With Trade Wars on the Horizon, You Should Be Using This Type of Insurance
As global trade tensions rise, companies are increasingly looking at a type of insurance coverage that remains little used in the United States but provides a tool to deal with the risks linked to trade wars.
Brokers and carriers say that a growing number of clients are showing interest in the purchase of trade credit insurance, a product that is widely used by European companies but has traditionally played a limited role in risk management strategies deployed by U.S. groups.
But the situation is gradually changing, and North America is now, along with Asia, the main source of premium growth for the segment in the whole world. Euler Hermes, one of the main players in the segment, estimates that premiums are growing by 10 percent on an annual basis in the U.S.
Global Tension Leads to More Tariffs
The coverage enables companies to mitigate the impact of supply chain disruptions and the risk of not getting paid by clients when trade conditions deteriorate. It is the kind of business environment that could become the norm as protectionism makes strides in several countries, including the U.S. and China, the world’s largest economies.
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump imposed higher tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from several foreign markets in a move that many observers interpreted as mostly aimed at China. The Chinese government, as well as other countries, reacted with its own set of tariffs on certain American products, meaning that $50 billion worth of products traded between the U.S. and China are now subject to higher levies. China’s response led the U.S. government, in September, to impose further 10 to 25 percent tariffs on other imports from the Middle Kingdom, including chemicals and plastic.
And More Tariffs Lead to Increased Credit Risk
As the conflict escalates, companies in different business sectors have started to bear the brunt in the shape of extra costs across their supply chains, drops of sales and lower margins. Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, has estimated that, if a 25 percent tariff is imposed on all Chinese exports to the U.S., earnings per share at companies included in the S&P index should fall by 7 percent. Alvarez & Marsal, a consultancy, has calculated that America’s beverage industry will lose about $350 million with the tariffs imposed on steel and aluminum alone.
Sectors of the economy that rely heavily on imports from China are particularly exposed to the risk. A survey with 430 companies by a couple of American Chambers in China estimated that half of them expect lower profits because of the new tariffs. American-based groups like Steelcase and Hormel Foods have already reported that results are likely to suffer. It all has fueled the perception in the market that credit risk is on the rise.
“Most of the effects of tariffs are still to be felt, but, in certain industries such as metals, there has already been a material impact in terms of impacts on coverage for trade credit risk,” said Marc Wagman, the managing director of the U.S. Trade Credit practice at Gallagher. “Companies that rely on ferrous and non-ferrous metal imports from China have requested higher limits, because costs have increased by 25 percent across the board.”
“Companies that rely on Chinese imports are probably the most material example of trade credit risk nowadays,” added Jeff Abramson, a senior vice-president at AXA XL in the U.S.
Coming Up With Risk Solutions
To mitigate the risk, companies are adopting different kinds of strategies. Some, for instance, are trying to convince their suppliers located in China and other markets to absorb the costs added to the import of products such as electronic components.
“When the good supplied is in high demand in the U.S., as it is the case with some high-tech products, or has strong IP, suppliers may eat the tariff before the customer takes receipt,” said James Daly, CEO of Euler Hermes North America. “That is still rare, but we are seeing some cases like that.”
Others are striving to diversify their portfolio of suppliers away from China in order to reduce the risk of disruption to their supply chains. “Clients that are heavily reliant on Chinese ferrous and non-ferrous steel are now looking at suppliers in other markets such as Turkey, Thailand and India, and some of them have been really successful at it,” Wagman said.
“Many companies have not found yet alternative supply chain partners they can work with. They cannot stop receiving goods from China.” — James Daly, CEO of Euler Hermes North America
But switching business partners is a tricky proposition as companies must trade with new suppliers about which they often have little information. Several practical issues like new freighting and receiving arrangements, warehousing and distribution also have to be sorted out, requiring significant investments in time and money.
“Many companies have not found yet alternative supply chain partners they can work with. They cannot stop receiving goods from China,” Daly said. “It is very difficult, and it takes time, for companies to find new suppliers in countries that have not been hit by higher tariffs.”
The third option is to simply pass the extra costs on to the final consumer, which is a daunting task in industries where competition is tough, such as retail and car making. Therefore, treasury departments have been forced to find ways to mitigate the risk in a process that appears to be benefiting trade credit insurers.
Trade Credit Insurance and the U.S.
“More companies are looking at trade credit insurance nowadays,” said Michael Kornblau, the U.S. Trade Credit Practice Leader at Marsh. “Although it is not possible to say that higher demand is completely related to higher trade tensions, it is certainly a factor weighing on their decisions.”
Trade credit insurance can help companies by providing an extra certainty that their invoices will be paid, even though their clients struggle to make ends meet. It can strengthen confidence on the robustness of supply chains if a company knows that suppliers are also protected from eventual non-payments by their own clients.
Two main kinds of coverage are offered in the market presently.
The most traditional one, offered mostly by Euler Hermes, Coface and Atradius, the monoline insurers that dominate the segment in Europe, are ground-up whole turnover coverages that fully guarantee payments that policyholders expect from their clients. To a certain extent, it is tantamount to delegating trade credit management to the underwriter, as it will execute full financial analyses of potential clients, determining whether it is a good idea to sell them on credit. Additional services include analyses of political and sector risks and the checking of providers’ financial situation.
“We are helping our clients to identify where their supply chain relationships may be under threat,” Daly said.
“We grant larger authority to insureds to make their own credit decisions, they take larger deductibles and we underwrite a share of their key counter-party risks. We believe this is an approach that is better suited to middle-market and larger U.S. companies that have invested in their own credit management functions.” — Jeff Abramson, senior vice-president, AXA XL
But the market has realized that American companies have historically preferred to manage their trade credit risk by themselves, setting up their own teams to investigate the credit worthiness of potential clients and raising banking facilities to reduce the risk. For these kinds of companies, an excess of loss coverage, often with a catastrophe component, can look like a better option.
“We write trade credit insurance on an excess of loss basis,” Abramson said. “We grant larger authority to insureds to make their own credit decisions, they take larger deductibles and we underwrite a share of their key counter-party risks. We believe this is an approach that is better suited to middle-market and larger U.S. companies that have invested in their own credit management functions.”
In that case, trade credit insurance provides not only an extra layer of certainty regarding the payment of invoices, but also an argument to request banks to provide trade credit facilities at lower rates, noted Doug Collins, an executive VP and head of trade credit at Ascot Underwriting, a London-based carrier planning a launch of a trade credit insurance operation in the U.S. during the first quarter of 2019.
The looming entry of Ascot and another player, The Hartford, illustrate the expansion of both demand and capacity of trade credit insurance in the U.S. Brokers say that if 20 years ago there were half a dozen insurers writing the coverage in the U.S., now the number hovers around 20.
“Capacity has increased after the latest crisis, and more is coming into the market,” Kornblau said. As a result, even though credit risk levels are rising with the current trade conflicts, market players do not expect rates to go up in a segment where the long soft market has made its imprint. Brokers say, however, insurers are beginning to take more questions to their clients before they sell them a policy.
They are also keeping an eye on the risk that companies suffer with non-tariff shrapnel from ever nastier trade battles.
“Especially for privately-held buyers in commodity-oriented industries, the regularity of financial disclosures has become more important than ever,” Wagman said.
“And with regards to those clients that have a real export focus, they have to make sure that they stay ahead of changes in regulation in markets like China, where the relationship with the U.S. is turning ever tenser. American companies in China will be increasingly scrutinized regarding compliance to every conceivable measure, and compliance costs will be higher as a result.” &