Trade Credit Insurance

Trade Credit Insurance Blossoms at Last in the U.S.

Key drivers include retail distress and eagerness on the part of banks to monetize.
By: | July 31, 2017 • 7 min read
Topics: Retail | Underwriting

After languishing for decades as a small fraction of the trade credit insurance (TCI) market in Europe, the U.S. business is blossoming. There are several main drivers, according to underwriters and brokers, notably the increased involvement by banks in monetizing sales receivables, the first signs of tightening credit since the great recession, and increasing retail distress and bankruptcies.

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According to James Daly, president and chief executive officer of Euler Hermes in the Americas, the U.S., 2016 premium value for TCI in the U.S. was $717 million, an increase of 3 percent over the previous year. EH is one of the ‘Big Three’ global trade credit underwriters and the largest carrier in the sector in the U.S.

Marsh estimates premium totals in round numbers of about $1 billion in the U.S., $2 billion in Asia-Pacific, $4 billion in Europe, and $1 billion elsewhere for a global total of $8 billion.

Daly detailed that his firm assesses the TCI penetration in a region by number of possible client firms.

“Our view is that dollar value is distorted. We could write one huge corporation and that would skew the numbers. Based on the insurable universe we see penetration in the U.S. at 3 percent of companies, as compared to 10-15 percent of possible companies in Europe.”

In roughly similar numbers, underwriter XL Catlin estimates that something between 4-7 percent of receivables are covered in the U.S., as compared to 15-20 percent in the Europe.

According to estimates aggregated by brokerage Arthur. J. Gallagher from data provided by insureds, the volume of insured transactions written out of the U.S. grew from $48 billion in 1992 to $450 billion in 2012, adjusted for inflation. That includes domestic transactions as well as international transactions by entities operating and insured out of the U.S.

While that growth is impressive in absolute terms, it represents a large increase from a small base. Citing historical figures, Marc Wagman, managing director of Gallagher’s U.S. trade credit and political risk practice group, detailed that the U.S. volume of insured transactions grew during those 20 years from well under one half of one percent of gross domestic product to more than 3 percent of GDP. In contrast, the portion of insured transactions in other OECD countries ranges from 5 percent to 8 percent of GDP.

Marc Wagman, Managing Director, Arthur J. Gallagher’s U.S. trade credit and political risk practice group

“It is true that the percentage of participation is higher in Europe than in the U.S. but that gap has narrowed,” said Wagman.

“Demand in this country has been quite robust, and as a result more underwriters are coming in.”

While still a fraction of the market size in Europe and Asia, TCI has grown robustly in the U.S.

“When I started in this business in 1996 there were maybe half a dozen underwriters writing short-term, multi-buyer coverage,” Wagman added.

“Now we work with at least 15 carriers, and there are dozens of Lloyd’s markets.”

Within any country or region, premiums vary according to the size of the insureds and their business models.

“The average premium in the U.S. is about $40,000 a year,” said Daly at EH.

“In the U.K. that would be similar. But in a country like Poland the average premium drops to about 10,000 euros because the companies there are smaller and there are more start ups.”

Which is not to say that small firms are lesser clients. Quite to the contrary.

“We become part of the client’s risk and credit management,” said Daly.

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“This is how they expand safely and is the real growth driver. Say there is a small manufacturer in the U.S. that has grown well domestically, and suddenly gets an order for 10,000 widgets from Chile, on 30-days’ terms. We can tell that manufacturer, ‘go ahead, trade, we know that buyer, we will underwrite the risk.’ The insurance part is only the last piece. The information comes first.”

As the U.S. market has grown, adding underwriters and capacity, there has been innovation.

“There is a willingness to write larger single-buyer limits on sub-investment grade names as well as more ‘non-trade’ type of business,” said Wagman at Gallagher.

“And there are more carriers willing to write non-cancellable coverage or hybrid programs that have both non-cancellable and cancellable components.”

He stressed that the underwriting approach taken – cancellable versus non-cancellable – depends upon the client’s needs. In a non-cancellable policy, the underwriter commits to insure counter-party risk for the insured up to a limit, and that limit is good for the policy year, even if there is deterioration of the insured’s credit risk.

In a cancellable policy, if there is a deterioration of the client’s credit risk, the carrier can give a month or two of notice and cancel the limit for future shipments. The underwriter is still responsible for coverage of existing receivables up to that point.

“The banks have discovered this, and are gulping up capacity. That is driving innovation in the coverage.”– Stephen Atallah, senior executive vice president for commercial and risk underwriting, Coface

Wagman observed that cancellable coverage is often misunderstood.

