2222222222

Risk Insider: Mark Watson

The Long Disruption

By: | October 23, 2017 • 3 min read
Mark Watson has served as President and CEO of Argo Group since 2000 and has been with the company since 1998, when it was Argonaut Group. He can be reached at [email protected]

Significant volumes of new capital now flow steadily from institutional and individual investors into the insurance industry. Some of this capital backs new entrants as they compete with legacy companies to disrupt the value chain and achieve greater returns than they might get elsewhere. Who will win?

When investors move their capital into insurance, the returns they expect are not high, just higher than the market average. Since investment returns have stayed near rock bottom for years, particularly in fixed income markets, any investment with expected returns of more than four or five percent looks good to the investors who supply the capital to new entrants.

This influx of funding with lower return hurdles has been disruptive in places and the disruption is irreversible, but change is nothing new to the insurance industry. Our industry has been rumbling for two decades. I first noticed individual investors in capital markets outside our industry moving into insurance back in the mid-nineties. Flush with cash and ambition, these entrepreneurs engineered a class of investments we now call catastrophe bonds. The capital flow into our industry has increased every year since. Twenty years later, it accounts for a significant amount of the industry’s catastrophic capacity.

Aggregate data does not yet beat deep domain expertise

What’s ahead? The steady stream of capital into insurance has produced over-capacity, which has in turn pushed margins down to historic lows as capitalists compete for the right to put their money to work. In some markets, the resulting margin pressures make it all but impossible for legacy businesses to generate a profit.

Will all-digital companies backed by billions of dollars of fresh investor capital shake up our industry even further? I don’t think so.

While they may be well funded, these new entrants are not having an easy time going it on their own, for three reasons. First, insurance is tough to underwrite without deep domain expertise. The aggregate data that disruptors in other industries tap into is not openly available in most corners of insurance, where much of the most prized data is proprietary.

The steady stream of capital into insurance has produced over-capacity, which has in turn pushed margins down to historic lows as capitalists compete for the right to put their money to work.

Even with artificial intelligence promising quantum leaps in risk modeling, the knowledge of what to look for and base decisions on resides within the corners of the industry where the true risk experts are. Second, the cost of acquiring customers directly can be in the hundreds of million of dollars. And third, ours is a fiercely regulated industry with mandatory requirements varying wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The only way a new entrant backed by even limitless capital could navigate that environment would be to partner with a company that knows the ropes.

The future belongs to the customer

Where is the greatest opportunity to be found during this shift? I believe judicious use of technology combined with existing insurance expertise is the path to continued growth. That means the future belongs to neither the legacy companies nor the start-ups with their fresh capital alone.

It belongs to partnerships between these two groups, marrying deep and broad insurance knowledge with digital expertise to bring capital closer to the risk, reduce the complexity of offerings, and deliver greater value to customers. As ever, the successful players will be those that meet customers’ needs best.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Focus: Workers' Comp

Do You Have Employees or Gig Workers?

The number of gig economy workers is growing in the U.S. But their classification as contractors leaves many without workers’ comp, unemployment protection or other benefits.
By: and | July 30, 2018 • 5 min read

A growing number of Americans earn their living in the gig economy without employer-provided benefits and protections such as workers’ compensation.

Advertisement




With the proliferation of on-demand services powered by digital platforms, questions surrounding who does and does not actually work in the gig economy continue to vex stakeholders. Courts and legislators are being asked to decide what constitutes an employee and what constitutes an independent contractor, or gig worker.

The issues are how the worker is paid and who controls the work process, said Bobby Bollinger, a North Carolina attorney specializing in workers’ compensation law with a client roster in the trucking industry.

The common law test, he said, the same one the IRS uses, considers “whose tools and whose materials are used. Whether the employer is telling the worker how to do the job on a minute-to-minute basis. Whether the worker is paid by the hour or by the job. Whether he’s free to work for someone else.”

Legal challenges have occurred, starting with lawsuits against transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. Several court cases in recent years have come down on the side of allowing such companies to continue classifying drivers as independent contractors.

Those decisions are significant for TNCs, because the gig model relies on the lower labor cost of independent contractors. Classification as an employee adds at least 30 percent to labor costs.

The issues lie with how a worker is paid and who controls the work process. — Bobby Bollinger, a North Carolina attorney

However, a March 2018 California Supreme Court ruling in a case involving delivery drivers for Dynamex went the other way. The Dynamex decision places heavy emphasis on whether the worker is performing a core function of the business.

