The café terraces of Monte Carlo will be bathed in sunshine, literally and figuratively, when reinsurers and brokers meet for Les Rendez-vous de Septembre (RVS), commencing Sept. 9.
Monaco is one of the few European locations to avoid the dark economic clouds that descended on the continent in the wake of the banking sector’s meltdown and ensuing financial crisis. Following five years of austerity, voters used the European Parliament elections in May this year to voice their dissatisfaction.
Yet, despite this sullen atmosphere, the biggest casualties of boom-to-bust such as Spain, Ireland and Greece have been steadily pulling out of recession over the past year.
While Munich Re is averse to speculating on the mood that is likely to prevail at 2014 RVS, its latest Insurance Market Outlook (PDF), published in May, predicted that a broad-based economic recovery across many countries would see global insurance premium growth accelerate to 2.8 percent this year, from 2.1 percent last year, with a further improvement to 3.2 percent in 2015.
Munich Re’s chief economist, Michael Menhart, noted that the pick-up comes after three years of relatively low growth rates.
“In many cases, reinsurance has been used as a means of managing any potential earnings volatility arising from these larger retained portions.” — Charles Whitmore, managing director, head of the property solutions group, Guy Carpenter
Charles Whitmore, managing director, head of the property solutions group at Guy Carpenter, said the “improving economic environment in Europe has enabled insurance carriers to repair balance sheets and press ahead with consolidation and increased retention appetites.”
“In many cases, reinsurance has been used as a means of managing any potential earnings volatility arising from these larger retained portions.”
This generally optimistic outlook was tempered by the fact that Munich Re expects reinsurance premium growth to be more modest than that for primary insurance.
Over the next six years, the German reinsurer expects average growth in global reinsurance markets in real terms of little more than 2 percent per year. RVS attendees will also look back on this year’s January 1 and April 1 renewals, where pricing pressures saw declines of as much as 20 percent for U.S. CAT business.
As Munich Re’s report noted, while the potential of the world’s emerging markets — particularly the so-called BRIC economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China — was a hot topic a few years back, for the time being the major industrialized nations are back in the driving seat.
While the group expects China’s premium volume (which was around $284 billion in 2013) to double by the end of the decade, it will still lag way behind the United States, whose premium volume it predicts will pass the $1,624 billion level by 2020.
Possibly the biggest BRIC disappointment — which attendees may seek to explain — is Brazil. Hopes were high when the country began liberalizing its reinsurance market six years ago, ending the near-70 year monopoly of state-owned IRB.
Within four years, more than 100 reinsurers had established a presence in the country. However, this summer’s World Cup underscored how the economic optimism in 2007, when Brazil won the rights to stage the contest, has steadily dissipated.
Insurer confidence on the country’s economic outlook has fallen to a record low and Standard & Poor’s is among those warning that profitability in the Brazilian reinsurance market remains elusive.
Many reinsurers instead appear to be focusing on gaining a presence in India, once the long-delayed Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill 2008, which would allow foreign reinsurers to set up offices in the country, is finally cleared by parliament.
France’s biggest reinsurer, Scor, is among those that have signaled their intent to add an Indian operation. Such hopes will have been encouraged by the landslide election victory in May of Narendra Modi. India’s 15th prime minister swept to power on a promise to kick-start an underperforming economy, which reinsurers hope will mean an end to the stalling in opening up its market.
The Top Three
But which trio of issues is most likely to dominate the discussions in Monaco?
“We can be certain that one of the prime themes, as always, will be the prognosis for reinsurance pricing, capacity, [and] terms and conditions at the coming January renewal,” said Christopher Klein, managing director and head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) strategy at Guy Carpenter.
“A second topic will be the continuing influx of new capital into the reinsurance sector from so-called nontraditional sectors, despite the surplus of capacity.
“In the absence of a market-changing loss, continuing pressure on prices and returns can be expected. However, to date, the greatest effect has tended to be in the North American catastrophe market. We will be interested to see if the new capital will start to make significant inroads into the EMEA and Asia Pacific (APAC) regions and non-catastrophe classes.
“Finally,” Klein added, “a favorite topic of discussion at Monte Carlo is speculation about corporate activity and consolidation. This year, we have witnessed some high-profile attempts at consolidation in Bermuda. Expect this topic to continue to make headlines.”
Bryon Ehrhart, chief executive of Aon Benfield Americas, predicted at last year’s RVS that a further $100 billion of alternative capital would enter the reinsurance market by 2018 and said that so far, this prediction is on track.
He cited the decision in early June by the European Central Bank to cut its main interest rate to a record low of 0.15 percent and entering into what the headlines call “uncharted territory” by reducing its interest rate on deposits to a negative figure for the first time, of -0.1 percent.
This could mean that the predicted figure of $100 billion needs revising upwards. As he pointed out, major pension funds are making promises to retirees of returns of 4 percent upwards, against returns on conventional investments that are typically 1.25 percent to 1.5 percent.
Ehrhart cited two relatively recent entrants: Stone Ridge Asset Management — which launched two reinsurance-linked funds as recently as November 2012 and already has $2.5 billion under management — and LGT Capital Partners.
“The impact of the hedge fund reinsurers has been fairly transformative,” he said.
“They have put forward material capacity at very low prices and opened up a whole new set of opportunities for our clients.”
Inevitably, these pricing pressures continue to impact the long-established carriers. As A.M. Best commented earlier this summer, global reinsurance companies in the first quarter of 2014 benefited from below-average catastrophe losses and most continued to report favorable reserve releases, yet those that are publicly traded saw their stock lag the market. From a group of 20, only Bermuda’s Maiden Holdings managed a strong gain (of over 14 percent). The ratings agencies will doubtless dissect this overall sluggish performance at Monte Carlo.
Big Data and El Niño
What else is likely to be on this year’s agenda? The big keynote session or “presentation-debate” will be on Big Data and its potential to significantly change how reinsurers do business. While details of participants were sketchy at the time of writing, the session will be chaired by Michel Liès, chief executive of Swiss Re and the reinsurer said that it “wants to examine with RVS participants and clients how Big Data can enable new business opportunities and how privacy concerns can be addressed.”
Gretchen Hayes, managing director, global strategic advisory at Guy Carpenter, noted the “reinsurance industry is still at the beginning stages when it comes to the potential and competitive advantages of Big Data in combination with predictive analytics.”
“As these technologies continue to advance, insurance companies are reaping the benefits of gathering and analyzing vast amounts of information that come through their own internal networks as well as that of their business partners and even through new external sources.”
Video: The Weather Channel reports on some of the possibilities associated with an El Niño in 2014.
With reports suggesting that there is a 90 percent chance that an El Niño will disrupt global weather patterns this year, the recurring climate phenomenon could also force itself on the discussions.
Beginning as a vast expanse of water in the Pacific that becomes abnormally warm, El Niño has the potential for adverse weather effects ranging from a weaker-than-usual monsoon season in India that starves its paddy fields of vital rain, to scorching heat and bush fires in Australia and sharply reduced fishing catches in South America.
The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts predicts that the El Niño phenomenon is highly likely to occur this year; indeed, the organization believes it could potentially be the most damaging since 1997-98, which produced the hottest year on record and a string of natural catastrophes, an estimated 23,000 deaths and total economic losses in the region of $35 billion to $47 billion.