Tag Archives: CAT bonds

Catastrophe Bonds: Crucial Liquidity

Has the catastrophe (CAT) bond market become passé? Lost its luster? If you were talking about insurance-linked securities (ILS) around the water cooler as recently as 2017, that’s the impression you may have walked away with. CAT bonds were so ‘90s; collateralized reinsurance was where ILS was. And since the credit crisis of 2008-09 the numbers have borne that out. But since the fourth quarter of 2018, CAT bonds have come back into the fore and are proving that they have some inherent advantages over collateralized reinsurance when included in ILS portfolios.

I break the ILS sector into three segments: CAT bonds, collateralized reinsurance and reinsurance sidecars and similarly styled vehicles. Collateralized reinsurance includes both primary (to insurers) and retrocessional (to reinsurers) reinsurance contracts, as well as indexed contracts like industry loss warranties (ILWs), because ILWs are typically just an excess of loss reinsurance contract with an additional payment trigger. This article focuses on CAT bonds, and more specifically Rule 144A CAT bonds that typically trade on the secondary broker/dealer market.

While CAT bonds are the oldest form of ILS currently being used, their growth following the credit crisis has been outpaced by that of the collateralized reinsurance market. According to Aon Securities, in 2007 CAT bonds constituted approximately $15 billion (68%) of the $22 billion in ILS market capacity, with collateralized reinsurance making up about $3 billion (14%) of that total. By July 2018, CAT bonds were approximately $30 billion (31%) of the $98 billion of total ILS market capacity, while collateralized reinsurance made up about $55 billion (56%) of that total. Why such a change? There are many reasons, but two main ones are: 1) the heightened awareness by cedants of their reinsurer credit risk post-crisis (especially since Hurricane Ike made landfall in Texas the same weekend that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy!), and 2) a desire on the part of investors to access a wider range of independent insurance event risks across the yield spectrum than what was available in the CAT bond market.

See also: The Challenges With Catastrophe Bonds  

Fast forward to 2019. After two consecutive years of multiple catastrophe losses of moderate size (and in 2017 the most total insured catastrophe losses ever, surpassing 2005), a rarely observed phenomenon hit collateralized reinsurers: a liquidity crunch. While deal specifics vary, in its simplest form a collateralized reinsurer posts 100% of the policy limit (less premium in many cases) as collateral for a given transaction. If a loss occurs, it takes time for the reinsured to adjust the loss, and that amount of time may extend past the next renewal of the reinsurance contract. If the size of the loss is unknown at renewal, the collateralized reinsurer may have to post additional collateral to renew the contract. If it does not have sufficient cash or liquid securities, or cannot quickly raise additional capital, it will not be able to participate in the renewal. Multiply this situation across the many reinsurance contracts in a collateralized reinsurer’s portfolio, and the result can be reduced portfolio returns because the reinsurer has to maintain collateral balances that will only earn money market yields.

The need to have sufficient liquid securities available to facilitate reinsurance contract collateral requirements after one or more insured catastrophes was missed by some collateralized reinsurers. Prior to the credit crisis, most investment managers in the ILS sector had significant traditional reinsurance experience and were familiar with the loss adjustment process of significant catastrophes. After the crisis, a number of ILS funds were formed by managers who did not possess this experience and appreciation for the nuances of catastrophe claims adjustment (particularly the time associated with the claims adjustment process). Following the recent back-to-back years of notable natural catastrophe losses, the discussion of “loss creep” began in the trade press, which is not really a new phenomenon and is to be expected within the first year or so of adjusting complex catastrophe claims.

Given the need for liquid collateral after a catastrophe, what’s an ILS manager to do? Unless the manager is a multi-strategy or multi-asset fund, the investment mandate is typically limited to ILS and cash. Maintaining too large a cash position creates a drag on portfolio returns and makes the manager less competitive. That leaves the manager with one choice for liquid securities: CAT bonds.

