Tag Archives: market cycle

Can Insurers Move at the Speed of Change?

Chances are you are currently or soon to be engaged in the annual planning cycle, taking stock of the year and anticipating your goals and targets for 2016.

Annual planning feels anachronistic in a world where businesses survive only by operating at least at the speed of change, and where constant iteration is the order of the day. But annual planning does at least provide the opportunity to take stock and set early New Year’s resolutions. It’s useful to hit the “pause button” and remove yourselves from daily operational tactics to reflect on business aspirations and how to make them real.

The fact is, more and more top talent in the start-up and technology sectors is taking aim at the insurance sector, and sees it as ripe for disruption. This is obvious in one-to-one conversations I have had recently with senior executives, at incubator demo days and at investor pitch presentations. It’s apparent in the intensity of interest in driverless cars, the advances in the sharing economy, the number (and quality) of new entrants who are providing friendlier and more transparent access to insurance quotes than ever and in the sheer volume of well-funded, highly valued fintech products being developed for the under-40 crowd.

That the insurance sector has a metaphorical bull’s-eye on its back should come as no surprise. An outsider not steeped in status quo belief systems about how insurance products are created, how distribution works, how commissions are paid and how clients are served can easily recognize that as a whole the industry is out of step with consumer wants and needs, the massive shift underway in who controls the economy (hint: it’s not the Boomers) and the bigger and newer opportunities technology makes possible. While there are certainly outliers at both ends of the spectrum, and an apparent pick-up in tech investment and experimentation among traditional players, there is considerable room to accelerate digital transformation in 2016. It’s an imperative.

So here’s the question: Are you positioned to make meaningful progress? Here are four principles essential to digital transformation and performance against which to answer that question:

  • The insurance business is about people, not policies. Digital transformation is grounded in client-centricity. Is that emphasis a “check the box” or do you really practice it? Language is a mirror of a culture and belief system, and so it is when it comes to a company’s culture, as well. It’s hard to imagine that any insurance business referring to its clients – the people who keep you in business – as “policies,” “lives” or “gross premium dollars” can claim to be client-centric. What language are you speaking?
  • Time is the most valuable currency. The return on time is compounded or devalued by speed of execution. So, what’s your sense of urgency? I was speaking with a fintech founder recently about the company’s branding strategy, and on seeing his disbelieving look as I shared that it can take six months or a year to develop and launch a brand in a legacy business environment, we cut the cycle for this start-up’s brand development effort down to a couple of months. And we were left with a high-quality, thorough method. The absence of bureaucracy, the sheer will to win and the focus on getting things done quickly and with quality is an asset whose absence cannot be rationalized away by those who plan to thrive in the new economy.
  • Self-awareness is step one to transformation. Do the insurance leaders you know really get what their position is in a morphing marketplace? As an independent adviser, consultant and angel investor, I see a good swath of start-ups and thought leaders whose ambitions and actions form a mosaic of trends and oncoming disruptions. An organization lacking collective knowledge and understanding of the insurance sector, including new and non-obvious entrants, will have a tough time redefining its direction. And is the internal response, “Oh, the regulators will never go for that”? Or are you anticipating the reality of disruptive change that is already spreading across insurance verticals from P&C to health, life, retirement and commercial products?
  • What gets measured gets done. And the wrong metrics will suffocate new business opportunities and misdirect resources. Have you challenged the measures of digital success? It’s also true that the wrong timing to read what may well be the right metrics will also stifle new business opportunities. If you are not revisiting your traditional scorecards, and paying real-time attention to the business model drivers you want to achieve — vs. merely monitoring and managing to the monthly bottom-line results — the benefits of digital transformation will elude you.

At any given hour, “now” will never feel like the best time to step out of the complexity of daily operations so you can re-frame your business strategy and make digital transformation happen. Aligning people, process, technology and investment dollars is where the re-framing should manifest itself. And now is a great time, and an urgent time, as you begin to anticipate 2016.

The clock is ticking. And the broader digital ecosystem is expanding, faster and faster.

The Defining Issue for Financial Markets

For anyone who has spent time on the open sea, especially in a small craft, you know the sea can be quite the moody mistress. Some days, the gale winds are howling. Some days the sea is as smooth as glass. The financial markets are quite similar.

In late August, the U.S. equity market experienced its first 10% price correction in four years. That ended the third longest period in the history of the market without a 10% correction, so in one sense it was long overdue. But, because the U.S. stock market has been as smooth as glass for years now, it feels as if typhoon winds are blowing.

Cycles define the markets’ very existence. Unfortunately, cycles also define human decision making within the context of financial markets.

Let’s focus on one theme we believe will be enduring and come to characterize financial market outcomes over the next six to 12 months. That theme is currency.

In past missives, we have discussed the importance of global currency movements to real world economic and financial market outcomes. The issue of currency lies at the heart of the recent uptick in financial market “swell” activity. Specifically, the recent correction in U.S. equities began as China supposedly “devalued” its currency, the renminbi, relative to the U.S. dollar.