“This is not the insurer telling the client with whom to do business. For the most part, cancellable coverage is for smaller businesses that don’t have their own credit departments and rely upon the underwriter for that credit limit decision-making support. Non-cancellable is primarily for larger operations that do most, if not all, of their own credit analysis. In non-can, the carrier is effectively underwriting the client’s credit management.”

The growing element in TCI is lending and capitalization, said Stephen Atallah, senior executive vice president for commercial and risk underwriting at Coface, another of the Big Three global underwriters. The third is Atradius.

“Supply-chain financing is a big application for TCI,” Atallah.

“The banks have discovered this, and are gulping up capacity. That is driving innovation in the coverage.”

Banks that acquire receivables may be the insureds themselves, or they may be the loss payee on receivables pledged as collateral. Sometimes banks require TCI before they will lend against receivables, other times they merely make in known that insured business gets an advantage on rates and terms.

Atallah noted that hybrid contracts, with a non-cancellable top tier and cancellable coverage for the bulk of an insured’s sales, has been around for a long time. “Those are a way to address the common mismatch between what the client wants and what the carriers can underwrite. Clients often want non-cancellable coverage for riskier customers. The innovation is delayed cancellation. No one wants to wake up to find they don’t have coverage. Pulling a line should not throw a business into turmoil. So now there is 30-, 60-, and 90-day notice.”

Michael Kornblau, U.S. trade credit practice leader, Marsh

While carriers might bemoan soft rates in a competitive market, Clay Sasse, managing director and U.S. practice leader for trade credit at Aon suggested that new entrants are spurring penetration.

“Once the recession was over, everyone was still spooked,” he recalled.

“But a lot of new carriers with a lot of capacity came in. They were betting that there would not be any huge knock-out bankruptcies, and they were correct. That over capacity overcame the damage that had been done during the recession.”

Scott Ettien, trade credit practice leader at Willis Towers Watson, observed that the credit environment since the great recession has been fairly benign. But recent structural changes in retail, such the boom in on-line sales, are forcing retailers to change the way they do business.

“If they don’t keep up, they fail. The payment for a claim is important, sure, but avoiding the loss is more important in the first place.”

Another widely noted factor in different rates of penetration in the U.S. and Europe is simply cultural. This is anecdotal, but something most sources mentioned.

“The business culture in the U.S. is generally more risk tolerant,” noted Jeffrey Abramson, head of the trade receivables practice at underwriter XL Catlin.

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“Companies can protect their receivables in lots of different ways, including choosing not to. Which is self insuring.  It seems that we have been talking about increasing penetration rates in the U.S. for 15 years. At last it feels like progress.”

Michael Kornblau, U.S. trade credit practice leader at Marsh, said that the uptick in bankruptcies is increasing awareness for TCI.

“Interestingly, bankruptcies are increasing, but premiums are not increasing because capacity is increasing.” He also notes growth in Europe.

“The European banks are using TCI for capital relief under the Basel III Accords.”

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]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Catastrophe Risk

Material Resiliency

New materials, methods and ideas are empowering property owners to rein in their catastrophe risks.
By: | October 12, 2017 • 11 min read

The 2017 hurricane season is one for the record books. Rebuilding efforts are underway, with builders working to make insureds whole again as soon as possible … at least until the next storm comes along.

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And therein lies the problem with recovery in disaster-prone regions. It evokes the oft-quoted definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

So what if we did it differently? What if instead of rebuilding to make structures “like new,” we rebuilt to make them better, more resilient, less prone to damage?

The reality is, we don’t really have a choice. Climate change is ushering in weather systems that are increasingly volatile. Wildfires are raging like never before. Sea-level rise is threatening our coasts, and there’s no way to dial any of it back.

Nevertheless, people will continue to build homes and businesses along the coast. Real estate developers will continue to nestle luxury homes into wooded foothills.

That means communities need to come to terms with the risk and plan for it intelligently.

Michael Brown, vice president and property manager, Golden Bear Insurance

“Natural disasters are going to happen,” said Michael Brown, vice president and property manager with Golden Bear Insurance. “But if we plan and build communities around the idea that something bad may happen someday, then that community can bounce back faster afterward.”

In any natural disaster, he added, “the property damage is extreme. But the biggest portion of the losses, both insured and uninsured, are the time element pieces. How long was the business closed? How long were homeowners unable to occupy their homes? Those are the pieces that drag on for months — years in some cases — and really drive the economic loss.”

That’s the motivation behind new materials, designs and strategies being implemented in the construction and repair of at-risk residential and commercial properties.

Powerful Flood Solutions

Newer building products move the needle significantly in terms of efficacy.

