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March 6, 2017

Examining Potential of Peer-to-Peer Insurers

Summary:

Distribution costs will be higher than they expect, and they will suffer from capital costs unless they form the right partnerships.

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

Recently, I wrote an article where I outlined a simple modeling framework I use when I try to predict how a new insurance product or new insurtech startup is likely to perform. In this article, I will walk through an example to give you a play-by-play on how to put this simple mental model to use.

Can Peer-to-Peer Insurance Succeed?

Peer-to-peer business models really came into their own in the financial arena, where companies such as Prosper and Lending Club were able to create platforms that allowed individuals to loan funds directly to one another. As a Prosper investor, I still recall how neat it was that I could loan a family $25 and be part of a pool of like-minded people who were looking to help others and make a little bit more money than a bank account. (Disclaimer: You can lose your money, too. I have had several borrowers default, and you will need to make up for it on those accounts that don’t default).

Investors, always a group looking for the next unicorn, have applied principles of P2P to others businesses, as well, such as car sharing and file sharing. Even digital currencies such as Bitcoin are P2P-based. Not surprisingly, investors and entrepreneurs are looking into whether P2P would work well in the seemingly tattered insurance industry. Companies such as Lemonade, Guevara and Friendsurance are already selling policies and making a name for themselves. InsNerds.com was very lucky to have Dylan Bourguignon of So-sure insurance, a complete P2P insurer, write an article for us on the topic (be sure to read this article if you want a breakdown from the point of view of an insurer).

See also: 3rd Wave of P2P Insurance  

Let’s walk P2P insurance through the model framework and see what all stakeholders need to see.

Exposure

The exposure component is the one that deals with claims; past, present and future. The P2P model looks to reduce the frequency and severity of losses by reducing the desire among policyholders to make bogus claims. Because policyholders in a P2P model have some affiliation with each other, the hypothesis is that this connection will prevent policyholders from harming their peers. This seems intuitively possible. If it is true, what would that mean to the insurance coverage?

Fraud is estimated to add 10% to losses in property/casualty insurance. That would equal approximately $34 billion a year! Fraud is most typically investigated in workers’ compensation, auto and health insurance (not necessarily in this order). Traditional insurers spend a lot of money rooting out fraud. Big data vendors such as Verisk and Valen have commercial models available for both workers’ compensation and auto — even homeowners insurance isn’t immune. Reports of widespread false claims after Hurricane Katrina were documented.

The difference between what traditional carriers do and what P2P offers is that P2P subtly promises to remove the fraud BEFORE it happens, while today’s fraud is only caught during the fraud or afterward. If P2P can fulfill this promise, there is a tremendous amount of value it can provide to the market.

If I were an investor, I would look for companies that can show that their P2P network has very tight ties. As the network gets larger, it seems unlikely that the strong ties can be maintained, and you begin to lose the ability to have shame or other social pressures keep fraud under control. Any technology that can strengthen the ties to large portfolio scale could be immensely valuable.

I’ve written about Lemonade, and while the company no longer considers itself P2P, the initial “technology” was to group like-minded homeowners or renters together, and give any excess year end profits to a charity of their choice. If you are following along with where I am going with this, you may see some of the flaws in the model. First, homeowners insurance isn’t in the big three for fraud, so the potential benefits are not nearly as big as they would be in auto or workers’ compensation. Second, I didn’t really see any proprietary technology that could give Lemonade a leg up on any competitors. From all of the press releases, the P2P networks seemed easy to copy, as is Lemonade’s charity angle. That Lemonade dropped its P2P marketing seems to have confirmed that that part of the business model probably would not have produced worthwhile value. As an investor, I’d like to see a direct line to fraud reduction and truly big potential to drop the investments now being committed to detecting fraud, post-event.

P2P needs to bring some new type of configuration of insurance that meets needs not currently being met. The insurers mentioned above are tackling industries with heavyweight competition. I see an opportunity for P2P to unite common insureds in a way that provides coverage or risk reduction in areas where coverage is difficult to obtain or just doesn’t exist. In California, earthquake deductibles are very large. It seems reasonable that property owners could unite to buy coverage to protect each other against losses arising from the combined deductibles. There’s a similar case to be made for flood. I imagine these P2P insurers almost acting as public captives covering very niche risks for similar insureds.

