Company managers are increasingly sophisticated about D&O liability insurance. Largely as a result of the corporate scandals from earlier in this decade, what used to be a peripheral and disfavored topic is now a top agenda item in many C-suites and boardrooms. But even as company officials have developed a deeper appreciation for the importance of D&O insurance, many misunderstandings about D&O underwriting persist. One thing that is frequently misunderstood is what D&O underwriters are looking for.
This post is intended to provide an overview of the key components of public company D&O underwriting. Of course, the underwriting concerns for different specific companies could vary substantially. In addition, there are many D&O insurers, and underwriting practices vary significantly between (and, regrettably, even within) insurers. That said, there are certain common elements that will likely be part of the D&O underwriting for any company. These elements are listed below. A great deal more might be said about each of these items, but in the interest of brevity, I have provided a summary description only.
1. The Company’s Basic Characteristics: First and foremost, the underwriter must understand the company’s basic profile. Specifically, the underwriter will want to know the company’s size (by market capitalization) and industry. These factors may seem basic and obvious, but they will nonetheless have a significant impact on an underwriter’s willingness to accept a risk, as well as on the price, terms and conditions likely to be offered.
2. The Company’s Financial Picture: A basic component of D&O underwriting is developing an understanding of the company’s financial circumstances, particularly its key income statement components (revenue, expenses and expense ratios, etc.) and balance sheet items (especially cash and other liquid assets, debt, and reserves/accruals). Although there are many important financial issues, the key question is whether or not the company has sufficient cash or available credit to fund its operations and service its debt during the proposed policy period.
3. The Company’s Accounting Practices: A very specific component for underwriters in developing an understanding of the company’s financial picture is developing an understanding of the company’s accounting policies and practices. The most important issue here is usually revenue recognition, but depending on the kind of company at issue, other critical issues may be the company’s practices regarding reserves and accruals, and these days, asset valuation.
4. The Company’s Corporate History and Structure (Including M&A): Because share offerings, financing activities and M&A activity are the kinds of events that often generate claims, the underwriter will want a complete understanding of the company’s involvement in all of these kinds of activities.
5. Continuity Risk (Things That Have Already Happened): An underwriter will want to establish whether the company has already experienced events or circumstances that could lead to subsequent claims. The list of potential problems could be infinite, but the kinds of things that will particularly attract the underwriter’s concern are things like significant stock price drops, earnings disappointments, regulatory setbacks, product recalls, adverse litigation developments, officer resignations, and so on.
6. Going Forward Risk/Vulnerabilities: A key risk attribute for any company is whether or not the company is susceptible to a single event or change that could substantially alter the company’s fortunes. These kinds of vulnerabilities include such things as: dependence on a single customer, contract, product or supplier; a looming regulatory milestone for a company with a single product in development; or a company-dependent debt obligation with a single-trigger acceleration clause or covenant.
7. Stock Price Volatility: A company that has a share price that dramatically registers even small events is capable of producing large shareholder-style damages. For that reason, companies with volatile stock prices represent a disfavored risk class for many underwriters.
Some underwriters go so far at to make stock price volatility the most important component in their risk selection and stock price algorithms. I have always felt this analysis represents both an oversimplification and a confusion of correlation and causation. Simply put, while many companies involved in securities class action lawsuits have volatile stock prices, not all companies with volatile stock prices are involved in securities lawsuits. In my view it is the presence or absence of the above identified factors are more indicative of risk than volatility alone.
8. Company Management and Executive Compensation: The background and experience of the company’s senior management and board members is important information. Underwriters will be particularly interested in any changes in the lineup, and in particular will want to understand the reasons for any changes.
A significant issue related is executive compensation. Some industry observers go so far as to assert that outsized executive compensation is the single most reliable risk marker, as it usually invites a host of dangerous (and sometimes destructive) behaviors. Certainly, many of the most egregious corporate scandals in the last several years have involved excessive executive compensation. Accordingly, underwriters will consider executive compensation information as an important component of the risk analysis.
9. Insider Trading: The most dangerous component of a serious securities class action lawsuit is the presence of significant insider trading at suspicious time and in suspicious amounts. A skilled underwriter will plot the timing of insider trades on the company’s stock graphs to understand who is trading and when. The corollary of this point is that the underwriter will also be interested in the company’s insider trading policy, and in particular will look to see that the company has well-established trading windows and rational trading blackouts, as well as an effective compliance officer.
10. Disclosure practices: The nature, content and tone of the company’s public disclosures are important risk indicators. Underwriters are concerned about companies that devote a lot of energy to generating hype. They are also focused on companies that are very publicly setting and straining to meet very specific short-term earnings estimates. Again, the corollary is that companies with conservative disclosure practices, particularly those that avoid specific, short-term earnings guidance, are viewed more favorably.
11. Corporate Governance: A detailed review of a company’s corporate governance practices is an important part of public company underwriting. However, most underwriters understand that standard corporate governance practices alone are no guarantors that a company will not be involved in a claim. But by the same token, underwriters understand that companies that are actively implementing best practices are the kinds of companies that are interested in trying to play by the rules and perhaps less likely to have problems elsewhere – and better able to defend themselves if a claim does arise.
There is obviously a lot more that might be said about each of these items. In addition, there are a host of other factors that could be relevant to any specific company or to companies in certain industries.
A common misconception is that the D&O underwriting process is like picking a stock. (Frustratingly, some underwriters labor under the misimpression, too.) Many company officials think that their role in the underwriting process is to tout the company and its prospects, as if they were on a road show speaking to prospective investors and analysts. Because most underwriters are by nature suspicious of hype, an underwriting meeting characterized by a high level of salesmanship can be counterproductive.
Underwriters generally do not care whether or not a company’s stock is a good investment, as such. Companies that are mediocre investments are often (although not always) attractive D&O risks, and companies that are Wall Street darlings are sometimes rotten D&O risks. Underwriters are trying to figure out if a company is susceptible to a claim during the policy period, which is often a very different question than whether or not the company’s stock is doing or will do well.
Another common misunderstanding is the expectation that if the company does or does not do certain things, the company ought to get a discount of a certain type or amount. In the soft insurance market that has persisted in recent years, risk specific discounts are hard to isolate, since many companies are enjoying favorable pricing. But more to the point, because underwriting is an uncertain science, the most important factors in determining the price, terms and conditions to be offered are the company’s outward characteristics, which are categorical attributes.
Which is not to say that better managed companies will realize no benefit. But rather than a discount, the benefit is often in the form in the absence of a debit. Or, to put it another way, companies presenting certain specific negative risk factors will be debited, even in the current underwriting environment.
All of that said, there unquestionably are things companies can do to advance their interests during the underwriting process. Working with a skilled insurance professional, a company can identify and address likely underwriting concerns, in an effort to inoculate the company against adverse underwriting perceptions. Moreover, it will be useful for every company to adopt a systematic, timely and business-like approach to the underwriting process, as these practices will expedite the process, remove potential impediments, and encourage efficiencies that benefit all process participants.
The foregoing is merely a summary; there is a great deal more that could be said about all of the above. There are good resources available to supplement the above. One very good resource is the curriculum materials created by the Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS) entitled “Public/Financial D&O Insurance” and available on the PLUS website (here).
Because this is one of those topics on which a great deal more might be said, I would like to encourage readers and observers to post their comments to this blog. I always welcome audience participation but I am particularly interested in readers’ comments on this topic.