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Property insurance pricing continues to soften

Posted On: Jan. 3, 2016 12:00 AM CST

The current year-end property insurance renewal season looks a lot like last year's, except even better for risk managers.

Rates continue to decrease — sometimes by double digits — from an already low level. A paucity of major catastrophes, abundant capacity and cheap reinsurance have kept prices down.

And some observers say rate reductions have accelerated as competition heats up for attractive accounts.

“We're seeing the pace of decreases increase,” said Mike Turner, executive vice president of FM Global in Johnston, Rhode Island. “Last year, they were probably down zero to 3%, and now we're probably seeing a pretty consistent move toward 5% reductions.”

In some cases, commercial buyers enjoyed even larger rate decreases.

“We expected downward pressure but I don't think the market overall anticipated such substantial decreases,” said Alexandra Glickman, area vice chairman of Arthur J. Gallagher Risk Management Services Inc. in Glendale, California.

Ms. Glickman said she has seen rate decreases of anywhere from 8% to 18%, adding, “That's a big swing.”

There are “a lot of rate reductions between 10% and 15%, including cat-exposed accounts,” said Dave Finnis, national property practice leader at Willis North America Inc. in Atlanta. “If a client wants to get aggressive and oversubscribe their program, they can really drive an equation that's far north of that,” with reductions of more than 20% “not unheard of.”

“In the third quarter, the average rate reduction was about 8.5%,” said Rick Miller, national property practice leader at Aon Risk Solutions in Boston. “We had 40% of our clients who saw a greater than 10% rate reduction for property, and 65% saw greater than 5% decrease, with 80% overall seeing a decrease.”

“This shows up more in the shared and layers space than it does into the single carrier space,” said Mr. Miller. “Single carrier business tends to be little more consistent over market cycles.”

Even catastrophe-exposed accounts are being offered competitive rates, say observers.

“It's always tougher putting together wind-exposed or quake-exposed programs, but generally speaking, those have seen a lot of competition,” said Mr. Miller.

“I still see the price of wind capacity to be fairly soft,” said Joe Tinetti, head of property for global corporate with Zurich North America in New York. He said there is competitive pricing on both Florida and Texas wind exposures.

“It was deja vu all over again, to quote or misquote Yogi Berra,” said Carolyn Snow, director of risk management at Humana Inc. in Louisville, Kentucky, of her experience in the property market during the current renewal season. “It was a replay of last year — it was stable, it was quiet, it was easy.”

Ms. Snow said because of the lack of catastrophes, “it's been really good for the risk management insurance buyers, and it's really good for the companies.”

Capacity hasn't been a problem, either.

“You can't swing a dead cat and not find strong reliable capacity,” said Ms. Glickman.

“There's a significant amount of capacity in the marketplace,” said Mr. Tinetti. He said reinsurance availability, alternative capital and strong balance sheets all point to a continuing soft market. But, he added, “I do think there's a point where rates have to stabilize to make up for investment income slippage.” A quarter point increase in interest rates announced by the Federal Reserve last month is not expected to lead to significant increases in investment income for insurers.

Mr. Finnis said that other than habitational exposures, it's hard to find an occupancy that isn't enjoying lowered rates. And “if there is a geography that's hard, I can't think of it,” he added.

Any rate increases are account specific. For example, some real estate companies probably picked up hail and winter storm losses in general across the industry, said Mike Martin, executive vice president and national property general manager at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. in Boston. “If you get unlucky and picked up disproportionate share of losses, you pick up some rate increases.”

The European market has actually stabilized in terms of pricing, because it never really had an uptick post-disaster like with 2012's Superstorm Sandy, said FM Global's Mr. Turner. “They're coming off several years of softness, so I think that market is flat.”

Looking forward, Ms. Glickman said rate decreases are likely to continue, but the pace of the declines may slow.

“Assuming that the market does not suffer any catastrophic losses, we anticipate there will be slight decreases. But we're starting to see some stability,” she said.

“In general, we are seeing some stabilization in the rate reductions,” said Zurich's Mr. Tinetti. “We're entering the third year of rate reductions. The rate of the reduction has moderated a bit — we've seen that in the past couple months. It's hard to say whether this is a trend or just the mix of business we're seeing this time of year.”