P/C Insurers’ CFOs Point to Hardening Markets: Towers Watson

November 4, 2013

Chief financial officers with leading North American property/casualty insurers believe both property and casualty insurance markets are in the midst of hardening, according to a new North American Property & Casualty CFO survey by global professional services company Towers Watson.

Twenty-three CFOs from P/C insurance companies participated in Towers Watson’s fifth North American Property & Casualty Insurance CFO survey. Respondents represent a variety of business types and ownership structures, and local and regional carriers, along with national carriers and multinationals. They represent a cross section of companies of all sizes and variety of distribution systems.

In the survey, three-quarters (75 percent) of CFOs characterized the property market as hardening, hard or at the top of the cycle, a nearly 30-percentage-point increase compared to results from this survey two years ago.

Almost two-thirds (65 percent) indicated they see the casualty market as hardening, hard or at the top of the cycle, a 52-percentage-point increase compared to the previous survey. Only 15 percent said the property market is softening, while 10 percent said the casualty market is softening.

Insurers’ perceptions of the market have changed considerably.

A narrow majority of CFOs who consider both the property and casualty markets to be hardening also believe these markets will remain that way for the next one to two years (51 percent for property, 52 percent for casualty). Those who see hardening in the casualty market think it will last longer than in the property market.

“Insurers’ perceptions of the market have changed considerably, from a glimmer of hope for a turn in the insurance cycle, to the solidifying of firmer rates we’re experiencing today,” said Bruce Fell, a managing director in Towers Watson’s Risk Consulting and Software business.

“The impact of the softer market the past several years, combined with low interest rates, has hurt insurers’ profitability,” Fell said. “The state of today’s market should give insurers some breathing room and an opportunity to increase their bottom-line.”

Almost all CFOs surveyed (98 percent) believe reserve redundancies still exist, and 81 percent said they expect these redundancies to continue for at least a year. Less than half (42 percent) think those redundancies will last one to two years, and one-quarter (25 percent) indicated they expect them to last two to three years.

“We believe the current hard market is very different from the hard markets of the past. Rather than being a reaction to poor pricing and severely deficient reserves – which cut deep into the industry’s financials and take years to reverse – the current market is characterized by pricing reflective of low investment yields and a tendency toward rational use of capital, and exists in spite of the reserve redundancies suggested by the results of our survey,” Fell said.

“Better investment yields coupled with the perception of relatively healthy financials may eventually lead to eroding pricing discipline. Further, the recent influx of alternative capital into the catastrophe reinsurance market could place downward pressure on reinsurance rates,” he added.

Respondents’ views on key triggers shaping today’s market varied, although many considered financial performance essential. CFOs who see a hardening property market cited pricing, profitability and rate levels as principal drivers. Those who see a soft property market listed capital-related drivers, such as current capital base, and capital entering and exiting the industry, as triggers. CFOs with both softening and hardening casualty perspectives cited financial performance and rate levels as triggers.

CFOs List Their Top Challenges

Eighty-one percent listed interest rates as their biggest economic and market environment concern, with natural catastrophes (44 percent) and inadequate rate levels (34 percent) next.

Almost half (46 percent) indicated they are responding to today’s economic and market environment challenges by realigning their investment portfolio, while 37 percent said they are expanding into new products or markets.

Most participants (93 percent) said investment returns are the leading external challenge to achieving growth, profit and risk objectives, with economic growth (51 percent) and competitive environment (49 percent) following. Forty-five percent indicated they are not well-prepared to respond to these challenges. CFOs named human capital (36 percent), data availability (31 percent), regulatory restrictions (25 percent) and technology limitations (25 percent) as the leading internal challenges they’re facing.

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