One of the questions insurance professionals have been asking with interest and anxiety since the financial crisis began is whether the economic recession will lead to a "hard market" for insurance (characterized by rising prices and tightening terms and conditions).


Earlier this year, Advisen, the insurance information firm, created a stir by predicting that a hard market for insurance would "begin to set in" as early as mid-2009, and in any event no later than 2010. The earlier Advisen report did, however, note that the current recession could reduce the demand for insurance, which in turn could complicate the insurance cycle’s transition. My post about the prior Advisen report can be found here.


In an updated October20, 2009 study entitled "Planning for 2010: The Recession Will Keep Insurance Premiums Under Pressure" (here), Advisen now reports that "while rates are firming in a few isolated segments of the market," overall, due to falling demand resulting from the recession, insurance buyers "will continue to enjoy favorable pricing in 2010," and "materially higher rate levels most likely will have to wait until 2011."


The insurance cycle is basically a result of the shifting relationship between the demand for and supply of insurance. Prices fall when supply increases faster than demand. In order to track these shifting relationships, the Advisen report uses Gross Domestic Product (GDP) "as a proxy for demand," on the assumption that demand for insurance moves in relation to overall economic activity.


The study notes that historically, when the ratio of the supply of insurance (the insurers’ policyholder surplus) to GDP crosses the 3.2 percent mark, either up or down, "the market changes directions within the next 12 months or so." Part of the reason Advisen had earlier this year made its prediction of an approaching hard market is that the ratio fell to about 3.2 percent at the end of 2008 and continued to fall in the first quarter of 2009. However, the ratio crept back up to 3.27 percent at the end of the first half of 2009. Now, "the market remains unsettled with conflicting forces pushing and pulling on both sides of the tipping point."


The reason for this uneasy equipoise is that the recession is affecting both the supply and the demand sides of the equation. On the supply side, declining investment portfolio values has significantly reduced the insurers’ policyholder surplus. On the other hand, reduced economic activity has resulted in lower demand due to reduced numbers of "exposure units" (such as payroll levels, sales, vehicle units, etc.)


Other factors that have complicated the insurance cycle transition are: lower levels of catastrophe losses during 2009 compared to prior years; heightened competition from wounded market participants; the entry of new insurance capacity; and the insurers’ release of redundant loss reserves from prior years. Some of these factors could disappear (for example, catastrophe claims could emerge with little advance warning), or are less likely to be a factor going forward – in particular, loss reserve redundancies "now have been almost fully harvested," which eliminates insurers’ "cushion against adverse developments" and "could contribute to upward pressure on rates in 2010 and beyond."


Even if the recession may have ended as a matter of technical economic analysis, its effects are still being widely felt and the impacts from recovery "will be uneven, leading to further complexity and uncertainty" with respect to capacity and pricing. While these factors will continue to complicate the insurance cycle transition and "delayed the hard market," the shifting elements of the supply and demand equation "favor a modest increase in insurance demand by the end of 2010" – though "materially higher rate levels most likely will have to wait until 2011."


In the meantime, other than in certain areas, commercial insurance rates "on average continue to drift downward, though at a much reduced rate compared to a year ago." With respect to D&O insurance, financial sector premiums have "increased sharply" and financially stressed or highly leveraged companies "are likely to see higher premiums and some may have trouble finding adequate coverage." However other companies can expect to see premiums continue to fall into 2010, though "at a much slower pace."


Even at the time of Advisen’s earlier report, I had commented that "if there is going to be a hard market, its arrival could be more delayed than the report suggests." The more recent report seems consistent with my prior view that a hard insurance market could prove to be a long time coming. At this point, I don’t think I have any better sense of when it might arrive. I do agree that the uneven and gradual nature of the economic recovery could further delay the cycle transition. Unanticipated events (such as significant natural catastrophes) could intervene to accelerate the change, but absent those kinds of developments, the prospects for a market change anytime soon seem remote.


In any event, at 11 am EDT on October 22, 2009, Advisen will be hosting a free one-hour webinar on the State of the Insurance Market and the 2010. Registration for the webinar can be found here.