As smaller captive insurance companies proliferate, so do reinsurance pools or exchanges that attempt to deliver sufficient “risk distribution” to satisfy the requirements of the Internal Revenue Service. Without risk distribution, the captive would not be considered an insurance company for tax purposes and would then lose many of its potential tax benefits, including the election for the exclusion of insurance revenues from income under section 831(b) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Previous articles I have written have explored the mechanics of these pools and have questioned whether the majority in fact meet the risk distribution requirements as a matter of law. This article will explore a more basic issue … are the funds being held by these pools secure?
Many captive managers have formed risk distribution mechanisms whereby the captives under management “swap” risk by ceding a portion of each captive's risk to the other captives and accepting a “retrocession” of risks from those other captives. Frequently, this exchange of risk is accomplished by a transfer of 50% or more of a captive's annual premium income to an entity that is affiliated with the captive manager, either as a “fronting” company to the captives or as a reinsurance company.
In either event, half of the funds paid by the insured to the captive are held for a year or more by this entity. Once losses are settled for the year in question, the balance, if any, is remitted to the captive. In the meantime, of course, if the captive has renewed its insurance policy to the insured, another annual premium has been received by the reinsurance entity and handled in the same manner.
The potential for abuse is immense. Cash is fungible. Whose money was remitted to the captive? The half that was held from last year or half of the latest premium received? This could create a classic case of a “Ponzi” scheme, where the money held from last year is spent and new money is used to cover the obligations from the previous year. The scheme collapses, of course, if there is a net drop in new captive formations for that captive manager.
These fronting companies or reinsurance companies are often domiciled offshore where annual audited statements may not be required and where litigation over mishandled funds would be difficult for the captive owner. Not all risk distribution mechanisms involve the retention of client funds; unfortunately, however, most of them do.
This article does not suggest that any captive manager has in fact mishandled client funds as described. But it is important to recognize the temptation and ask what, if anything, is being done to be sure that the temptation is never tested. A captive manager with 100 captives under management — each with $1,000,000 in annual premium — will have $50,000,000 or more of “float” to tempt him.
At a minimum, captive owners should require an accounting of retained funds by an independent CPA firm. Ideally, the captive owner should require that retained funds be held in a separate trust account by an independent trustee. But neither of these practices appears common in the captive insurance industry. In some cases, captive mangers have returned the “withheld” funds early, easing the fear of loss of the funds, but potentially making a mockery of the risk distribution mechanism itself.
What is the role, if any, of the captive insurance regulator? Captive legislation is not consistent when it comes to reinsurance pools. A review of the legislation of 14 of the most active captive domiciles reveals that 8 of them have no provision in their statutes to monitor or limit the activities of reinsurance pools (other than actual reinsurance companies licensed in their own domicile). The other 6 have specific language as follows:
The Commissioner may require any other documents, financial information, or other evidence that the pool, exchange or association will be able to provide adequate security for its financial obligations. The Commissioner may deny authorization or impose any limitations on the activities of a reinsurance pool, exchange, or association that, in the Commissioner's judgment, is necessary and proper to provide adequate security for the ceding captive insurer or segregated account and for the protection and consequent benefit of the public at large.
The domiciles break down as follows:
Specific language: Vermont, Missouri, District of Columbia, Kentucky, Montana and Tennessee.
No language: Delaware, Utah, South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, Alabama and New Jersey.
It is interesting that the majority of small captives that use these reinsurance pools are domiciled in the 8 states that give the regulator no direct statutory authority to address the security of retained client funds. Of course, the regulators do have broad authority to question the overall efficacy of a captive's business plan. This review arguably could address concerns about the security of the captive's funds in the hands of third parties, particularly in the early years of a captive's life. But do they?
This author polled a number (but not all) of the regulators in these 14 states and got few responses from the 8 states without the specific language referenced above. Those few responses indicated that their view is that the relationship between the captive and the fronting company or reinsurer was a matter of private contract not subject to their regulation (other than determining that the reinsurance itself was real and met industry standards).
As the number of captives, captive managers and risk distribution pools continues to grow rapidly, the opportunity for a scandal in the captive industry also grows. The industry would not fare well if such a scandal made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Captive owners should be aware of this risk and take action accordingly. And captive regulators should become more alert to possible abuses in this area and take action consistent with the powers available to them under their respective statutes.