The Latin America insurance outlook for 2015 is generally favorable, with high-single-digit premium growth across the region presenting complex risks and opportunities. Although real economic growth has slowed recently in the largest markets of Brazil and Mexico, stronger economic growth and inflation in some areas continue to drive premiums. Long-term trends (reduced poverty, shrinking unemployment and a population increasing above the pace of most mature markets) are bolstering consumer demand for insurance products.
In general insurance, catastrophic risks from floods, hurricanes and earthquakes are driving premium growth in a number of Latin American countries. Premiums peak following major losses as demand increases and supply becomes more costly. In contrast, the underwriting cycle slowly reduces premium rates after benign catastrophe-loss periods, such as those experienced in the last few years. The development of efficient distribution systems to increase insurance market penetration and encourage product acceptance remains a critical challenge.
As economic, political and regulatory environments evolve inconsistently across the region, inflation risk continues to persist at varying levels. While Chile’s, Peru’s and Colombia’s annual inflation rates averaged 2% to 3% from 2009 through 2013, Argentina’s and Venezuela’s percentages were the highest in the region. Argentina’s battles with its creditors, and its governmental hand in business, have destabilized its currency. In contrast, Mexico’s government remains stable and is progressing with reforms to modernize insurance and other business sectors.
From a tax perspective:
- Brazil imposes the highest income tax in the region, with insurer profits taxed at 40%. Popular products include health insurance and term life insurance, as well as auto and property covers, which are sold by independent brokers. Tax incentives for retirement accumulation plans are growing in popularity.
- Mexico’s tax incentives, promoting retirement savings and a reasonable income tax structure, are contributing to growth. In a country where third-party auto liability coverage is mandatory in several cities, auto insurance generates the highest premiums.
- The scenario is similar in Chile, where auto insurance is also compulsory and characterized by intense price competition. Provisional life and retirement products are part of the national social security system. Approximately half of all insurers are subsidiaries of international firms. Although an open market has led to stability and a competitive balance, insurers continue to adapt in the wake of earthquakes and other natural disasters.
- In Argentina, independent agents and brokerage firms account for an estimated 75% of total premiums. The nationalization of private pension funds in 2008 changed the insurance industry structure, sharply reducing the size of the life and annuity market and the number of insurers in the country. Argentina imposes a high income tax burden, with profits taxed at 35% and a 10% dividend withholding tax.
- Colombia, the fifth largest Latin American insurance market,
is partially focused on investing in infrastructure to encourage demand for guaranty bonds. Automobile insurance, compulsory personal auto accident protection and reinsurance and earthquake insurance are the most important product lines. The industry aims to develop catastrophe insurance markets and enhance risk models, hoping that a stable commercial market will help deter government response to gaps in market coverage.
- Peru has upgraded its economy in recent years to manage its rapid growth. Significant changes are being made in consumer protection, tax legislation and new regulation. Peru’s growth forecast is 6% this year, compared with predicted growth of 1.5% for Brazil and 1.1% for Mexico. Many foreign companies are considering Peru as a safe and desirable country for investment.
The Latin America insurance environment is becoming more similar to mature markets. Strong economic growth rates and regulatory reforms in the past decade(s) have attracted a number of global insurers, reinsurers and insurance brokers to the region. Mergers and acquisitions continue to help these global players build their positions. And cross-regional expansion efforts by Latin American-based insurers have increased their size and market reach, as well. These deals are enhancing insurers’ capabilities in product development and risk management. The implementation of new Solvency II insurance capital management regulations in 2015 is expected to result in a shift toward greater insurance industry consolidation and increased sophistication in risk management.
Low penetration rates in Latin America are caused by a number of factors and afford significant room for growth if economic expansion continues. Factors include:
- Wealth disparity
- Insufficient tax incentives for retirement products
- Lack of knowledge among the general population about the value of insurance
Also contributing to potential opportunity is the changing perception of insurance as a necessity or investment, rather than a cost. This comes about with a change to the region’s income disparity, which in most countries is shrinking. Brazil is expecting double-digit declines in premiums across many low-hazard markets. In this heightened competitive environment, many insurers believe they can accelerate premium growth by targeting rapidly growing market clusters.
In comparison, Argentina is experiencing high inflation, tight regulation and a fluctuating economic market; nevertheless, insurance is a fast-growing industry that continues to show resilience in premiums and tolerance for expansion in a challenging environment. Argentina and Venezuela also have strict foreign-exchange control regimes. These generally do not allow residents to pay dividends or inter-company services/royalties outside of the country — in some cases, also limiting the deductibility of certain payments.
In general, it is worth discussing the value added tax (VAT) system in these countries,which is a key concern for insurers.TheVATpaid on the local purchase or importation of goods or services constitutes “input VAT” that typically should be credited against the “output VAT” generated on the taxable sale of goods or services. VAT should not be a cost of doing business. However, VAT is often an unexpected cost when entering a market. In the case of Latin American insurers with VAT taxable and non-taxable activities, the VAT calculation methodology is complex and usually generates some level of irrecoverable VAT.
Some products sold by insurance companies are exempt from VAT, meaning that any VAT incurred on the local purchase of goods or services becomes an irrecoverable cost for the insurance company (although deductible for local corporate income tax purposes). For example, the following are exempt:
- Argentina’s life insurance and workers’ compensation policies
- Mexico’s life and pension insurance
- Certain insurance contracts in Chile, including those related to international trade, insurance of assets located outside of Chile and earthquake-related coverage
Brazil deserves a separate analysis because Brazilian insurance companies are subject to Social Integration Program (PIS) and Contribution for the Financing of Social Security (COFINS) taxes on gross revenues, at a combined rate of 4.65%. PIS/COFINS are not a VAT type of tax but, rather, they are paid on a cumulative basis: any PIS/COFINS paid by the local insurance company is not a recoverable cost. Brazil has a state VAT (ICMS) and a federal VAT (IPI), but these taxes do not apply to the sale of insurance products.
Property/casualty, auto insurance, professional liability, environmental and finance solutions are generally subject to VAT in Latin America, so any VAT paid should be fully recoverable for the local insurance company.
In addition to the VAT, some Latin American countries impose additional layers of indirect taxes that should be carefully reviewed by local insurers (e.g., gross revenue taxes, taxes on financial transactions, net worth taxes and stamp taxes, among others).