By Loretta Worters, Vice President, Media Relations, Triple-I
During an exclusive Groundhog Day webinar presented to Triple-I members by Triple-I and Milliman, experts talked about what the insurance industry can expect in 2021.
Auto Insurance Report editor Brian Sullivan looked at both personal and commercial auto insurance. “For the first nine months, private passenger auto liability written premium was down less than two percent, but losses incurred were down more than 14 percent with loss ratios likely to be in the mid-50s.”
On the commercial side, Sullivan noted that commercial auto trends aren’t as powerful as those for personal lines. “Things have gotten better in terms of losses, but not that much better; certainly, nothing like personal auto,” Sullivan said.
Jeff Eddinger, senior division executive at the National Council for Compensation Insurance (NCCI), gave an early look at 2020 results for workers compensation insurance. “The pandemic has landed the U.S. economy into a recession. Significant job losses combined with changes in wage and rate levels have put downward pressure on premiums. NCCI estimates that private carrier net premium written will be down about 8 percent for 2020.”
Eddinger noted that as the virus began to spread in 2020, so did the concern that COVID claims could overwhelm the system. “Fortunately, that has turned out not to be the case. At the same time, there has been a drop in non-COVID claims, due in part to more remote work and less work-related driving. So far, incurred losses have decreased about 8 percent, in line with the drop in total premium. As a result, the estimated calendar year combined ratio for 2020 is almost unchanged from 2019 at 86. This would be the seventh straight year of underwriting profit for workers compensation.”
The industry is financially strong but continues to face uncertainty, Eddinger warned. “The vaccine rollout has begun, but new cases of the virus in the U.S. have soared to record levels. In addition to COVID claims, industry leaders are concerned about regulatory activity related to presumptions, the economic downturn and the long-term impact of working from home,” Eddinger said.
By Loretta Worters, Vice President, Media Relations, Triple-I
A pandemic, civil unrest, and weather-related catastrophes impacted the U.S. property/casualty (P/C) insurance industry in 2020, but not to the extent that was originally feared.
Few predict a repeat of the events of 2020, yet new projections from the Insurance Information Institute (Triple-I) and Milliman envision strong premium growth for 2021 with an underwriting result comparable to last year.
Despite myriad challenges, U.S. auto, homeowners, and commercial insurers are projected to realize a modest 1.9 percent growth in net premiums written and to book a combined ratio of 98.9 through year-end 2020, according to Triple-I and Milliman. This year, net premiums written will increase 6.1 percent, and the combined ratio will improve slightly, to 98.5, the two organizations project. Net premiums written are premiums written after reinsurance transactions. The combined ratio is the percentage of each premium dollar a P/C insurer spends on claims and expenses.
“We think the year ended surprisingly well, given the difficult circumstances the industry found itself in,” said James Lynch, FCAS, senior vice president and chief actuary, Triple-I. “We project a slight underwriting profit in 2020, fairly similar to 2019. We project similar results over the next two years.”
The year-end 2020 projections, along with those for this year and next, were unveiled during a Triple-I members-only webinar on February 2, “Triple-I/Milliman Underwriting Projections 2021-2022: Groundhog Day Edition,” moderated by Triple-I CEO Sean Kevelighan.
P/C insurance industry premium growth will rebound in 2021, the Triple-I and Milliman projected, as the hard market in commercial lines will augment exposure growth from the economic recovery. Panelists also forecast continued underwriting profits through 2022, with projections for several major lines of business.
“Economists expect growth to improve this year and next, which will fuel growth in exposures in most lines,” said Jason B. Kurtz, FCAS, MAAA, a principal and consulting actuary at Milliman, an independent risk management, benefits, and technology firm.
Kurtz noted, however, that recent signs of slowdown are “concerning – retail sales fell in December, adjusted for the season and new jobless claims remain stubbornly high. So that may delay growth, as might the spread of so-called variant coronaviruses, which the CDC is expecting will dominate the cases in the spring.”
During the webinar, Dr. Michel Léonard, CBE, vice president and senior economist, Triple-I, took a preliminary look at third-quarter 2020 P/C insurance industry financial results.
The U.S. P/C insurers turned in a profitable performance in 2020’s third quarter, even as the industry’s net income dropped 26 percent for the second quarter in a row, according to Dr. Léonard. “While it was below the 10-year average, it was overall stronger than expected given the structurally low-rate environment yields and equity market volatility.”
Léonard concluded: “Prudent asset management and sound underwriting practices ensured the continued financial stability of the industry, even as we faced a uniquely challenging year, delivering on our contribution to systemic financial stability and commitment to policyholders.”
