons — federal law still makes possession and use of marijuana illegal, and the threat of RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization] lawsuits,” Lance said.

In 2015, an anti-marijuana group sued several Colorado dispensaries and companies doing business with them, including Merchants Bonding Co., claiming they violated the federal RICO act. The surety bond firm settled and immediately exited the marijuana bonding business, and most other bond companies followed suit.

“However, there are still some bond companies willing to write these bonds for qualified applicants,” Lance said. “If federal law changes, which some think is only a matter of time, this will most certainly change as more and more bond companies re-enter the industry.”

Different Approaches

Regardless of federal law, state regulators “need to be thoughtful” in setting appropriate penal sums and determining bond language, he said. Some states like Florida and Connecticut require surety bonds for $1 million or more, but it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for most new businesses to qualify for a bond of that size.

Victor J. Lance, president and owner, Lance Surety Bond Associates Inc.

“If a state decides to require a bond that no bond company is comfortable writing, the requirement becomes unattainable for most businesses and can be detrimental to the growth of the marijuana industry in their state,” Lance said. “It’s important for state regulators to consult with the surety industry, such as the legal counsel at the Surety & Fidelity Association of America, before deciding on new bonding requirements.”

Colorado last year removed the surety bond requirements for marijuana firms. Other RICO lawsuits against marijuana firms and those that do business with them have since been dismissed by federal judges or turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission proposed surety bond requirements for marijuana businesses wishing to obtain licenses, which must be approved by the Arkansas Legislature. The state will initially award 32 dispensary licenses on a lottery basis and five cultivation facility licenses based on the firms’ merits.

To qualify for a cultivation license, applicants must provide proof of assets or a surety bond in the amount of $1 million, an initial $500,000 performance bond, and proof of at least $500,000 in liquid assets.

For dispensary licenses, applicants electing to cultivate medical marijuana on the premises must provide proof of assets or a surety bond in the amount of $200,000 and proof of at least $100,000 in liquid assets.

Keith Mansur, publisher of the Oregon Cannabis Connection’s OCC Newspaper in Grants Pass, Ore., said that the Arkansas bond requirements for dispensaries are not overly odious, but the requirements for growers are.

“I think what’s really driving this is ‘cannabigotry,’ ” Mansur said. “They are afraid of the unknown and the Feds perpetrate the myth that cannabis is bad because they still classify is as a Schedule I controlled substance. But all of that ridiculous scheduling causes fear.”

Still, he’s not sure that having no bond requirement is a good thing.

Companies need to know “that there’s more risk involved than just opening their doors,” said Mansur.

Keith Mansur, publisher, Oregon Cannabis Connection newspaper

For smaller firms, a $10,000 license and/or tax bond runs between $300 and $1,500, said Gary Eastman, president of Swiftbonds in Leawood, Kan.

To get any type of surety bond, companies need to show three years’ worth of financials or the applicant needs to have great credit, Eastman said. For small firms, Swiftbonds typically asks for a basic profit and loss statement, but also encourages a balance sheet statement. As most dispensaries do not have a lot of assets, the firm looks for strong cash flow and sometimes a letter of credit or some other type of collateral.

“We tell companies that even if they can’t get a bond today, continue to work with the surety company, sending updates and financial statements,” he said. “If the company shows continuous progress and that they’re taking all the right steps — instead of trying to grow too aggressively, cutting costs so they can’t service customers — then they can ultimately get a bond.”

Some states, like Washington, don’t require surety bonds, but they do require dispensaries and growers to have commercial general liability insurance or commercial umbrella insurance, with limits of not less than a million dollars, said Susan Coakley, insurance specialist at New Growth Insurance in Alameda, Calif.

“Marijuana firms typically are cash-only businesses, so if they ever had an insurance claim, the insurer could not pay them $5,000 in cash to resolve the claim,” Coakley said. They’d need to use lawyers as intermediaries.

There are some brokers who are selling GL policies to marijuana firms so they can meet the regulatory requirements, but if the firms ever had a claim they wouldn’t be covered, she said. The red flag to watch for is verbiage in the policy that excludes the cannabis business.

