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

Black Swan: Cloud Attack

Breaking Clouds

A combination of physical and cyber attacks on multiple data centers for cloud service providers causes economic havoc. Even the most well-prepared companies are thrown into paralyzing coverage confusion.
By: | July 27, 2017 • 10 min read

Scenario

By month 16 of the new presidential administration, the Sunshine Brigade is more than ready to act.

Stoked by their anger over rampant economic inequality, the mostly college-educated group of what might best be called upper-middle-class anarchists — many of them from California, Oregon and Washington State — put in motion the gears of a plan more than two years in the making.

Their logic, to them at least, is unimpeachable. Continued consolidation of economic power into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations is creating a world where the rich increasingly exploit and shut out the poor.

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The rise of the techno giants is accelerating this trend, according to the Sunshine Brigade’s de facto leader Emily Brookes, an All-American rugby player and a graduate of Reed College in Oregon.

With a new presidential administration seemingly bent on increasing the economic advantages of the rich with no end in sight, nothing to do then but break things up; and in so doing break the hold of this technology oligarchy.

As Emily Brookes so forcefully put in her instant messages to the other members of the brigade: Break the Cloud.

With more than 500 members, many of them with ample financial and technical resources, the Sunshine Brigade is very capable of delivering on its plan for a two-pronged attack.

It is also radicalized enough to justify the loss of some human life, even its own countrymen, to “save” — in its collective logic — the tens of millions of global citizens that are living as virtual slaves in this callous, exploitative global economy.

With websites and digitally connected services large and small down for days, irritation turns to fear.

The first wave in the attack is an attempt to infect and shut down the data centers for the top three cloud service providers. It takes months to set up this offensive.

Rather than rely on a phishing scam from outside the firewalls of the service providers, The Sunshine Brigade uses its social and business connections to place three members on each of the cloud provider’s payrolls. An infected link from someone you know, someone in the cubicle right next to you, seems like an unstoppable play.

It only partially works. Only one of the cloud service providers is harmed when an unsuspecting employee clicks on a link from their traitorous co-worker. The released malware manages to cripple a major cloud service provider for 12 hours.

With millions of users affected, the act creates substantial disruption and garners global headlines. Insured losses are around $1.5 billion. But this is just the beginning.

The morning after, the Sunshine Brigade unleashes a far more devastating and far more ruthless Round Two.

Using self-driving trucks, the Sunshine Brigade smashes into five data centers; three on the West Coast, and two in the Midwest. Fourteen employees of those cloud servers are killed and another 23 injured; some of them critically.

This time the Brigade gets what it wanted. The physical damage to the data centers is substantial enough that it significantly affects three of the top four cloud service providers for five days.

With websites and digitally connected services large and small down for days, irritation turns to fear.

Small and mid-sized banks, which host their applications on clouds, are shut down. Small business owners and consumer banking customers immediately feel the brunt. Retailers that depend on clouds to host their inventory and transaction information are also hit hard.

But really, the blow falls everywhere.

In the U.S., transportation, financial, health, government and other crucial services grind to a halt in many cases.

Not everyone is disrupted. Some of the larger corporations are sophisticated enough in their risk management, those that used back-up clouds and had steadfast business resiliency plans suffer minimal disruption.

Many small to mid-size companies, though, cannot operate. Their employees can’t get to work and when they can, they sit idly in front of blank computer screens connected to useless servers.

For the man on the street, this is hell.

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Long lines blossom at the likes of gas stations, banks and grocery stores. A population already on edge from a steady diet of social media provocation becomes even more inflamed.

By nightfall of Day Five, the three major cloud service providers are recovered, and digital “normalcy” begins to creep back. But for many small and medium-sized businesses, the recovery comes way too late.

Economic losses promise to register in the tens of billions. It’s not being too imaginative to think that losses could hit the $100 billion mark.

Two multinational insurers based in the U.S., three Lloyd’s syndicates and a Bermuda insurer signal to regulators that their aggregate cyber-related losses are so great that they will most likely become insolvent.

Emily Brookes and her cohorts were willing to kill more than a dozen people to promote their worldview. In their youthful naiveté, they could not know just how much suffering they would cause.

Observations

For some commercial insurance carriers, the aggregated losses from a prolonged disruption of cloud computing services could be catastrophic, or close to it.

“It’s on a par with any earthquake or hurricane or tornado,” said Scott Stransky, an associate vice president and principal scientist with the modeling firm AIR Worldwide.

AIR modeled the insured losses for the Fortune 1,000 were Amazon’s cloud service to go down for one day. They came up with a figure of $3 billion.

Now consider that most businesses in this country are small businesses, with not nearly the risk management sophistication of the Fortune 1000. Then consider a cloud interruption of five days or more.

Mark Greisiger, president, NetDiligence

“Almost any company you talk about today would rely to some extent on the cloud, either to host their website, to do invoicing, inventory, you name it — the cloud is being used across the board,” Stransky said.

“It’s a significant issue for insurers and one we think about a lot,” said Nick Economidis, an underwriter with specialty carrier Beazley.

“Should a cloud service provider go down, everybody who is working with that cloud service provider is impacted by that,” he said.