The global pandemic and costly natural catastrophes will contribute to a projected 101.7 combined ratio for the U.S.’s property/casualty (P/C) insurers in 2020, higher than the 98.8 the industry posted last year, according to the latest Underwriting Projections: 2020-2022 report from Insurance Information Institute (Triple-I) and Milliman.
The combined ratio is the percentage of each premium dollar a P/C insurer spends on claims and expenses. An increase in the combined ratio means financial results are deteriorating, while a decrease means they are improving.
For 2020, insurers are projected to pay nearly $1.02 (101.7) in claims and expenses for every premium dollar they collected. In 2019, they paid about 99 cents (98.8) on every premium dollar in claims and expenses.
The latest report is somewhat rosier than prior projections. For 2020, P/C insurer annual premium growth is projected to be 1.5%, an improvement from the decline of 0.5% projected three months ago, the report noted.
“Our estimates of premium growth are tied pretty tightly to economic indicators. Estimates of 2020 nominal GDP, while still showing shrinkage, have improved. That, plus a more nuanced understanding of how insurers booked the personal auto givebacks, helped us revise our premium estimates,” said Jason B. Kurtz, FCAS, MAAA, Principal & Consulting Actuary, Milliman.
In addition, the latest report incorporates more information as to how the industry is performing financially year-to-date. Filed first-half results provide a good idea of how premium and insured loss trends are impacting results.
“We can compare loss ratios for this year against last year and prior years and, after a couple of quarters, we can fine-tune our projection,” Kurtz said. “And we know a lot more about catastrophe losses, which are usually the biggest wildcard, and the third quarter is when the hardest catastrophes generally hit.”
For most lines of business, the forecast changed little from three months ago. Premium forecasts for lines like general liability and commercial auto insurance were affected because of the economic forecast.
“In commercial auto, for example, we thought the increase in online shopping would affect exposures more than it appears to have done. But as to the underwriting result, we didn’t change things much. Rates are higher, as we expected, and those lines are still fighting social inflation,” said James Lynch, FCAS, MAAA, Senior Vice President and Chief Actuary, Triple-I.
The report forecasts U.S. P/C insurance industry premium growth of 5 to 6 percent for 2021-22, slightly lower than the prior forecast released by Triple-I and Milliman.
What to Watch for
There’s still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the pandemic. “The industry continues to grapple with how big the impact will be,” said Lynch. “There’s more certainty than three months ago, but that still leaves a whole lot of uncertainty,” he said. “Our stance remains where it was – the net loss impact will be the equivalent of a major hurricane – but as industry veterans know, some major hurricanes hit harder than others.”
Also, the path the economy takes as a result of the pandemic matters, added Kurtz. “Gross domestic product (GDP) rose the fastest in U.S. history last quarter, but the resurgence of COVID cases could mean another lockdown – perhaps softer than what we saw in the spring, but any lockdown triggers a slowdown. So, we might see a double-dip recession, and that suppresses premium growth.” He noted that a K-shaped recovery would be good for some segments of the U.S. economy while not being good for others.
Another wild card: government and regulatory responses. Another Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that puts money in the hands of individuals and businesses is likely to buoy the economy as it did in the spring, the report states. Liability protections for reopening businesses would be favorable for the industry. “Congress may deal with that in the lame duck session or next year, but we will see,” said Kurtz.
The quarterly report was presented on November 17 at an exclusive members only virtual webinar moderated by Sean Kevelighan, Chief Executive Officer, Triple-I.
“This webinar series is another example of how the Insurance Information Institute is modernizing and innovating,” Kevelighan said. “Under the leadership of our chief actuary, James Lynch, the Triple-I is now giving its members timely, data-driven, and unique insights on insurance industry underwriting projections.”
The pandemic affected almost every link in the property/casualty value chain, but the industry weathered the stress well, according to Triple-I’s chief actuary, James Lynch.
“The U.S.’s property/casualty (P/C) insurers provided premium relief, retained employees, and weathered a capital market downturn while navigating this year’s COVID-19 pandemic,” he said at the Casualty Actuarial Society’s (CAS) virtual annual meeting on November 10.
“Private-passenger auto insurers returned around $14 billion in premiums this year to the nation’s drivers as miles driven dropped dramatically in the pandemic’s early months. This resulted in a five percent reduction in the cost of auto insurance for the typical driver in 2020 as compared to 2019. At the same time, the U.S.’s auto, home, and business insurers continued to employ two million-plus Americans as the industry responded to numerous natural disasters as well as the aftermath of civil unrest.”
This year’s record-setting hurricanes and wildfires, coupled with civil disorders in multiple states, have caused insured loss payouts totaling tens of billions of dollars. The policyholders’ surplus—the amount of money remaining after the industry’s cumulative liabilities are subtracted from its assets—stood at $826 billion as of June 30, 2020, down from a record-high $848 billion as of Dec. 31, 2019.
