Tag Archives: catastrophe 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.

Is P2P a Realistic Alternative?

At American Family Ventures, we believe “Insurance 2.0.” will be, in part, shaped by structural innovation. The traditional insurance structure of centralized risk-pooling has been around for a long time. Unsurprisingly, it is also subject to heavy regulation. As a result, many entrepreneurs are using new approaches to lower regulatory burdens or unlock value through decentralization.

Two of the approaches we’re excited to watch develop are peer-to-peer (P2P) and private-investor-backed insurance.

Peer-to-Peer Insurance

P2P insurance isn’t a new concept. Mutual insurance companies effectively use a peer-to-peer model today. However, there appear to be a number of emerging approaches altering the dynamics of the risk/insured pool and creating new benefits for policyholders, carriers and investors.

For context, we see P2P as a set of techniques allowing insureds to self-organize, self-administer and pool their capital in a way that protects all the pool members from loss, all while ensuring any capital in the pool not reserved to pay claims (less any fees owed to a facilitator or administrator) is returned directly to the pool members. Of course, there is a great deal of nuance to making that work.

See Also: P2P Start-Ups From Around the World

Here’s a simplified diagram of a P2P insurance model:

We’ve identified a few reasons to think that, by redefining the traditional insurance structure, P2P models can offer unique benefits.

For one, the P2P system could mitigate elements of conflict in traditional, centralized insurance models. Because insurers (for the most part) get to keep the premiums they don’t pay out in claims, occasionally the incentives of policyholders and carriers fall out of alignment. Conversely, in a pure P2P model, because the premiums not needed for claims are refunded to the policyholders, in theory, any conflict with a carrier is diminished.

While that logic is clear, it likely oversimplifies the issue. The insurance system, while not without its flaws, has functioned for some time and has regulations and processes in place to mitigate adversarial circumstances. In addition, if conflict exists in the insurer/insured relationship, it likely remains present in the P2P model but shifts from customer/carrier to peer/peer. In essence, because any pool member’s payout is a function of the claims paid out to others in the pool, members now have personal disincentives to pay claims, similar to carriers in the traditional model. That said, the carrier/customer relationship isn’t perfect, and new variations of P2P could help advance it.

Secondly, P2P organizing models might leverage large networks like Facebook and LinkedIn more effectively than traditional insurance. The nature of self-selection logically fits the use of a social or professional network — it’s easier to imagine a group of Facebook friends deciding to form an “insurance group” than it is to imagine that same group recommending all of their friends purchase individual policies from a large provider. In effect, large networks power the formation of smaller networks.

In addition to organizing benefits, integration with large, network-based platforms can create efficiencies in administration and retention. Increased frequency of engagement as well as preexisting communication and payment infrastructure could power usability advantages, stronger net promoter scores and better retention rates.

Finally, P2P models, by enabling modifications to the size and composition of risk pools, could create differentiated pricing strategies. P2P models are often associated with self-organization, but they don’t necessarily require it. So, if P2P facilitators become involved in pool selection and can use existing or new underwriting criteria to influence or control pool composition, they could construct pools that offer each member the highest possible returns after claims (or, effectively, the lowest possible cost of insurance). In other words, P2P facilitators might algorithmically generate smaller baskets of varying risk profiles, shifting members, when necessary, to intentionally spread expected claims across numerous pools, thereby creating consistently lower average claims volumes per pool (and, consequently, better payouts for members).

Private-Investor-Backed Insurance

Private-investor-backed insurance allows third-party investment capital to pay or backstop claims expenses in exchange for investment return. For example, a private investor, in theory, could agree to receive premium payments from a basket of insureds in exchange for the obligation to pay claims when they arise. In this model, the private investor (or group of private investors) essentially steps into the financial shoes of the insurer, accepting a stream of certain cash flows in exchange for an uncertain future liability (which could exceed those cash flows). The facilitator of such a marketplace would likely take some fees in exchange for customer acquisition, administration, securing reinsurance and performing the functions of an insurer other than providing risk capital.

See Also: Insurance 2.0: How Distribution Evolves

There are a handful of benefits we think the private-investor-backed model offers participants in the insurance relationship.

First, if certain types of insurance risk can be effectively securitized, those securities would (theoretically) offer professional or retail investors diversification through an instrument that is not highly correlated with the general market (low beta). Some investors already have exposure to insurance through reinsurance contracts and catastrophe bonds, but securitized insurance could offer broader access to more familiar risks with different payoff profiles.

Secondly, similar to what Lending Club and Prosper were able to accomplish in personal and small business lending, a private-investor-backed insurance model might offer price-competitive options to customers who have difficulty securing traditional insurance. For example, today, customers who are unable to secure insurance from conventional insurers (standard market) use excess and surplus (E&S) markets to address their insurance needs. If private investors are willing to take on these E&S risks—whether due to the presence of unique underwriting criteria or higher risk appetites—they could create new competitive dynamics in the E&S market and ultimately improve options for buyers.

As a side note, we often hear people combining the notions of P2P and private-investor-backed insurance. In our minds, they are related and can work together but are separate concepts. Private investor backing is not a prerequisite to building a P2P model — a pure P2P model could employ a variety of strategies to guarantee liquidity and solvency. For example, P2P insurers could leverage reinsurance to cover large or aggregate claims beyond the pool balance, eliminating the need for private investment capital. The P2P insurers might also use traditional fronting arrangements to ensure solvency. By comparison, a pure private-investor-backed model doesn’t need P2P features to function. Instead, it might offer investors financial products that look similar to reinsurance contracts without making any changes to risk pooling or centralization of control.

Additional Considerations and Questions

There are various other structural approaches that might be used to create acquisition cost and pricing advantages or lower barriers to entry for start-ups. Often, these are not necessarily new structural ideas but are rather applications of existing legal strategies employed in surplus or specialty lines insurance to broader, bigger lines.

The successful execution of the P2P model relies on a number of assumptions we’re sure someone will figure out, but we don’t fully understand them just yet. For example, will pools self-select, or will they need to be automatically or algorithmically selected? If self-selected, will most pools (financially) perform as expected, or will there be a small subset of high-performance pools (created by information asymmetry) that generate an inverse adverse selection issue for the P2P business, thereby creating disincentives for participation by the majority of potential buyers? Will pools self-administer and self-police to influence lower losses and guarantee payment of claims, or will some centralized entity still need to exist to ensure member compliance? Will there be regulatory hurdles to overcome if small pools are constructed to reduce claims costs? Finally, how will pool facilitators/administrators/members handle float management — will the capital in the pools sit in cash, or will those assets be actively managed until need for claims? If actively managed, by whom?

The issues we’re interested to see addressed in private-investor-backed insurance are also numerous. Can insurance be a desirable or profitable asset class for private investors? Apart from catastrophe bonds, we haven’t seen much securitization of insurance. Which insurance products or coverages might one securitize best? In other words, which magnitudes and patterns of risk exposures will private investors accept, which existing or new data will they demand as third-party underwriters and what terms will be up for negotiation? Can facilitators find a way to make long-tail risk compatible with liquidity expectations for the asset class?

At the end of the day, we’re looking forward to finding out how companies are able to use structural innovation to create unique and differentiated value for customers.

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.