Under the Dynamex court’s standard, an electrician called to fix a wiring problem at an Uber office would be considered a general contractor. But a driver providing rides to customers would be part of the company’s central mission and therefore an employee.

Despite the California ruling, a Philadelphia court a month later declined to follow suit, ruling that Uber’s limousine drivers are independent contractors, not employees. So a definitive answer remains elusive.

A Legislative Movement

Misclassification of workers as independent contractors introduces risks to both employers and workers, said Matt Zender, vice president, workers’ compensation product manager, AmTrust.

“My concern is for individuals who believe they’re covered under workers’ compensation, have an injury, try to file a claim and find they’re not covered.”

Misclassifying workers opens a “Pandora’s box” for employers, said Richard R. Meneghello, partner, Fisher Phillips.

Issues include tax liabilities, claims for minimum wage and overtime violations, workers’ comp benefits, civil labor law rights and wrongful termination suits.

The motive for companies seeking the contractor definition is clear: They don’t have to pay for benefits, said Meneghello. “But from a legal perspective, it’s not so easy to turn the workforce into contractors.”

“My concern is for individuals who believe they’re covered under workers’ compensation, have an injury, try to file a claim and find they’re not covered in the eyes of the state.” — Matt Zender, vice president, workers’ compensation product manager, AmTrust

It’s about to get easier, however. In 2016, Handy — which is being sued in five states for misclassification of workers — drafted a N.Y. bill to establish a program where gig-economy companies would pay 2.5 percent of workers’ income into individual health savings accounts, yet would classify them as independent contractors.

Unions and worker advocacy groups argue the program would rob workers of rights and protections. So Handy moved on to eight other states where it would be more likely to win.

Advertisement




So far, the Handy bills have passed one house of the legislature in Georgia and Colorado; passed both houses in Iowa and Tennessee; and been signed into law in Kentucky, Utah and Indiana. A similar bill was also introduced in Alabama.

The bills’ language says all workers who find jobs through a website or mobile app are independent contractors, as long as the company running the digital platform does not control schedules, prohibit them from working elsewhere and meets other criteria. Two bills exclude transportation network companies such as Uber.

These laws could have far-reaching consequences. Traditional service companies will struggle to compete with start-ups paying minimal labor costs.

Opponents warn that the Handy bills are so broad that a service company need only launch an app for customers to contract services, and they’d be free to re-classify their employees as independent contractors — leaving workers without social security, health insurance or the protections of unemployment insurance or workers’ comp.

That could destabilize social safety nets as well as shrink available workers’ comp premiums.

A New Classification

Independent contractors need to buy their own insurance, including workers’ compensation. But many don’t, said Hart Brown, executive vice president, COO, Firestorm. They may not realize that in the case of an accident, their personal car and health insurance won’t engage, Brown said.

Matt Zender, vice president, workers’ compensation product manager, AmTrust

Workers’ compensation for gig workers can be hard to find. Some state-sponsored funds provide self-employed contractors’ coverage.  Policies can be expensive though in some high-risk occupations, such as roofing, said Bollinger.

The gig system, where a worker does several different jobs for several different companies, breaks down without portable benefits, said Brown. Portable benefits would follow workers from one workplace engagement to another.

What a portable benefits program would look like is unclear, he said, but some combination of employers, independent contractors and intermediaries (such as a digital platform business or staffing agency) would contribute to the program based on a percentage of each transaction.

There is movement toward portable benefits legislation. The Aspen Institute proposed portable benefits where companies contribute to workers’ benefits based on how much an employee works for them. Uber and SEI together proposed a portable benefits bill to the Washington State Legislature.

Advertisement




Senator Mark Warner (D. VA) introduced the Portable Benefits for Independent Workers Pilot Program Act for the study of portable benefits, and Congresswoman Suzan DelBene (D. WA) introduced a House companion bill.

Meneghello is skeptical of portable benefits as a long-term solution. “They’re a good first step,” he said, “but they paper over the problem. We need a new category of workers.”

A portable benefits model would open opportunities for the growing Insurtech market. Brad Smith, CEO, Intuit, estimates the gig economy to be about 34 percent of the workforce in 2018, growing to 43 percent by 2020.

The insurance industry reinvented itself from a risk transfer mechanism to a risk management mechanism, Brown said, and now it’s reinventing itself again as risk educator to a new hybrid market. &

Susannah Levine writes about health care, education and technology. She can be reached at [email protected] Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]