While CAT bonds are not highly liquid exchange-traded securities, there is an active over-the-counter broker/dealer secondary market for CAT bond trading, and they are often recognized as Level II assets under Fair Value Measurements standards. CAT bonds have traded continuously at non-distressed prices through major financial market dislocations, including the dot-com bust and the credit crisis. Prior to the credit crisis, however, there was limited visibility into CAT bond secondary market trading volume and pricing. Then, in 2012, the U.S. regulatory agency FINRA launched the Trade Reporting and Compliance Engine (TRACE), which tracked CAT bond (and other fixed income securities) secondary market trades by FINRA-registered broker-dealers and provided a window into this opaque world.

CAT bonds proved themselves again as a liquid asset in 2018, particularly in the fourth quarter, despite the catastrophic activity occurring in real-time from events like Hurricanes Florence, Michael and the California wildfire outbreak. ILS managers who were savvy enough to include CAT bonds in their portfolios sold them as needed to raise additional capital for their collateralized reinsurance businesses. According to Swiss Re Capital Markets, TRACE secondary trading volume in 2018 totaled over $2.1 billion, with the second half of 2018 exceeding $1.1 billion and $700 million of that occurring during the fourth quarter. Second half 2018 trading volume exceeded that of the same period in 2017 by 35%. With $30 billion of CAT bonds in circulation at year-end, the 2018 secondary trading volume was approximately 7% of the outstanding market.

See also: Dying… or in a Golden Age?  

Leaving aside the fact that CAT bond portfolio returns often outperformed those of ILS portfolios weighted toward collateralized reinsurance and sidecars in 2017 and 2018, the data suggests that CAT bonds can also perform a valuable liquidity function in ILS portfolios of all types. CAT bonds clearly give managers of ILS funds a multi-dimensional portfolio management tool that benefits both portfolio return and liquidity.

Whither the CAT bond market? I suggest that thou speakest too soon!

The Challenges With Catastrophe Bonds

Catastrophe bonds are an increasingly important form of risk transfer for insurers. Cat bonds are a peculiarity of the U.S. reinsurance market, where about 125 to 200 natural disasters occur a year. They were first sold in the mid-1990s after Hurricane Andrew and the Northridge earthquake highlighted the need for a new form of risk transfer. The cat bond market has been growing steadily for the past 10 years, and more than $25 billion in catastrophe bond and insurance-linked securities are currently outstanding, according to Artemis.

Many insurers have moved away from managing their ceded reinsurance program with spreadsheets, which are time-consuming and error-prone, in light of current regulatory and internal demands. More carriers have installed — or are planning to install — a dedicated ceded reinsurance system that provides better controls and audit trails.

See also: Is P2P a Realistic Alternative?

Besides enabling reinsurance managers to keep senior management informed, a system helps carriers comply with the recent Risk Management and Own Risk and Solvency Assessment Model Act (RMORSA). It also generates Schedule F and statutory reporting, an otherwise onerous job. And technology prevents claims leakage (reinsurance claims that fell through the cracks).

Cat bonds add a layer of complexity. The cat bond premium is a “coupon” the insurer pays to the bond buyer. There are many potential losses behind each bond, and the potentially huge recovery amounts to as much as hundreds of millions of dollars for some insurers. Other complexities include a priority deductible, an hours clause, lines of business reinsured or excluded and attachment criteria to automatically identify subject catastrophe amounts. Without technology, tracking all this can be overwhelming.

The ceded reinsurance system can also be used to manage cat bond premiums. From a system perspective, it’s not terribly different. The same analytical split (per line of business and per insurance company in the group) applies to bonds just as it does to reinsurance treaties. With a little tweaking, a solid ceded reinsurance system should be able to handle cat treaties and bonds equally well.

While ceded premium management for cat bonds shouldn’t be difficult, claims present bigger challenges, especially when trying to automatically calculate the ultimate net loss (UNL) because additional factors and rules are often used to determine it.

For instance, it may be necessary to apply a growth-allowance factor, determine the number of policies in force when the catastrophe occurs and calculate growth-limitation factors. This allows the calculation of ceded recoveries in case of a catastrophe. Additionally, the calculation of UNL may be specific for each cat bond — and even for each corresponding peril.

