Economist: P-C Premium Growth Slowing

NU Online News Service, April 6, 4:18 p.m. EDT?By year’s end property-casualty insurers will show zero premium growth when adjusted for inflation, a study group economist is predicting.[@@]

That forecast comes from Robert P. Hartwig, senior vice president and chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.), who recently discussed with an industry group what underwriting and pricing changes are in store for them.

Appearing before the Casualty Actuarial Society Ratemaking Seminar in New Orleans, Mr. Hartwig warned that the p-c industry’s frequently volatile underwriting cycle is back with a vengeance and will have no mercy this time around.

Mr. Hartwig pointed out that 2004 final financial results are likely to show the industry produced its first underwriting profit since 1978.

He said the highlights of the p-c financial results for the first nine months of 2004 compared to the same period in 2003 show that while the growth rate in net written premiums was less than half of what it was a year earlier, there was record surplus and a very rare underwriting profit?a combined ratio of under 100.

“So, where we are in the cycle has changed dramatically over the past 24 months,” he explained.

Mr. Hartwig said real net written premium growth in the 2001 to 2004 hard market was an estimated 6.8 percent ? nowhere near as much as in the previous two hard market periods in the 1970s and ’80s, even when adjusted for inflation.

He noted the industry also has fallen short in the profitability category in the current cycle, as well.

By the end of 2005, inflation-adjusted premium growth will be zero, said Mr. Hartwig, adding that change in loss costs will not be zero.

“In 2001 ? the peak in the soft side of the cycle ? just about every major line of p-c insurance was a disaster, including private passenger auto, workers’ compensation and homeowners, not to mention the commercial lines impacted by 9/11,” he said.

The financial results of both commercial and personal lines improved over the past 10 years, but the compression between the lines’ combined ratios occurred because the impact and influence of investment income has been diminished greatly, he reported.

Mr. Hartwig told the group, “You simply can’t count on that investment income component, so you’ve got to run a better combined ratio going forward. One way to dampen the cycle is to focus on underwriting ? we have to become an industry focused on underwriting because any focus on investment income is going to lead us very quickly astray.”

He stressed the importance of keeping a lid on the expense ratio, noting that while company CEOs are going to be talking about keeping this in line, they are not going to be able do so to the extent they would like if insurance prices continue to decline substantially over the next 24 months.

Were it not for the four hurricanes that struck the United States in 2004, insurers would likely have surpassed the Fortune 500 profitability benchmark, Mr. Hartwig said.

In the past carriers have been less careful underwriting in order to keep volume in a period of soft prices.

Mr. Hartwig contrasted “yes” and “no” arguments about whether the cycle will be different in the future. He noted that things that might make the answer “yes” include new management with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, investments in management information systems, regulators who are finally “waking up,” and the pro-business outlook of the Republican-controlled Congress and White House.

And among the arguments that might make the answer “no,” he said, are that company managements never learn, the p-c industry always will be an “impossible business,” investor fatigue, a return to cash-flow underwriting, and regulators who are still “asleep at the wheel.”

“The cycle is a natural born killer ? it kills insurance companies, dozens at a time,” said Mr. Hartwig. The number one killer of insurance companies isn’t catastrophic losses like last year’s Florida hurricanes but deficient loss reserves and this is where actuaries come into the picture, he pointed out.

While there are many competing hypotheses for the underwriting cycle, Mr. Hartwig concluded, some solutions include shifting the basis of competition to emphasize underwriting, maintaining underwriting and pricing discipline, removing regulatory barriers, and shortening the information lag by investing in management information systems.

The goal of the Casualty Actuarial Society is to provide education and research to help its members evaluate hazard risk and integrate hazard risk with strategic, financial and operational risk.