For new or restored structures in flood-prone regions, Georgia Pacific produces gypsum panels that incorporate fiberglass mats instead of paper facings and comply with the latest FEMA requirements for flood damage resistance and mold resistance. Wall boards made from magnesium oxide (MgO) don’t absorb water at all and have the added benefits of being environmentally friendly and non-flammable.

In the UK, advanced flood-resilient structures built with water-resilient concrete-block partitions are being fitted with not only MgO wallboards, but also wood-look porcelain or ceramic flooring that’s non-permeable and fire-resistant — without sacrificing aesthetics. Drains are installed in the flooring, along with sub-flooring gullies and submersible pumps that push the water back outside. Outlets and appliance motors are all situated above expected flood levels. Doors are equipped with sliding flood panels.

In the event of flooding that exceeds a depth of two feet, automatic opening window panels (flood inlets) are triggered by sensors to allow flood water to enter the property slowly, to reduce external pressure that could damage the structure.

Carl Solly, vice president and chief engineer, FM Global

Controlled inflow buys time for a homeowner to raise furniture up on blocks, or for a business owner to raise pallets of goods up to higher shelves or move equipment to a higher elevation.

Water intrusion is reduced dramatically, and even when it happens, there is little to no damage. Water is pushed into the floor drains, surfaces are allowed to dry, and then it’s back to business as usual in days rather than months — likely with no insurance claim filed.

Dramatic improvements are happening on this side of the pond as well. For entities that need permanent on-site flood solutions, barriers like flood gates and retractable flood walls are the most sophisticated they’ve ever been.

After suffering $4 billion in damage during Superstorm Sandy, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority invested heavily in flexible fabric flood panels that are made with Kevlar® and can be unrolled quickly and easily. Additional flood gates hinged to air grates are passively activated by the weight of incoming water entering the grates.

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The transit authority is also testing a prototype “resilient tunnel plug” — essentially a giant air bag that can be deployed quickly to seal off sections of subway tunnel. The plug is designed to withstand not only flood but also biochemical attack.

Even temporary solutions are leaps and bounds beyond the days when sandbagging was typically the best option. New as-needed barrier methods include inflatable bladders that can be placed around a building’s perimeter and filled with water to keep floodwater and flood debris at bay.

“People have always said, ‘Well, I’m in a flood plain, it’s inevitable. It’s an act of God,’ ” said Carl Solly, vice president and chief engineer, FM Global. “In the last several years, we’ve really been trying to deliver the message that you can do something about your flood risk.”

Shake, Pummel and Burn

Flood is far from the only problem benefiting from smart engineering. FM Global is working with manufacturers to develop and certify roofing material designed to better withstand the localized hailstorms that often plague southeastern and midwestern states.

Current materials rated for severe hail can withstand hailstones up to 1 ¾ inches in diameter. The new product, rated for “very severe” hail can tolerate hailstones up to 2 ½ inches. The difference sounds small, but it’s far from it.

“It’s about three times the amount of impact energy when it hits the roof [compared to a 1 ¾ hailstone],” explained Solly. “That’s a big difference.”

As for “bouncing back” after a catastrophic fire, Solly said that’s a fairly tall order. But even there, technology is helping to reduce the severity of fires so that disruption is minimal.

FM Global researchers recently pioneered the concept of SMART sprinklers — shorthand for Simultaneous Monitoring and Assessment Response Technology — which can sense a fire earlier than traditional systems and activate targeted sprinkler heads when needed and shut off once the fire is out.

“You’ll catch it with less water, so from a water usage perspective, a water damage perspective and a smoke damage perspective, we think that has an opportunity to be a big difference-maker in the fire protection industry, particular with high-challenge fires,” said Solly.

“You’ve got a better chance of stopping what normally would be a really tough fire to catch.”

In addition, added Brown, smarter sprinkler systems, much like burglar alarms, could be programmed to notify the fire department instantly, even when a structure is unoccupied.

For earthquake risk, said Brown, resilient building efforts are less about new materials than they are about more strategic ways of using traditional materials.

“Here in California we wrap homes in stucco around the wood frame to help the whole building move as a unit. Stucco is concrete so it does crack. I end up with a building that’s got some cosmetic damage … but you don’t have to rebuild the building. It does its job in terms of absorbing a lot of the ground motion before it pushes the building beyond its design tolerances.”

Using stronger, larger steel brackets where the walls meet the roof or the floor or each other, said Brown, “keeps the north wall from moving in one direction while the west wall moves a different direction.”

Those kinds of stress points can push modest earthquake damage to catastrophic levels, he said.