See also: Insurers: the New Venture Capitalists  

Automating all this isn’t necessary because few events trigger those complexities. Once a manual workaround incorporating the audit trail and justification of the subject amounts is done, the reinsurance system can handle the remaining calculations. While it’s not necessary to fully automate all steps to calculate the UNL, it is still better to handle the whole process with an integrated information system than with multiple spreadsheets that are unwieldy and labor-intensive.

Without the right technology, managing cat bonds is daunting. With automation, they can be managed far more effectively.

Insurers Are Turning to Dubious Securities

The latest California Department of Insurance market share report said that workers’ compensation carriers combined to write $11.43 billion in premium in 2014, up 11% from 2013, the fourth consecutive double-digit increase. Premium growth lately is more a reflection of increasing payrolls rather than rates, as those have held rather steady in the last few years. But there is another, more insidious reason for premium growth lately: low interest rates. Chief financial officers are able to lock in only pathetic returns using traditionally safe investments because of the moribund interest rate environment.

So they are looking to alternative investment vehicles — and history doesn’t look kindly to that kind of activity involving dubious securities. The last time “interesting” financial assistance came into the California (and subsequently national) market was in the mid-1990s, when the Unicover/Craigwood reinsurance scheme was being pitched to minimize carrier risk … and dozens of carriers folded.

Now we have a new investment vehicle that is picking up steam, and I think it portends trouble if not kept in check. It’s called ILS.

In aviation, ILS is Instrument Landing System – a way for aircraft to find the runway under a layer of clouds and fog. In insurance, ILS is insurance-linked securities.

The most common ILS, and what brought this alternative to note, are CAT bonds. Catastrophe bonds are risk-linked securities that transfer a specified set of risks to investors. They were first used in the mid-1990s in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and the Northridge earthquake.

Wikipedia has a good explanation: “An insurance company issues bonds through an investment bank, which are then sold to investors. These bonds are inherently risky … and usually have maturities less than three years. If no catastrophe occurred, the insurance company would pay a coupon to the investors, who made a healthy return. On the contrary, if a catastrophe did occur, then the principal would be forgiven, and the insurance company would use this money to pay their claim-holders. Investors include hedge funds, catastrophe-oriented funds and asset managers.”

At least one insurance investment observer indicates alarm at the “convergence” of the insurance and capital markets. Michael Moody, MBA, ARM, in the April edition of Rough Notes magazine writes about “Capital Market Convergence” and describes how the money behind the capital structure of the insurance industry is increasingly being collateralized and sold off to investors with the single intent of increasing yield on capital invested: “With interest rates continuing at historically low levels, most institutional investors are looking for better yields. Currently, many of the ILS products are producing results that are 5% to 6% higher than traditional investments.”

Here’s the issue: There will be many investment people who know nothing about the insurance product providing the capital. Financial instruments such as credit default swaps (CDS) and collateral debt obligations (CDOs) and others created by Wall Street will move capital out of the insurance industry to the detriment of the insured public, and this includes workers’ compensation.

Moody understatedly writes: “Agents and brokers who have accounts that utilize significant amounts of reinsurance need to be aware of the advancements that are being made in the ILS market. The old days of competing on price are disappearing. Capital market professionals believe it is only a matter of time before reinsurance and ILS will be used in the same manner that reinsurance is purchased in layers today. It will not be uncommon to find excess limit programs that are made up of a combination of reinsurance and ILS. The genie is out of the bottle, and the capital markets appear to be willing to embrace the convergence with the insurance/reinsurance concept. As a result, agents and brokers who are interested in a long-term view of the insurance industry would be well advised to monitor this situation closely, as it will remain extremely fluid for some time.”

Certainly, departments of insurance will protect us from dubious securities, right? After all it is their job to regulate the insurance market and ensure a safe, healthy industry.

Well, that didn’t happen when Unicover/Craigwood came around, and there’s no reason to believe that any regulating agency is going to be proactive; traditionally, regulators are reactive. By the time they are alerted and take action, it’s too late – carriers disappear, guarantee associations are swamped and state funds take up the slack (as in 2000, when the State Fund covered 50% of the California market).

California, and the nation’s work comp market, is one bad ILS away from disaster. Carriers won’t be looking for the runway under the clouds – rather, they’ll be looking for insolvency relief.