For those still tiptoeing around whether the property insurance market is yet officially “hard,” two speakers at Advisen’s Property Insights Conference last week unabashedly used the “H-word,” and none of the 300-plus insurance and risk-management professionals attending seemed to disagree.
Gary Marchitello, head of property broking for Willis Towers Watson, was first to say it in an on-stage conversation with Michael Andler, executive vice president/U.S. property practice leader at Lockton Cos.
Andler concurred: “If it walks like a hard market and talks like a hard market, it’s a hard market.”
Some presenters during the daylong event quibbled over when pricing went from merely “hardening” to “hard”. Some said the hard market is eight quarters old, while others said it began as recently as the second quarter of 2019 – but no one piped up to deny it’s here.
Hard, soft, and why it matters
In a hard market, demand for coverage is strong, supply weak. Insurers impose strict underwriting standards and issue fewer policies. Consequently, buyers pay higher premiums. During soft markets, customers can negotiate lower prices as insurers compete for business. When the market hardens again, prices rise as insurers adjust rates at renewal.
Marchitello, with four decades’ experience, said this hard market is different: “With prices rising, you’d expect new entrants to the market. That is absolutely not happening.”
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he added. “Two years of combined ratios above 100 have forced underwriters to drive profitability” rather than pursue market share, as many did during the soft market.
We brought it on ourselves
In a room packed with insurers, brokers, and buyers, one might expect some finger pointing for the dramatic price increases. I heard little to none.
“We as underwriters allowed it to happen,” said Erik Nikodem, senior vice president at Everest Insurance.
“We lost the script during the soft market,” said Michal Nardiello, senior vice president at CNA. “We pushed deals that weren’t sustainable in the long haul.”
And it wasn’t only underwriters accepting responsibility.
“I never turned down a lower rate” when the market was soft, said Lori Seidenberg, global director of real assets insurance for BlackRock. Not that she should have – but professional risk managers know a soft market isn’t going to last forever and need to plan accordingly.
Despite this admirable accountability, it’s important to remember larger forces have been at work. As CNA’s Nardiello put it: “There’s been a massive shift of wealth and people into areas prone to fire, tornados, hail, and flood” – perils that are themselves changing in frequency and intensity.
Also a factor is “social inflation” – rising litigation costs that drive up insurers’ claim payouts, loss ratios, and, ultimately, policyholder premiums. It’s been estimated that social inflation “could ultimately blow a $200 billion hole in global reserves.”
Carriers, customers, and brokers all acknowledged the need to do things differently. While much was said about using technology, data, and analytics to improve underwriting and reduce expenses, the dominant theme was communication. All parties recognized they must communicate early and often.
As Duncan Ellis, head of retail property, North America for AIG, put it: “Bad news doesn’t get better with time.”
“It’s important for brokers to get a handle on the data,” said Theresa Purcell, director of risk management for real estate giant Kushner. She also recommended that brokers “get creative. Suggest different structures. Educate us about other services” that might better suit individual customer needs.
Stephanie Hyde, executive director at P-E Risk, an insurance and risk management consultancy, echoed Purcell, adding that brokers need to “educate yourselves about all lines of coverage your clients need so you can understand what they’re going through.”
Maria Grace, vice president and chief underwriting officer for property and inland marine at Everest, urged brokers to “put us [underwriters] in front of your clients” to help them understand why prices are increasing and, where possible, offer more appropriate solutions.