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SYDNEY, Australia -- Asia's current financial crisis is a short-term problem, and the region still represents major growth opportunities for insurers.
That was a message from speakers at the July 12-15 International Insurance Society Inc. 34th annual seminar in Sydney, Australia.
Janet E. Belkin, executive director-center for international insurance studies at The College of Insurance in New York, said there are opportunities in Asia despite the financial crisis. But she warned insurers planning to enter the markets to consider "the overall picture" before making a decision to enter, remain or leave.
"The countries are potential markets for the long haul," she noted. Entry requires due diligence to make sure an insurer is entering a market that fits its corporate goals and strategies, according to Ms. Belkin.
Masahiro Yamada, managing director and board member of the Nippon Life Insurance Co., the world's largest life insurer, predicted the region's economic "difficulties" would be overcome in two or three years.
David C. Coyukiat, president and chief executive officer of Pioneer Insurance & Surety Corp., in Manila, Philippines, said he expects the Philippines to be one of the economies better positioned for "the turnaround" in two to three years, when Mr. Coyukiat thinks Southeast Asian economies will grow at "a more sustainable rate."
The Philippines is "neither the least nor the worst affected by the Southeast Asian financial turmoil," he noted.
Ms. Belkin said demographics, the existing insurance industry, and culture, economics and politics all must be taken into account before insurers, reinsurers or brokers enter new markets.
Market size alone is not a sufficient reason to enter a new market; the age of the population and the education level have to be considered. "Frequently, more developed competition can create a better environment than that in which insurance is an unknown product, or one reserved for the very rich," she noted.
Ms. Belkin warned that some cultures are averse to buying insurance. In strict Muslim countries, for example, insurance is considered "gaining at the expense of others" and therefore is not encouraged. "The view that a culture can be redirected to meet the needs of the company is unsound," she said.
Some nations have adopted a "welfare" system or have the view that families are responsible for caring for others after a disaster, so insurance was unnecessary.
The ease with which foreigners are accepted could have a major effect on whether insurers succeed in a new country.
"Perhaps the single most important factor to be considered when evaluating a potential expansion is the eagerness of the regulatory sector to welcome foreign investment and the willingness of the market, and the existing insurance community, to accept new competitors," Ms. Belkin noted.
On a country-by-country analysis, Malaysia has a growing middle class with expendable income, but the economic downturn may reverse that, Ms. Belkin said. The currency, the ringgit, is "quite unstable."
She offered these assessments of specific countries:
* Thailand: The government plans to reform its insurance laws. Buddhism is the religion of 95% of the population, and "earthly rewards are not mandatory in this lifetime," according to Ms. Belkin. Because Thailand is behind its neighbors in growth, the effect of the economic downturn may be more dramatic there.
* Indonesia: There is a great difference between the rich and the poor; infrastructure has not matched business growth, particularly in communications; and the currency is not easily convertible on the world market.
* The Philippines: Standards for foreign entrants to the insurance market are strict. The economy has remained fairly stable during the economic downturn.
* India: The non-life insurance industry has been a state monopoly since 1973, and the life industry since 1956. There are plans to permit private competition from domestic and foreign insurers, but the plans are not yet implemented. "The potential is incredible and so are the pitfalls," Ms. Belkin noted.