April 10, 2014
Why Low Loss Ratios Can Be the Wrong Goal
by Chris Burand
Many carriers now value growth in premiums more than low loss ratios. And pretending otherwise won't help agency owners.
Many agency owners take great pride in generating low loss ratios year after year. These agencies are often very, very profitable — they are the perfect cash cows, in business school parlance. But, in my experience, their growth is painfully slow. Often, their agencies are not managed closely, beyond the focus on loss ratios. And the agencies are often small.
These agency owners are not happy with the many carriers who have deemphasized loss ratios. They cannot fathom why any carrier would not LOVE their good loss ratios. The result has become stressed, or even fractured, agency/company relationships.
These agency owners do not understand that loss ratios that are too low (and each company will define “too low” differently) are not in some companies’ best interests. How can too high a profit margin be bad?
- When loss ratios are too good, it may mean rates are too high, resulting in too little growth. Companies, particularly stock companies, need to show growth, especially after the softest market in industry history.
- If growth is too slow, companies may be losing market share. Company management often has considerable pressure to attain specific market share.
- Loss ratios that are too low may also mean that profit is not being maximized.
Maximizing profit is not the same thing as achieving a high profit margin. The former is in dollars, and the latter is in percentages. This is a crucial difference between running a company and running an agency, and agency owners are well-served to understand it. If a company wants to maximize profit, it might want to increase revenue by lowering rates even though that would mean higher loss ratios. For example, if a company has a 35% loss ratio and $100 million in premiums, its gross profit (excluding expenses) might be $65 million. However, if it decreased its rates and subsequently increased premiums to $125 million at a 45% loss ratio, it would generate $68.8 million in gross profit. That is a $3.8 million improvement.
Many agency owners would like to increase their books 25% and go from a 35% loss ratio to a 45% loss ratio, too, but those that focus on low loss ratios probably will not get their share of that 25% growth, yet their loss ratios will still increase.
Frustration at agencies greatly increases when companies price to a 55% , or higher, loss ratio. The company still makes plenty of profit at a 55% loss ratio (if it does not, then the company has serious expense issues that go far beyond the points of this article). However, agency owners make most of their money in contingent bonuses from carriers for growth, retention, low losses and so on, and profit sharing by carriers declines precipitously at 55%. The agency owners' lifestyle is curtailed. The value of their agencies is impaired. Their business model is in shambles.
If a company is truly pricing to a loss ratio in the mid-50s or even higher, agency owners might consider doing business with different carriers whose philosophies more closely match theirs. Easier said than done, obviously, so maybe a better solution is updating their business model. Growth is more important today to many carriers. Sitting on a cash cow annuity for a decade or more is not as feasible as it once was, and wishing otherwise will not help.
Many companies desire fast growth because:
- Some executive bonuses are tied to fast growth.
- The company is being set up to sell.
- The company has reserving issues and needs the extra premium to dilute the effect of a reserve increase. Growth is only a temporary solution, but companies have used it forever. The fast growth, which makes executives look heroic, is almost always created by low, unsustainable rates that eventually result in higher loss ratios. Nonetheless, growth is initially far more important than profit. (The smartest executives are gone by the time the problems arise, leaving their successors to sort out the mess.)
Agents doing business with companies that emphasize growth may want to evaluate whether there is risk to the agency and its clients. If so, creating a plan to offset these risks can create excellent opportunities.
Agents can fight reality, and fighting will feel good for masochists, but few will be able to avoid doing business with at least a few growth-focused carriers. Don’t keep telling carriers how short-sighted they are. Capitalize instead by understanding their perspective and using your resources to deal with the carriers you choose.
NOTE: None of the materials in this article should be construed as offering legal advice, and the specific advice of legal counsel is recommended before acting on any matter discussed in this article. Regulated individuals/entities should also ensure that they comply with all applicable laws, rules and regulations.