Before we can look at why relative global currency movements are so important, we need to take a step back. It’s simply a fact that individual country economies display different character. They do not grow, or contract, at the same rates. Some have advantages of low-cost labor. Some have the advantage of cheap access to raw materials. Etc. No two are exactly alike.

Historically, when individual countries felt the need to stimulate (not enough growth) or cool down (too much inflation) their economies, they could raise or lower country-specific interest rates. In essence, they could change the cost of money. Interest rates have been the traditional pressure relief valves between various global economies. Hence, decades-long investor obsession with words and actions of central banks such as the U.S. Fed.

Yet we have maintained for some time now that we exist in an economic and financial market cycle unlike any we have seen before. Why? Because there has never been a period in the lifetime of any investor alive today where interest rates in major, developed economies have been set near academic zero for more than half a decade at least. (In Japan, this has been true for multiple decades.) The near-zero rates means that the historical relief valve has broken. It has been replaced by the only relief valve left to individual countries — relative currency movements.

This brings us back to the apparent cause of the present financial market squall — the supposed Chinese currency devaluation that began several weeks ago. Let’s look at the facts and what is to come.

For some time now, China has wanted its renminbi to be recognized as a currency of global importance — a reserve currency much like the dollar, euro and yen. For that to happen in the eyes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), China would need to de-link its currency from the U.S. dollar and allow it to float freely (level to be determined by the market, not by a government or central bank). The IMF was to make a decision on renminbi inclusion in the recognized basket of important global currencies in September. In mid-August, the IMF announced this decision would be put off for one more year as China had more “work to do with its currency.” Implied message? China would need to allow its currency to float freely. One week later, China took the step that media reports continue to sensationalize, characterizing China’s action as intentionally devaluing its currency.

In linking the renminbi to the dollar for many years now, China has “controlled” its value via outright manipulation, in a very tight band against the dollar. The devaluation Wall Street has recently focused on is nothing more than China allowing the band in which the renminbi trades against the dollar to widen. With any asset whose value has been fixed, or manipulated, for so long, once the fix is broken, price volatility is a virtual guarantee. This is exactly what has occurred.

China loosened the band by about 4% over the last month, which we believe is the very beginning of China allowing its currency to float freely. This will occur in steps. This is the beginning, not the end, of this process. There is more to come, and we believe this will be a very important investment theme over the next six to 12 months.

What most of the media has failed to mention is that, before the loosening, the renminbi was up 10% against most global currencies this year. Now, it’s still up more than 5%, while over the last 12 months the euro has fallen 30% against the U.S. dollar. Not 4%, 30%, and remarkably enough the lights still go on in Europe. Over the last 2 1/2 years, the yen has fallen 35% against the U.S. dollar. Although it may seem hard to believe, the sun still comes up every morning in Japan. What we are looking at in China is economic and financial market evolution. Evolution that will bring change and, we assure you, not the end of the world.

Financial market squalls very often occur when the markets are attempting to “price in” meaningful change, which is where we find ourselves right now.

What heightens current period investor angst is the weight and magnitude of the Chinese economy, second largest on planet Earth behind the U.S. With a devalued currency, China can theoretically buy less of foreign goods. All else being equal, a cheaper currency means less global buying power. This is important in that, at least over the last few decades, China has been the largest purchaser and user of global commodities and industrial materials. Many a commodity price has collapsed over the last year. Although few may realize this, Europe’s largest trading partner is not the U.S., it’s China. European investors are none too happy about recent relative currency movements.

Relative global currency movements are not without consequence, but they do not spell death and destruction.

A final component in the current market volatility is uncertainty about whether the U.S. Fed will raise interest rates for the first time in more than half a decade. Seriously, would a .25% short-term interest rate vaporize the U.S. economy? Of course not, but if the Fed is the only central bank on Earth possibly raising rates again that creates a unique currency situation. Academically, when a country raises its interest rates in isolation, it makes its currency stronger and more attractive globally. A stronger dollar and weaker Chinese renminbi academically means China can buy less U.S.-made goods. Just ask Caterpillar and John Deere how that has been working out for them lately. Similarly, with a recent drop in Apple’s stock price, are investors jumping to the conclusion that Apple’s sales in China will fall off of the proverbial cliff? No more new iPhone sales in China? Really?

The issue of relative global currency movements is real and meaningful. The change has been occurring for some time now, especially with respect to the euro and the yen. Now it’s the Chinese currency that is the provocateur of global investor angst. Make no mistake about it, China is at the beginning of its loosening of the currency band, not the end. This means relative currency movements will continue to be very important to investment outcomes.

We expect a stronger dollar. That’s virtually intuitive. But a stronger dollar is a double-edged sword — not a major positive for the near-term global economic competitiveness of the U.S., but a huge positive for attracting global capital (drawn to strong currencies). We have seen exactly this in real estate and, to a point, in “blue chip” U.S. equities priced in dollars, for years now.

