RIMS: Survey Shows Soft Market Proving Stubborn

August 3, 2005

Premiums in the commercial insurance industry continued along the path of an 18-month long down market, according to the RIMS Benchmark Survey, a survey of current policy renewal prices as reported by corporate risk managers. However, mixed signals from the market suggest that it may be poised for a change.

Renewal prices stabilized, or even slightly increased, for some lines of business, but some leading indicators of market direction signaled further declines. For example, general liability, a line typically responsive to changing market conditions, showed clear signs of firming, while property, often a leading indicator of market conditions, fell a further 4.3 percent in the latest quarter.

The RIMS Benchmark Survey is produced by Advisen Ltd., which collects and analyzes the data and provides the technology infrastructure for the survey’s online services.

“It seems like a market in search of a reason to move in one direction or another,” said Karen Beier, member, RIMS Board of Directors, Membership and Chapter Services portfolio. “Indications are that the market is near its bottom and waiting for a catalyst to nudge it in the other direction, but it is still unknown what that catalyst will be.”

Other seemingly contradictory indicators demonstrate the unsettled nature of the first soft market since 1998. For instance, while directors and officers liability insurance was among the highest-flyers in the most recent hard market, it has recently suffered some of the steepest premium declines of any major line. Prices continued to decline this quarter, but anecdotal information indicates that larger insureds are experiencing stable-to-increasing premiums.

Larger, macro-economic conditions also demonstrate the contradictory nature of the market. Overall, the property and casualty industry continues to enjoy strong financial returns, which typically portends heightened competition and falling rates. However, an analysis of other factors suggests that prices may be on the verge of strengthening.

“Rates fell sharply across most lines through the last quarters of 2004, but those decreases are only now being reflected in earned premium,” explained David Bradford, editor-in-chief at Advisen. “As the effect of reduced prices hits the financials of insurance companies, and without strong investment income and capital gains to offset underwriting losses, we can expect to see prices turn upward again.”

In addition, further loss reserve increases, earnings adjustments following the reassessment of finite reinsurance transactions, and continuing losses from natural disasters could impact earnings and erode capacity, placing further upward pressure on premium levels.

“This could be a lull before another round of price declines, or, more likely, it could be the last gasp of a shallow and relatively short-lived soft market,” Bradford continued. “Only time will tell.”

The results of the RIMS Benchmark Survey are available online, published continuously throughout the year, and in a book, published once each year. Visit www.rims.org/benchmark for details.

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