Willis Chairman and CEO Joe Plumeri (credit: AP)

Joe Plumeri, chairman and CEO of Willis Group, is no longer planning for a traditional market turn — a “rising tide that lifts all boats.”  

Instead, he sees a future where refined tools are used to measure individual risks, allowing carriers to drill down into individual sectors and subsectors of various industries, with pricing based on a more detailed understanding of the marketplace. 

“In the absence of our traditional tidal shifts in pricing, we are seeing a marketplace where smaller, localized waves are the dominant force,” Plumeri says in an introduction to Willis’ “Marketplace Realities 2013” report. “Macro gives way to micro. Industries as useful groupings are giving way to sub-industries. Diving even deeper below the surface of the tide, regional divisions are forming inside those sub-industries.”

Plumeri notes that executives had predicted for years that a devastating loss year, like 2011, would turn the market. This prediction proved untrue, he says, stating that rates instead have been drifting upward in response to the current interest-rate environment.

He suggests that the industry may have “turned a different kind of page.” Plumeri says, “The industry, after decades of waiting for a rising tide to lift all boats, may actually be getting smarter about how we price risk.”

Plumeri explains, “Where we once might have offered broad conclusions about pricing for life-sciences risks, for example, now we may be more likely to talk about therapeutics risks.”

This “sharpening of focus,” he says, will also change the way brokers and insurance buyers approach the insurance-buying process. “Enjoy the soft markets; brace for the hard – that has always been the operating principle” for brokers and buyers, Plumeri adds. “But where are the opportunities now? We believe, in fact, they are everywhere.”

He says brokers and risk managers have risks to mitigate, risk-transfer alternatives to consider, marketplaces to shop, and overall strategies to devise. “There are still big savings to be had, even in a market that is firming after years of soft rates,” Plumeri notes.

He continues, “The key to success in a micro world is specialization, customization and individualization. And underpinning it all is the need for discipline.”

Of course, Plumeri says a market-turning shock could still happen, where a string of catastrophes drains the industry’s excess surplus. “That’s possible,” he says, “but that’s not what’s happening now, and that’s not what we’re planning for.”

In line with the spirit of Plumeri’s opening statement, the Willis report predicts that commercial-insurance buyers in 2013 will see a mix of rising and falling insurance rates across varying sectors.

For property risks, the report says that 2012 has been a year of recovery for insurers after $116 billion in global losses in 2011. Most insurers are posting combined ratios in the low 90s compared to over 100 last year, says Willis, and reinsurers say they expect rates to remain flat into next year. 

With policyholder surplus reaching $570 billion, compared to $550 billion in 2011, and abundant capacity, Willis believes rates could decline as much as 10 percent in 2013 on some non-catastrophe risks, and remain flat on catastrophe risks.

Turning to casualty, rates are generally on the rise, especially for risks with poor loss history and perils with significant risk. Willis says rate increases may be as high as 7.5 percent in 2013 for most lines, with some lines such as workers’ compensation rising by as high as 20 percent.

For executive risks, Willis says most lines will fall into a range of flat to 10 percent increases next year. Willis expects 5 percent increases to be the norm in 2013 for errors and omissions risks, with poor risks seeing increases as high as 25 percent or more.

Another line expected to see 2013 increases is employee benefits, which could see 8 to 10 percent rate hikes as insurers pass along the costs of complying with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Among lines of business that will probably not see dramatic increases in 2013, trade credit, surety, and political risk were noted to be flat to decreasing. Cyber risks, too, are expected to be very competitive for first time buyers, and renewals will likely run flat to minus-3 percent, Willis says.