In addition to a higher dollar, we fully expect a lower Chinese renminbi against the dollar. If we had to guess, at least another 10% drop in the renminbi over next 12 months. Again, the price volatility we are seeing right now is the markets attempting to price in this currency development, much as it priced in the falling euro and yen during years gone by. Therefore, sector and asset class selectivity becomes paramount, as does continuing macro risk control.

Much like a sailor away far too long at sea, the shoreline beckons. We simply need to remember that there is a “price” for being free, and for now that “price” is increased volatility. Without question, relative global currency movements will continue to exert meaningful influence over investment outcomes.

These are the global financial market seas in which we find ourselves.

Stocks: The Many Faces of Volatility

The current year has been characterized by increasing daily volatility in financial asset prices. This is occurring in bonds as well as stocks. In fact, through the first six months of this year, the major equity markets have been trading within a narrow price band, back and forth, back and forth. Enough to induce seasickness among the investment community.

The S&P 500 ended 2014 at 2058. On June 30, 2015, the S&P closed at 2063. In other words, the S&P spent six months going up all of five points, or 0.2%. Yet if we look at the daily change in the S&P price, the S&P actually traveled 1,544 points, daily closing price to daily closing price, in the first six months of the year. Dramamine, anyone?

p3

Price volatility seems to have increased, but point-to-point percentage price moves have actually been very small. When looked at within the context of an entire bull market cycle, a 3.5% price move in either direction is close to a rounding error. This is the face of volatility we have experienced over the first half of 2015. Not quite as scary as is portrayed in the media, right?

In one sense, what we have really experienced this year is what is termed a “sideways correction.”

Financial markets can correct in any number of ways. We usually think of a correction in prices as a meaningful drop. That is certainly one form of a correction, and never much fun. Markets can also correct in sideways fashion. In a sideways correction, the markets go back and forth, often waiting for fundamentals of the economy and corporate earnings to catch up with prices that have already moved. The markets are digesting prior gains. Time for a “time out.”

At least so far, this is what appears to be occurring this year. Make no mistake about it, sideways corrections heighten the perception of price volatility. That’s why it is so important to step away from the day to day and look at longer-term market character. A key danger for investors is allowing day-to-day price volatility to influence emotions, and heightened emotions to influence investment decision making.

Two issues we do believe to be very important at this stage of the market cycle are safety and liquidity. We live in a world where central banks are openly debasing their currencies, where government balance sheets are deteriorating, where governments (to greater or lesser degrees) are increasing the hunt for taxes and where cash left in certain banking systems is being charged a fee (negative interest rates) just to sit. None of these actions is friendly to capital, which is why we see so much global capital on the move.

It’s simply seeking safety and liquidity. Is that too much to ask?

To understand where the money may go, it’s important to look at the size and character of major global asset classes. In the chart below, we look at real estate and bond (credit) and stock markets. We’ve additionally shown the global money supply and gold.

p2

One of the key takeaways from this data is that the global credit/bond market is about 2.5 times as large as the global equity market. We have expressed our longer-term concern over bonds, especially government bonds. After 35 years of a bull market in bonds, will we have another 35 years of such good fortune? Not a chance. With interest rates at generational lows, the 35-year bond bull market isn’t in the final innings; it’s already in extra innings, thanks to the money printing antics of global central banks. So as we think ahead, we need to contemplate a very important question. What happens to this $160 trillion-plus investment in the global bond market when the 35-year bond bull market breathes its last and the downside begins?

One answer is that some of this capital will go to what is termed “money heaven.” It will never be seen again; it will simply be lost. Another possible outcome is that the money reallocates to an alternative asset class. Could 5% of the total bond market move to gold? Probably not, as this is a sum larger than total global gold holdings. Will it move to real estate? Potentially, but real estate is already the largest asset class in nominal dollar size globally. Could it reallocate to stocks? This is another potential outcome. Think about pension funds that are not only underfunded but have specific rate-of-return mandates. Can they stand there and watch their bond holdings decline? Never. They will be forced to sell bonds and reallocate the proceeds. The question is where. Other large institutional investors face the same issue. Equities may be a key repository in a world where global capital is seeking safety and liquidity. Again, only a potential outcome.

We simply need to watch the movement of global capital and how that is expressed in the forward price of these key global asset classes. Watching where the S&P ultimately moves out of this currently tight trading range seen this year will be very important. It will be a signal as to where global capital is moving at the margin among the major global assets classes.

Checking our emotions at the door is essential. Not getting caught up or emotionally influenced in the up and down of day-to-day price movement is essential. Putting price volatility and market movement into much broader perspective allows us to step back and see the larger global picture of capital movement.

These are the important issues, not where the S&P closes tomorrow, or the next day. Or, for that matter, the day after that.