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T.J. Frost, commercial and surety insurance adviser at HUB International in Seattle, said that in Washington, local utilities sometimes require marijuana firms to put money upfront, just in case they ever miss a utility payment. That amount could be in the range of $150,000, or around $8,000 for a startup. The fee for such a bond is 20 percent.

HUB’s risk services team also inspects properties and helps clients seeking insurance prepare by discussing potential fire hazards, sprinkler systems, light wire exposure, exit requirements and the need for cameras, safes and vaults.

“One thing we pride ourselves [on] is that we can help companies with risk mitigation, because there were companies that started out in people’s houses that were catching fire because they were doing it indoors,” Frost said.

HUB also brings in attorneys knowledgeable about the marijuana industry to work with clients on accounting, taxes and other issues.

“We want our clients to be successful; we want them to pave the way for others,” Frost said. “We try to be an advocate for them, not just their insurance broker.” &

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Insurtech

Kiss Your Annual Renewal Goodbye; On-Demand Insurance Challenges the Traditional Policy

Gig workers' unique insurance needs drive delivery of on-demand coverage.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 6 min read

The gig economy is growing. Nearly six million Americans, or 3.8 percent of the U.S. workforce, now have “contingent” work arrangements, with a further 10.6 million in categories such as independent contractors, on-call workers or temporary help agency staff and for-contract firms, often with well-known names such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.

Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO, Trōv

The number of Americans owning a drone is also increasing — one recent survey suggested as much as one in 12 of the population — sparking vigorous debate on how regulation should apply to where and when the devices operate.

Add to this other 21st century societal changes, such as consumers’ appetite for other electronic gadgets and the advent of autonomous vehicles. It’s clear that the cover offered by the annually renewable traditional insurance policy is often not fit for purpose. Helped by the sophistication of insurance technology, the response has been an expanding range of ‘on-demand’ covers.

The term ‘on-demand’ is open to various interpretations. For Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO of pioneering on-demand insurance platform Trōv, it’s about “giving people agency over the items they own and enabling them to turn on insurance cover whenever they want for whatever they want — often for just a single item.”

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“On-demand represents a whole new behavior and attitude towards insurance, which for years has very much been a case of ‘get it and forget it,’ ” said Walchek.

Trōv’s mobile app enables users to insure just a single item, such as a laptop, whenever they wish and to also select the period of cover required. When ready to buy insurance, they then snap a picture of the sales receipt or product code of the item they want covered.

Welcoming Trōv: A New On-Demand Arrival

While Walchek, who set up Trōv in 2012, stressed it’s a technology company and not an insurance company, it has attracted industry giants such as AXA and Munich Re as partners. Trōv began the U.S. roll-out of its on-demand personal property products this summer by launching in Arizona, having already established itself in Australia and the United Kingdom.

“Australia and the UK were great testing grounds, thanks to their single regulatory authorities,” said Walchek. “Trōv is already approved in 45 states, and we expect to complete the process in all by November.

“On-demand products have a particular appeal to millennials who love the idea of having control via their smart devices and have embraced the concept of an unbundling of experiences: 75 percent of our users are in the 18 to 35 age group.” – Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO, Trōv

“On-demand products have a particular appeal to millennials who love the idea of having control via their smart devices and have embraced the concept of an unbundling of experiences: 75 percent of our users are in the 18 to 35 age group,” he added.

“But a mass of tectonic societal shifts is also impacting older generations — on-demand cover fits the new ways in which they work, particularly the ‘untethered’ who aren’t always in the same workplace or using the same device. So we see on-demand going into societal lifestyle changes.”

Wooing Baby Boomers

In addition to its backing for Trōv, across the Atlantic, AXA has partnered with Insurtech start-up By Miles, launching a pay-as-you-go car insurance policy in the UK. The product is promoted as low-cost car insurance for drivers who travel no more than 140 miles per week, or 7,000 miles annually.

“Due to the growing need for these products, companies such as Marmalade — cover for learner drivers — and Cuvva — cover for part-time drivers — have also increased in popularity, and we expect to see more enter the market in the near future,” said AXA UK’s head of telematics, Katy Simpson.

Simpson confirmed that the new products’ initial appeal is to younger motorists, who are more regular users of new technology, while older drivers are warier about sharing too much personal information. However, she expects this to change as on-demand products become more prevalent.

