NU Online News Service, Jan. 13, 3:14 p.m. EST

With capacity high, commercial insurance buyers saw premium prices continue to tumble in the fourth quarter, with few signs that the soft pricing cycle is near an end, according to the RIMS Benchmark Survey.

The survey administered by Advisen Ltd. tracks changes in insurance policy renewal prices as reported by North American corporate risk managers. Directors and officers liability, general liability and workers’ compensation all posted decreases in average premium, while property once again held steady.

“Things are pretty much in line with what we’ve been seeing for the past few quarters,” Dave Bradford, executive vice president of Advisen and editor-in-chief of the survey, told NU Online.

He said what stood out in the survey is that although some softening was expected for workers’ comp and general liability, “I was a little surprised it was as much as 5 percent–I was expecting more like the 3 percent range, but I think this is just indicative of the fact that there’s still a lot of capacity in the marketplace right now.”

Mr. Bradford noted that a significant finding in the survey was the overall softening in D&O, which he said is attributable to the fact that “we’re not seeing the big increases in the financial institution sector that we saw in prior quarters,” which he said balanced out the softening in the non- financial institution areas.

Mr. Bradford said in a statement that pricing trends have been “remarkably consistent over the past several quarters. The combination of a weak economy, which has suppressed demand for insurance capacity, combined with a very mild year for natural catastrophes, has kept downward pressure on rate levels. Unless very large catastrophe losses soak up excess capacity, we expect to see this trend continue well into 2010.”

Workers’ compensation and general liability saw the largest decreases, with average declines in renewal premiums of 5.5 percent and 5 percent, respectively. Average D&O premium fell 2.8 percent, and property was essentially unchanged, falling less than half of a percentage point.

Daniel H. Kugler, member of RIMS board of directors and assistant treasurer, risk management, at Snap-on Inc., noted, “Some risk managers are reporting higher renewal premiums but, overall, the market continues to be very favorable for insurance buyers.”

He observed that capacity is abundant in almost every line of insurance. “As things now stand, there is little reason to expect commercial insurance prices to increase in the near future. More likely, they will fall yet further.”

While market conditions are benefiting insurance buyers, they are contributing to growing financial stress on agents and brokers that derive much of their income from commissions on insurance premiums, the survey found. Not only is commission income down because of falling rates, the global recession has cut into insurance premium volume as companies downsize or go out of business.