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Insurers look to adapt as price hikes remain muted

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SAN ANTONIO — Insurers are looking for new ways to control losses, improve underwriting and attract business after last year’s catastrophes failed to induce marketwide rate hikes.

Greater use of technology to reduce exposures and improve safety are being introduced as underwriters seek to differentiate their services, insurers say.

And market strategies are changing after recent mergers and acquisition have transformed some insurers.

Natural catastrophes in 2017, including three Atlantic hurricanes, earthquakes in Mexico and wildfires in California, resulted in record losses of more than $130 billion, but increases in insurance rates have been limited as capacity remains plentiful, insurance executives said during interviews at the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.’s 2018 conference in San Antonio last week.

Property reinsurance rates increased only moderately at Jan. 1 renewals, and while loss-exposed property insurance accounts saw increases and rates in several other lines stopped falling, widespread rate hikes that many observers expected in the wake of the disasters have not materialized, they said.

At the end of 2017, property insurance pricing levels were comparable with levels in 1999, “and they weren’t sustainable then,” said Bret Ahnell, executive vice president of staff operations at FM Global in Johnston, Rhode Island.

“The decreases have stopped, and increases are coming, but not to the extent that we would have expected,” he said. “There’s some positive momentum, but sitting around waiting for revenue to come is not something that you can rely on, so you have to look for ways to become more efficient.”

Waiting for the market to turn is not a realistic option, said Thomas K. Varney, regional manager for the Americas at Allianz Risk Consulting, a unit of Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty S.E., in Chicago.

“There’s so much competition out there waiting for something to happen that will trigger a reaction in the market, but with so much capital thinking that insurance is a good place to be, it doesn’t happen,” he said.

Instead, insurers should look for ways to improve underwriting and help policyholders better manage their risks, Mr. Varney said.

“What we are trying to do is provide information to underwriters to help them better understand the risks and give clients value-added differentiation,” he said.

For example, better analysis of supply chain risks can show underwriters how even a small event can have a significant impact in a region with poor infrastructure, and similar analysis can help risk managers influence procurement decisions to reduce their companies’ supply chain risks, Mr. Varney said.

Technology will be a key tool driving greater efficiency at insurers, said Mr. Ahnell.

For example, insurers can use construction technology to release products faster and create innovative coverages, he said. “Artificial intelligence offers huge opportunities for our industry,” and use of technology such as drones enables loss control engineers to survey insured properties quickly and safely, Mr. Ahnell said.

Improvements in technology are already affecting loss control. For example, roofs can be retrofitted to withstand 145 mph-175 mph winds, whereas the technology had not been developed 15 years ago. “Maria was a test case for that; for everybody that had upgraded their roofs, the roof stayed on,” he said.

Specialty and liability underwriters are also looking to technology to give them an edge.

The construction insurance market remains competitive, despite last year’s losses, said Tom Boudreau, senior vice president of construction, marine, livestock and specialty programs at Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. in Hartford, Connecticut.

But technological developments, such as wearables, can be tapped to reduce losses in the construction sector. “We’d love to see more technology utilized on job sites. There are still concerns about privacy, but it can be a game changer from a safety and productivity perspective,” he said.

Some construction companies are looking for premium discounts for employing safety technology when it is introduced to a site, whereas insurers need to examine loss trends before they can adjust pricing, Mr. Boudreau said.

A compromise would be for insurers to pay for the safety technology for select clients they are comfortable partnering with rather than offering an immediate discount, he said.

“It takes a few years for us to see the effect on frequency and severity,” he said.

Mergers and acquisitions over the past few years are also changing insurers’ view of the market, and some are adjusting their strategies.

In particular, the merger of Ace Ltd. and Chubb Corp. in 2016, which created a very large diversified commercial insurer, changed the landscape for insurers, said Kevin H. Kelley, vice chairman of global risk solutions at Liberty Mutual Holding Co. Inc. He joined Liberty Mutual last year after it purchased Ironshore Inc., an excess and surplus lines insurer that Mr. Kelley headed.

Becoming part of Liberty Mutual, with its extensive primary insurance business, allows Ironshore access to more business opportunities, he said.

“If you can be part of an organization that’s going to be relevant and core to customers, you will see better opportunities than if you are not viewed that way,” Mr. Kelley said.

For example, former Ironshore underwriters specializing in management liability accounts will have direct contract with retail brokers bringing national account property/casualty business to Liberty Mutual, he said.

“It’s all about looks” — the more business insurers see, the more they are likely to bind, Mr. Kelley said.