The economic uncertainty in the U.S.’s capital markets in 2020’s first-quarter caused unrealized capital losses (stock declines) in insurer investment portfolios, Lynch said. Insurers who have faced lawsuits related to pandemic-caused losses also have faced the financial challenges of defending themselves, he added.
“Business income (BI) insurance coverage disputes captured media attention. Yet lawmakers nationwide have to date resisted calls to rewrite these policies retroactively as insurers faced a steady stream of lawsuits over their unwillingness to pay these claims,” Lynch said, explaining how BI coverage, also known as business interruption insurance, is generally triggered only when a business incurs direct physical damage to the business’ property.
The U.S.’s property/casualty (P/C) insurers turned in a profitable performance in 2020’s first-half even as the industry’s net income dropped 26 percent compared to 2019’s first-half, according to Dr. Steven Weisbart, Chief Economist, Insurance Information Institute (Triple-I).
“The first half of 2020 was by most measures financially successful for insurers writing P/C insurance. Two measures of the industry’s health—revenue and capital—rose in the first half of 2020,” Dr. Weisbart observed, in a commentary he wrote following the release of a report this week by Verisk and the American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA). P/C insurers write auto, home, and business insurance coverage.
Net income after taxes for P/C insurers was $24.3 billion in the first half of 2020 whereas this same figure stood at $32.8 billion in the first half of 2019. Contributing to that drop was $1.4 billion in realized capital losses on insurer investments in 2020’s first half, a swing from $4.3 billion in realized capital gains a year earlier, Verisk and APCIA found.
The uncertainty within insurance and capital markets due to COVID-19 could be seen in a number of ways, Dr. Weisbart’s commentary noted, as catastrophe-related claim payouts grew in 2020’s first-half, U.S. auto insurers offered to their policyholders pandemic-related premium relief, and the policyholder’s surplus dropped to $772 billion at the end of 2020’s first quarter before rebounding to $826 billion at the end of 2020’s first half. The policyholders’ surplus is the amount of money remaining after the insurance industry’s cumulative liabilities are subtracted from its assets.
Dr. Steven N. Weisbart, CLU, Triple-I Senior Vice President and Chief Economist
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the Federal Reserve Board recently spelled out its objectives and strategies for at least the next several years—describing a financial framework they will maintain longer than the timeframe they typically describe. The length and parameters of this framework will have significant impact on the property/casualty industry.
The FOMC says it will hold short-term interest rates near zero, likely for several years—perhaps to 2023, quite possibly longer. Insurers don’t invest much in short-term instruments – to the extent that they do, it’s to have cash available to pay claims. They primarily invest in intermediate- and longer-term bonds and similar fixed-rate interest-paying instruments that provide steady income, which, together with premiums, covers claims and operating expenses. Insurers raise and lower premiums – partly in response to changes in investment income – to sustain profitable operations.
Because yields on these investments generally track short-term rates, the FOMC’s action will likely keep longer-term rates exceptionally low for several years more.
One signpost the Fed will use to decide when to raise rates is when inflation, as measured by the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) deflator, is sustained at over 2 percent such that the average inflation rate including recent years equals 2 percent. To appreciate what this means, consider Figure 1.It shows that, since 2012, the PCE deflator has been below 2% (vs. same month, prior year) most of the time. The average over this span was 1.40%. But the Fed might not go back that far to calculate its long-run average. For example, since 2017 the PCE deflator averaged 1.69%. If the deflator averages 2.4% from now through 2023, the average from 2017 through 2023 will be 2.01%.
Rates falling since the 1980s
Based on the FOMC’s new framework, intermediate- and longer-term interest rates will, at best, remain at their current historically depressed levels for several years. One consequence of this is that bonds insurers hold to maturity and roll over will be reinvested at lower rates than they currently yield.
Prevailing interest rates have been generally falling since the early 1980s. Figure 2 shows this decline since 2002, as proxied by the yield on constant-maturity 10-year U.S. Treasury notes (the blue line), and its effect on the portfolio yield for the P/C insurance industry over the last two decades (the gold bars).
P/C insurers invest mainly in bonds, but not just U.S. Treasury securities. They also invest in corporate and municipal bonds, both of which generally yield higher rates than U.S. Treasury bonds because they are riskier. Yields on corporate and municipal bonds will likely loosely track Treasury yields.
P/C insurers also receive investment income from dividends on common and preferred stock they hold. These dividends are likely to be affected by corporate profits, which might be depressed for at least as long as the current recession lasts.
A shift to shorter maturities?