“Now, pretty much every software maker is on the cloud,” said Mark Greisiger, president of NetDiligence.

“In the old days, someone would come in and install software on your servers and come in annually for maintenance. That’s all gone bye-bye. Everybody who makes software is forcing you onto their private cloud,” Greisiger said.

The aggregation risk for carriers is complicated by the degree of transparency they have into which insured’s applications are hosted on which cloud provider.

Now here’s the even trickier part. Clouds outsource to other clouds.

“It’s almost becoming a spider’s web of interdependencies on who has access to what in terms of upstream and downstream providers,” Greisiger said.

Determining which of their insureds is hosted on which cloud, and in turn, where that cloud is outsourcing to other clouds can be very difficult for carriers to determine.

Even if a company is careful to diversify the risks they’re taking, they might not realize that a high percentage of insureds are even with the same cloud provider. They could be hit with devastating losses across their entire portfolio of business, said an executive with BDO consulting.

AIR’s Stransky said his company launched a product in April, ARC, which stands for Analytics of Risk from Cyber, which is designed to help carriers gain that much needed transparency.

Among insureds, surviving an event of this magnitude will depend not only on the sophistication of their risk management department, but on the company’s overall ability to negotiate contracts with vendors and suppliers that will indemnify the company in the case of a cloud outage of this duration.

It will also depend on organization’s understanding that there is no off-the-shelf solution that will prevent an event like this or make a company whole after it.

Shiraz Saeed, national practice leader, cyber, Starr Companies

Experts say contracts with cloud service providers, customers and suppliers must be structured so that a company is defended should it lose cloud access for as much as five days or more.

Best practices also include modeling just what your losses would look like in this area, and vetting your full portfolio of insurance policies to understand how each would respond.

One broker said buyers can’t be blamed if the complexities of the coverage issues at stake here are initially hard to grasp.

“It’s becoming a spider’s web of interdependencies on who has access to what.” —Mark Greisiger, president, NetDiligence

“I think it’s the broker’s job to inform the client of this exposure,” said Doug Friel, a vice president with JKJ Commercial Insurance, based in Newtown, Pa.

“You may have business interruption coverage for direct physical damage to your building. But have you ever thought about your business income if your IT structure goes down?” Friel said.

He said many buyers might not realize there is a difference.

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Large businesses should have the resources to demand from their cloud service providers that they be indemnified for the entirety of a cloud failure event. There will be a fee for that, but it will be well worth paying, Friel said.

“You have to push,” Friel said. “They are going to say, ‘Here is our standard contract, sign it.’ ”

Don’t settle for that, he said, although many do in ignorance, he added.

“Where possible, we would look for clients to negotiate their contracts. These business relationships should be mutually beneficial, even if one of these events occur,” said Shiraz Saeed, national practice leader, cyber, for the Starr Companies.

It’s a partnership, he said.

“It shouldn’t be a zero sum game on either side. I think there should be an understanding of what the potential loss might be and then designing a contract around that,” he said.

While cloud service providers are known for having high grade security systems, most average organizations don’t have the means for that. But no matter what a company’s resources, the first step is modeling where your digital assets are, and what you and your customers stand to lose if you lose access to them.

“Most insureds don’t seem to understand the amount of individual loss that you could be subject to,” said Jim Evans, leader of insurance advisory services at BDO Consulting. “Usually this stuff is measured in hours,” he said. “But what if a cloud provider is out for three or four days?” he said.

“Trying to quantify what you did lose in an event is hard enough. Trying to do a modeling exercise about what you could lose? It’s something that just doesn’t get done enough,” he said.

Once you have an understanding of what you own and what you stand to lose, the next step is prioritizing the protection of the assets you have. That means drilling into your contract with your cloud service providers to get the maximum indemnification.

It also means spreading your risk so that if at all possible, not all of your assets or your customers’ assets are housed by one cloud service provider. Cloud platforms can be public, private, or a hybrid of the two.

Understanding where your assets are in that architecture is crucial. Spending the money to insure that they are protected behind a diverse menu of firewalls is highly advisable.

Navigating the different iterations of business interruption coverage in property, cyber and kidnap and ransom policies is also important.

Make sure your broker can provide clarity on the different types of coverages and tailor them to your needs, experts said.

The concept of design thinking is really what’s in play here. Organizations have to work with vendors in every aspect of their operations to design a risk management system that can sustain this kind of hit.

“Build a better mousetrap to protect yourself,” said JKJ’s Friel.

“Depending on your service, you need to have the best and the brightest designing this stuff. Spread the risk.”

“Don’t be afraid to ask for more,” he said.

Postscript

In engineering an attack on the cloud, Emily Brookes and her cohorts accomplished the opposite of what they set out to do.

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Only the largest corporations with the most sophisticated risk management programs were able to survive the attempt to break the cloud with manageable losses.

Small businesses, the true backbone of the U.S. economy, suffered terribly. Entrepreneurs who put their life’s work into their business lost it in many cases.

Those on the lowest part of the economic scale, the working poor, lost their jobs and their ability to cover their rent and grocery bills. They joined the ranks of those subsidized by the government by the millions.  The attempt to break the cloud resulted in an even more polarized society. &

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]