“Looking at mileage-based insurance, such as By Miles specifically, it’s actually older generations who are most likely to save money, as the use of their vehicles tends to decline. Our job is therefore to not only create more customer-centric products but also highlight their benefits to everyone.”

Another Insurtech ready to partner with long-established names is New York-based Slice Labs, which in the UK is working with Legal & General to enter the homeshare insurance market, recently announcing that XL Catlin will use its insurance cloud services platform to create the world’s first on-demand cyber insurance solution.

“For our cyber product, we were looking for a partner on the fintech side, which dovetailed perfectly with what Slice was trying to do,” said John Coletti, head of XL Catlin’s cyber insurance team.

“The premise of selling cyber insurance to small businesses needs a platform such as that provided by Slice — we can get to customers in a discrete, seamless manner, and the partnership offers potential to open up other products.”

Slice Labs’ CEO Tim Attia added: “You can roll up on-demand cover in many different areas, ranging from contract workers to vacation rentals.

“The next leap forward will be provided by the new economy, which will create a range of new risks for on-demand insurance to respond to. McKinsey forecasts that by 2025, ecosystems will account for 30 percent of global premium revenue.

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“When you’re a start-up, you can innovate and question long-held assumptions, but you don’t have the scale that an insurer can provide,” said Attia. “Our platform works well in getting new products out to the market and is scalable.”

Slice Labs is now reviewing the emerging markets, which aren’t hampered by “old, outdated infrastructures,” and plans to test the water via a hackathon in southeast Asia.

Collaboration Vs Competition

Insurtech-insurer collaborations suggest that the industry noted the banking sector’s experience, which names the tech disruptors before deciding partnerships, made greater sense commercially.

“It’s an interesting correlation,” said Slice’s managing director for marketing, Emily Kosick.

“I believe the trend worth calling out is that the window for insurers to innovate is much shorter, thanks to the banking sector’s efforts to offer omni-channel banking, incorporating mobile devices and, more recently, intelligent assistants like Alexa for personal banking.

“Banks have bought into the value of these technology partnerships but had the benefit of consumer expectations changing slowly with them. This compares to insurers who are in an ever-increasing on-demand world where the risk is high for laggards to be left behind.”

As with fintechs in banking, Insurtechs initially focused on the retail segment, with 75 percent of business in personal lines and the remainder in the commercial segment.

“Banks have bought into the value of these technology partnerships but had the benefit of consumer expectations changing slowly with them. This compares to insurers who are in an ever-increasing on-demand world where the risk is high for laggards to be left behind.” — Emily Kosick, managing director, marketing, Slice

Those proportions may be set to change, with innovations such as digital commercial insurance brokerage Embroker’s recent launch of the first digital D&O liability insurance policy, designed for venture capital-backed tech start-ups and reinsured by Munich Re.

Embroker said coverage that formerly took weeks to obtain is now available instantly.

“We focus on three main issues in developing new digital business — what is the customer’s pain point, what is the expense ratio and does it lend itself to algorithmic underwriting?” said CEO Matt Miller. “Workers’ compensation is another obvious class of insurance that can benefit from this approach.”

Jason Griswold, co-founder and chief operating officer of Insurtech REIN, highlighted further opportunities: “I’d add a third category to personal and business lines and that’s business-to-business-to-consumer. It’s there we see the biggest opportunities for partnering with major ecosystems generating large numbers of insureds and also big volumes of data.”

For now, insurers are accommodating Insurtech disruption. Will that change?

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“Insurtechs have focused on products that regulators can understand easily and for which there is clear existing legislation, with consumer protection and insurer solvency the two issues of paramount importance,” noted Shawn Hanson, litigation partner at law firm Akin Gump.

“In time, we could see the disruptors partner with reinsurers rather than primary carriers. Another possibility is the likes of Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook and Apple, with their massive balance sheets, deciding to link up with a reinsurer,” he said.

“You can imagine one of them finding a good Insurtech and buying it, much as Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods gave it entry into the retail sector.” &

Graham Buck is a UK-based writer and has contributed to Risk & Insurance® since 1998. He can be reached at riskletters.com.