Among its many provisions, the Dodd-Frank created a new Federal Insurance Office within the U.S. Department of Treasury. The Act requires the FIO’s Director to provide a report each year to the President and to Congress “on the insurance industry and any other information deemed relevant by the Director or requested [by a Congressional] Committee.” The initial report was due in January 2012; like many of the regulatory actions required under the Dodd-Frank Act, the initial report was delayed. However, on June 12, 2013, the FIO finally released its first report, which can be found here. The Treasury Department’s June 12, 2013 press release about the report can be found here.
Though the report weighs in at a slim 53 pages (including endnotes), the report covers a lot of ground. It not only provides a financial overview of the U.S. insurance industry, but it also reviews, from the perspective of the U.S. insurance industry, the efforts that have been undertaken in the wake of the financial crisis to try to improve financial stability.
Among other things, the report notes that the U.S. insurance industry’s aggregate 2012 premiums totaled more than $1.1 trillion, or about 7 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. The industry directly employs 2.3 million people or 1.7 percent of the country’s nonfarm payrolls. (Those employment figures do not include the additional 2.3 million licensed insurance agents and brokers). The U.S. insurance industry also reports total assets of $7.3 trillion, of which $6.8 trillion represents invested assets.
The industry has shown recovery and improvement since the financial crisis. Both the Life and Health and the Property and Casualty sectors reported improved profitability in 2012. Moreover, at year-end 2012, reported surplus levels were at record highs for both the Life and Health and for the Property and Casualty sectors. At year end, the Life & Health sector reported surplus of about $329 billion and the Property and Casualty Sector reported surplus of about $597 billion.
Amidst all of these positive developments there are also some challenges – particularly the interest rate environment and the level of natural catastrophes.
As the report notes, “despite near record net investment income in 2012, insurers’ investment yields remained low as a percentage of invested assets.” The low interest rates pose a “challenge for insurers seeking to balance investment risk and return.” The low interest rate environment poses a particular challenge for life insurers offering annuities with guaranteed benefits. The low interest rates also affects the present value of insurer contract obligations, particularly those of life insurers; as interest rates have decreased, the present value of future obligations have increased.
But though increased interest rates would produce improved investment returns, a sudden increase would involve other threats. Were interest rates to increase suddenly, interest rate levels would increase unrealized losses in insurer fixed income portfolios and could also prompt policyholders of interest bearing contracts to surrender the contracts for higher yield elsewhere.
Natural catastrophes also continue to pose a significant challenge to insurers. 2011 was the second costliest year on record for natural catastrophes in the United States, with insured losses estimated to be about $44.2 billion (the most significant losses were during 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina and other hurricanes). The estimate for catastrophic losses during 2012 is about $43 billion, only slightly below 2011.
The body of the report contains several other items of interest, including several tables listing the largest insurers (by premium volume) within various industry sectors. The report also includes detailed financial information divided by sector, including aggregate information on the various sectors’ annual underwriting results. Among other things, the underwriting results information shows that during the catastrophe-driven years of 2011 and 2012, the Property and Casualty sector experienced underwriting losses. (The P&C industry combined ratio for 2011 was 108.3 and for 2012 was 103.3.)
My own observation about the interest rate environment is that it is directly affecting insurers’ underwriting behavior. Ordinarily, the expectation at a time when insurers are reporting record levels of surplus would be that there would be a great deal of competition in the marketplace, particularly on price. However, because the low interest rate environment means that investment income is under pressure, the insurers are forced to try to make their calendar year profitability from their underwriting operations. In order to try to produce an underwriting profit, the insurers are under pressure to try to increase pricing. The end result for insurance buyers is that they are facing pricing increases – particularly in the commercial insurance arena, where catastrophic losses in the P&C sector have meant consecutive years of underwriting losses.
Natural catastrophes have been part of life throughout history. But as insured values increase and possibly as climate change produces more extreme weather events, the human (and therefore the insurance) impact from catastrophes has increased. It is far too early to tell how this year will turn out from a catastrophe perspective, but with the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma and with the Hurricane season just underway, we all have reason to be watchful and wary.
More About Insurance Coverage for Cyber Breaches: In a recent two-part series, Roberta D. Anderson of the K&L Gates law firm reviews the availability of insurance coverage to protect against losses arising from cyber breaches. The two installments can be found here and here.
The first installment provides background regarding the exposure and reviews the limitations associated with trying to obtain insurance coverage for cyber breaches under Commercial General Liability policies. The second installment goes on to discuss the limitations associated with trying to obtain insurance coverage for cyber breaches under property policies and other traditional insurance policies. The second installment then goes on to discuss the advent and development of purpose built cyber policies in the insurance marketplace. The article describes the first-party and third-party protection available under the cyber policies and the specific ways that the policies are designed to respond to various types of cyber incidents. The article reviews and compares various policies’ specific terms and conditions.
The two articles provide a quick but comprehensive overview of this emerging area of liability and insurance.