One earthquake innovation still in the beta phase is a project out of the U.C. Berkeley Seismological lab, using the accelerometers in smartphones as virtual seismometers. Participating phones have an app that detects certain types of ground motion. As phones pick up earthquake wave patterns, they ping the server which checks nearby smartphones to see if they sensed the same pattern, all in microseconds. If an earthquake pattern can be confirmed, an alarm will be sent to every cellphone within a logical radius.

That might only buy people an extra two to five minutes before the event, said Brown, “but if you are the operators of Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter trains, that’s enough time to slow all the trains down to five miles an hour. If you are Google, that’s enough time to park a bunch of hard drives in your server farm so that they’re better able to resist shaking and not be damaged too badly.”

Raising Standards

Cost, of course, will impact the take-up of resilient materials and tools. If it’s three times more expensive to build a home out of the resilient materials, a lot of builders aren’t going to want to because the home will be tougher to sell.

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FM Global’s Approvals division tests and certifies a variety of products aimed at mitigating disaster peril. That can help increase property owner confidence in these materials, particularly for commercial structures.

“When you’re betting millions of dollars and the future of your business — or at least the near-term future of your business — you really need to know that it’s going to work,” said Solly.

With just-in-time manufacturing, a company may have a few days’ worth of stock on hand rather than three months’ worth.

“So you can’t afford to be out of business for weeks, because your customers are going to go somewhere else for your product,” he said.

Building standards and codes can help drive adoption of resilient measures in both commercial and residential construction. But more work needs to be done to raise standards to meet the goal of resilience.

Effecting real resilience is something leaders across the spectrum should be talking about, including brokers and carriers, government and research agencies, building products manufacturers, and corporate executives.

If lives are saved in an earthquake, but a building is still damaged to the point where it needs to be torn down, said Brown “that building owner, that community, is going to have a much longer path to full recovery. We want the building codes strengthened to an immediate occupancy [goal] — we want people to be able to move right back into that building so there’s a much shorter window of disruption.

“It’s certainly better for me as the insurer,” he said, “but it’s even better for the guy that owns the building or runs his business out of it because now his employees still have a place to come to work and they can still get paid.”

Every single business able to minimize its downtime in this way helps the entire community be more resilient, he added. It creates that snowball effect in a good way. When businesses are able to stay open or reopen quickly, he said, workers don’t lose a meaningful amount of pay. Everybody’s in a better position to continue shopping and supporting the local economy.

“If you just shorten the line of people who are looking for some sort of federal aid, or state aid because they’ve had a massive financial disaster — maybe we can turn those into moderate to small financial disasters. That’s the key, I think, to communities being more resilient.”

Driving Demand

As the likelihood increases that property owners will experience a second loss or even third loss, some insurers are looking at ways to invest in resilience — a smarter long-term business plan than paying to rebuild again and again.

One new initiative is Lex Flood Ready, the product of a partnership between Lexington Insurance and The Flood Insurance Agency (TFIA). Flood Ready is a coverage enhancement for Lexington Private Market Flood clients that will not only indemnify property owners that suffer flood damage but will also provide the funds to rebuild them to a higher standard of resiliency when replacing floors and walls.

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Resilience proponents advocate a variety of approaches to encourage take-up, including tax credits, resilience grants, insurance incentives and other partnerships, as well as encouraging lenders to engage borrowers by making the flood risk assessments part of the mortgage process.

A certification scheme similar to LEED could also help drive resilience efforts. The UK is currently beta-testing a certification program called Home Quality Mark, developed by the Building Research Establishment (BRE). Properties are rated on stringent criteria that considers not just disaster resilience, but energy performance and cost, durability and environmental impact.

“Getting people from diverse perspectives thinking about it and talking about it is going to be the avenue to finding the right answers.” — Michael Brown, VP and property manager, Golden Bear Insurance

That’s something builders would be able to use to add value to their properties, offsetting the cost of building in resilience and driving consumer demand for properties built to the highest standards.

With increased resilience will come questions for insurers, said Brown. “It will open up a can of worms.”

It will create something of an arms race among insurance companies, he said. “Who’s going to be the first one to figure out what’s the right way to insure that? What’s the right price? What are the right terms and conditions?” Admittedly, it’s a good problem to have.

Effecting real resilience is something leaders across the spectrum should be talking about, including brokers and carriers, government and research agencies, building products manufacturers, and corporate executives.

“Getting people from diverse perspectives thinking about it and talking about it is going to be the avenue to finding the right answers,” said Brown.

“That kind of mentality top to bottom in the industry is going to be necessary. It’s not the first time we’ve dealt with disruptive things and we will continue doing it. It’s what keeps the game interesting.” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]