Distribution

The distribution component of the framework deals with how companies market to and sell to customers. In the P2P model, there is a heavy emphasis on the social element, like-minded insureds telling other like-minded insureds to join. Most P2P insurers are direct to consumer. Thus, P2P insurers must depend heavily on their insured network to do much of the heavy lifting for them, whether that’s through word of mouth or via social media.

If I were an investor looking into this area, I’d want to see some proof of concept that value can be created here to some scale. Brokers get paid well for a reason: it is expensive to find and maintain insurance customers. Advertising on Facebook is more expensive than you think, and, if you are using Adwords, you are competing against GEICO, State Farm and other large insurance companies. Good luck with that.

See also: Is P2P a Realistic Alternative?  

Ultimately, I think distribution will directly depend on the product development and what was discussed in EXPOSURE above. P2P insurers must be able to differentiate themselves. Take Lemonade. As a home and rental insurer, is Lemonade different than a traditional home insurer? Yes. Is it 10x better? I don’t think so. The product is nearly identical; only the customer experience is truly different. It is exceptional, but will that alone be enough to drive customers to buy policies? I think it will, but not by enough of a margin for Lemonade to deliver Uber-like returns. That’s not happening.

Capital

Insurance is a capital-intensive business. To start a plain-vanilla company in most states requires $5 million to $10 million in surplus capital. This is capital that is above and beyond capital that is used to pay for claims. That capital must be invested into the highest-quality securities (generally government bonds and AA corporates). Any startup that is more complicated than “vanilla” needs more capital. And any expansion into other states will require still more capital.All of this capital is needed even if you only have one on your books and even if you are ceding all of your business to reinsurers. Startup insurers are behind the eight ball right from the get go and are at a massive disadvantage when compared with the big guns.

State Farm has surplus in the tens of billions of dollars. Those are funds State Farm can invest and through which it can generate investment income that can be used to offset other costs in their. Startup insurers can’t do that and are very vulnerable to any large loss and thus require heavy partnerships. And that isn’t cheap! For startups, cost of capital is very high, and those costs must be reflected in the premium.

This is why Lemonade’s expansion across the U.S. is head-scratching. Though Lemonade is not a P2P, as a startup much of its newly acquired capital for this expansion is sitting in bonds. Unless there is some other news that we are not privy to, using B-round capital as a portfolio does not seem to be a great use of funds. This is a lesson for other P2Ps. An entire P2P strategy can collapse if the capital structure is not maximized. If I were an investor looking at this field, I’d want the P2P to be partnering with a capital source that already has scale, so that the P2P can focus on product differentiation and distribution.

Operations

P2P insurers have a terrific advantage in this area. Being born in the digital age means that these insurers can skip over legacy systems and go directly to an entirely modern platform. I would want to see seamless integration and movement of data between marketing, binding, policy issuance, accounting and claims management. I would want to see the ability to easily capture data at the front end, augment data during the lifecycle and put that data to work in integrated plug-and-play models.

See also: P2P Start-Ups From Around the World  

For P2P insurers, Lemonade is providing the blueprint for how this should be done. (By the way, big-time kudos to Lemonade for being so transparent and allowing curmudgeons like me to nitpick the business model). Lemonade’s integration of chatbots to eliminate human intervention in the purchasing of and the filing of claims seems to be an operations winner thus far. In this model, we should expect to see overhead expenses drop. Expenses associated with losses should also drop. If the P2P was not able to show significant decreases in expense, then something is terribly wrong.

Summary

I love the concept of P2P. But I don’t think it will ultimately become a great way to invest venture funds. I just don’t think the returns will justify the risks. P2P insurers should be able to provide significant value in operations. If they can differentiate product development, they should be able to attract customers who would be interested in their products. BUT…I think P2P insurers are not going to find very large markets for their niche products. Because of this, distribution costs will be higher than they expect, and they will suffer from capital costs unless they form the right partnerships. Those really inexpensive Lemonade rates likely won’t last. P2P prices may not end up cheap as capital and distribution costs overwhelm advantages obtained in potential decreases in fraud costs and operational efficiencies.

P2P insurance is full of potential, and as a model, will behave more like traditional MGAs. The potential for supersized returns is not high.

This article first appeared at InsNerds.com.

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About the Author

Nick Lamparelli has been working in the insurance industry for nearly 20 years as an agent, broker and underwriter for firms including AIR Worldwide, Aon, Marsh and QBE. Simulation and modeling of natural catastrophes occupy most of his day-to-day thinking. Billions of dollars of properties exposed to catastrophe that were once uninsurable are now insured because of his novel approaches.

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