How will the insurers respond to these persistent conditions? If recent behavior is any guide, they are likely to shift to shorter-maturity bonds to retain the flexibility to switch back to longer-term, higher-yielding investments when rates eventually rise again. Figure 3 shows this pattern of shortening maturities during the years since 2009 as prevailing rates fell. From 2009 to 2019, the percent of bonds with one-to-five-year maturities rose from 36% to 41%, but those with 10 or more years of maturity fell from 19% to 11%.
What’s notable about this strategy is that – since shorter-term bonds yield less than longer-term bonds – the shift results in an even lower portfolio yield than the industry would have achieved if maturities were unchanged over this time span. It sacrifices near-term opportunities for the flexibility to eventually seize longer-term gains.
If the insurers continue this strategy, the shift to shorter-term bonds, combined with continued low interest rates, could lead to a scenario over the next five years that looks like Figure 4, which includes 2015-2019 yields for historical context.
Of course, future portfolio yields might be different from this scenario. For example, insurers might realize significant capital gains or losses. The portfolio yield in 2012, for example, was nearly two percentage points above the U.S. Treasury 10-year yield that year due to realized capital gains.
On the other hand, if interest rates rise, low-yielding bonds that are available for sale would suffer unrealized capital losses, which would be a direct reduction in policyholder’s surplus.
In a typical year the industry posts capital gains of $5 billion to $10 billion, but any number outside this range would affect the portfolio yield for that year. Capital losses also could result from investments affected by bankruptcies or other business setbacks caused by the recession. Impaired bonds would have to be accounted for on the balance sheet.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to depress economic growth around the world, with nearly every country experiencing declines in gross domestic product (GDP) – the total value of goods and services produced. GDP growth for the world’s 10 largest insurance markets is expected to decrease by 6.99 percent in 2020, compared to Triple-I’s previous estimate of a 4.9 percent decrease.
Forward-looking growth proxies, such as interest rates, government spending, equity markets, and commodity prices, are sending mixed to negative messages about growth into 2021.
Against this backdrop, Triple-I experts report, the global insurance industry has continued to issue new policies, service existing ones, and process and pay claims. While the final numbers on the extent of the pandemic and recession’s impact on the industry won’t be clear until 2021-2022, early indicators point to flat premium growth in 2020 globally and to significant differences in how the pandemic, monetary policy, and the recession are affecting insurers in the United States versus abroad.
In its Global Macro and Insurance Outlook for the third quarter, published this week,Triple-I noted that global central banks kept benchmark interest rates mostly on hold in the third quarter at an average of 0.6 percent, reflecting the limits imposed by near-zero interest rates policies.
Concerns about lower long-term interest rates are increasing as global central banks have pushed rates even lower during the pandemic, the report says. In a recent survey, about 33 percent of U.S. insurers said they assume flat long-term benchmark rates, while 50 percent reported having changed, or say they are in the process of changing, their investment strategy. These changes are likely to accelerate now that the U.S. Federal Reserve officially changed the focus of its monetary policy and central banks around the world follow.
Interest rates matter because insurers get the bulk of their profits from investment earnings. U.S. insurers, in particular, rely on fixed-income financial instruments like corporate and government bonds. If lower interest rates put pressure on insurers’ investment earnings, they will have to compensate by raising premiums paid by policyholders or adjusting their risk profiles to reduce claim payouts.
“COVID-19 and lower economic activity continue to hinder premium growth in property, workers compensation, and auto,” the report says, “while a recent survey indicates that COVID-19 led to a reduction in life premium.”
The report says it’s too early to determine whether increasing demand for warranty, indemnity, and cyber coverage and a surge of interest in captive insurers will make up for downward pressure on premium growth across the industry.
Policyholder surplus – the amount insurers hold in reserve to ensure that they can keep their promises to pay policyholder claims – dropped by $75.9 billion in the quarter as the stock market suffered a major downturn, according to a report by Verisk, a data and analytics provider, and the American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA).
Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to affect many insurers and will likely impact underwriting results for the second quarter and the rest of the year.
“Thanks to continued premium growth and positive investment results, the industry turned in a profitable first quarter,” Weisbart says. “Most of its investment income comes from high-quality corporate and municipal bonds, which are not as volatile as investments in stock.”
The industry’s combined ratio – a widely used profitability metric – was 94.9 in the first quarter of 2020, compared with 95.6 for the same period in 2019. A lower ratio indicates better performance.
Combined ratios for insurers writing commercial lines coverage (excluding mortgage and financial guaranty) deteriorated 1.3 percentage points, to 97.7 percent. Personal lines insurers’ ratio improved 2.7 percentage points, to 92.2 percent. Insurers writing balanced books of business posted a combined ratio of 95.8, 1.3 percentage points better than in the prior year’s first quarter.