About Matthew Lerner

Matthew Lerner is the business content writer at RIMS.

GM Halts Venezuela Operations Following Plant Seizure

General Motors has ended its operations in Venezuela after authorities in the strife-torn country seized the company’s plant there on Wednesday.

In a statement Thursday, General Motors said that assets, including vehicles, were also seized from the plant as it was taken over by Venezuelan officials while demonstrations surged throughout the country. The company said in a statement that the facility was taken without due process and that it intends to defend its interests.

General Motors has about 2,700 workers and 79 dealers employ 3,900 in Venezuela, according to the Detroit News, which added that “GM’s Venezuelan operations have been a drag on earnings for several years.” Last year the company lost $400 million before taxes in South America, which accounted for roughly 6% of global sales at 583,000 vehicles. GM also took a $720 million charge in the second quarter of 2015 for currency devaluation and asset valuation write-downs as Venezuela’s economy crumbled.

Losses such as the plant and possibly even including the currency hits may or may not be covered by political risk insurance. The challenge in securing such coverage is in accurately predicting when and where it might be needed—companies cannot wait until a threat emerges before securing cover, which is likened to attempting to buy home insurance after your house has caught fire. GM did not immediately respond to an inquiry asking whether the plant was insured for misappropriation.

In its statement, GM said workers at the seized plant would get separation benefits if the government allows such. The statement added that dealers in Venezuela will continue to service vehicles and provide parts.

In its “Credit and Political Risk Insurance Report & Market Update, January 2017,” insurance broker Arthur J. Gallagher ranked Venezuela as one of the world’s riskiest nations, describing the county’s risk potential as “very high,” ranking it just above Libya.

Indeed, this is not the first instance of Venezuela’s government appropriating private assets amid rising nationalist sentiments and domestic unrest. “It fits a broader pattern, in the sense that the government’s response to surges in opposition activity tends to be the deepening of the revolution,” Phil Gunson, a Venezuela-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, told The Washington Post.

Opposition forces on Thursday called for further mass protests against the government. Venezuela has been in crises as forces opposing the government of President Nicolas Maduro accuse the hand-picked successor of populist leader Hugo Chavez of running a dictatorship. Runaway inflation and shortages of food, fuel and goods have stoked nationwide protests that killed three on Wednesday, including a 17-year-old male and a National Guard sergeant.

The fuel shortages are especially ironic given that Venezuela holds the world’s largest proven oil reserves with 298.4 billion barrels, topping Saudi Arabia’s 268.3 billion barrels of reserves, according to 2015 figures from the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

Firestorm Over Forced Removal Proves Costly for United

United Airlines stock tumbled nearly 4% in early trading Tuesday morning before recovering late in the day as the company continued to deal with fallout after video surfaced showing a passenger being forcibly dragged from a United flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. United shares were down by as much as 6% in premarket trading Tuesday morning, according to MarketWatch.

Shocked viewers responded with universal outrage Monday to a video appearing to show a 69-year old man being brutally dragged off his flight by three uniformed officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation, one of which has since been placed on leave. The man’s face was bloodied and he appeared disheveled as officers dragged him along the narrow aisle of the plane.

“The incident on United flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned by the Department,” the agency said in a statement. “That officer has been placed on leave effective today pending a thorough review of the situation.”

Compounding the Airline’s misery was a letter sent to employees Monday night by United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, saying that he supported the actions of the flight’s crew in removing the passenger, who Munoz accused of being “disruptive and belligerent.” Munoz later apologized directly to the passenger but his public sentiment was judged disingenuous in the wake of the leaked employee memo.

The passenger was removed from the flight to make room for four United employees, although it was initially reported that the passenger was removed from the flight to Louisville due to overbooking—a standard industry practice of selling more seats on any given flight than are actually available to shield the airline from lost revenue from no-shows. Although the flight was not technically overbooked, United followed the policy in order to seat the four employees.

In 2016, the 12 largest U.S. airlines bumped slightly more than 40,600 of 659.7 million passengers, for a rate of 0.62 per 10,000 passengers, down from 0.73 per 10,000 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Bloomberg reported.

In this case, the airline requested that four passengers relinquish their seats to United employees. According to reports, the airline first offered passengers $400 in addition to hotel and flight vouchers, and then raised the cash component to $800. When there were no takers, the airline chose four passengers to be removed. Approached by the flight’s crew, the man declined to give up his seat, asserting that he is a doctor and needed to see patients Monday morning.

The incident also sparked an international outrage across China, where it was the top item trending on Sina Weibo, as it was reported the removed passenger was Asian. The BBC reported that a passenger seated next to the doctor said the doctor was originally from Vietnam, where there was also widespread negative reaction. The hashtag #UnitedForcesPassengerOffPlane had more than 270 million views and an online petition, “Chinese Lives Matter,” which has some 38,000 signatures and calls for a U.S. investigation into the case, according to Bloomberg.

Reputational damage can be potentially costly as a company may have to deal with expenses related to managing a crises, such as public relations and advertising, as well as any loss to the company’s stock market value. The incident is the second in as many weeks to envelop United, which previously suffered scorn in the court of public opinion after barring two nonrevenue passengers from boarding a flight based on a dress code violation.

United’s largest shareholder is Warren Buffet, whose 9% stake in the airline, worth roughly $2 billion, was down some $90 million when United’s stock was at its lowest point on Tuesday.

Disaster Losses Climb as Protection Gap Widens: Swiss Re Sigma Study

Global Economic losses from disaster events almost doubled in 2016 to $175 billion from $94 billion in 2015, according to the most recent Sigma Study from the Swiss Re Institute.

Insured losses also rose steeply to $54 billion in 2016 from $38 billion in 2015, the study found. This led to a “protection gap,” as the company calls it, of some $121 billion, the difference between economic and insured losses, a figure highly indicative of the opportunity for greater insurance penetration, according to Swiss Re. “The shortfall in insurance relative to total economic losses from all disaster events…indicates the large opportunity for insurance to help strengthen worldwide resilience against disaster events,” said the report. The gap was $56 billion in 2015.

Total economic and insured losses in 2015 and 2016:

The two headline loss figures are the highest since 2012 and end a four-year decline as the year saw a higher amount of significant disaster events including earthquakes, storms, floods and wildfires worldwide. The report noted that some events hit areas with high insurance penetration, leading to the 42% jump in insured losses.

Despite the precipitous rise in both economic and insured losses, human losses plummeted to approximately 11,000 lost or missing in 2016, down from more than 26,000 in 2015.

Of the 327 disaster events last year, 191 were natural disasters while 136 were man-made. Regionally, Asia experienced the most disaster events with 128 leading to approximately $60 billion in economic losses. Asia also had the single most costly disaster event of 2016 as the April earthquake on Kyushu Island, Japan caused an estimated $25 billion-$30 billion in economic losses.

Insured losses of $54 billion almost equaled the $53 million inflation-adjusted annual average of the past 10 years, said the report, despite being 42% higher than 2015’s $38 billion. Natural catastrophes accounted for $46 billion of insured losses, equal to the 10-year annual average, as man-made disasters led to $8 billion of insured losses, according to the report.

“In 2016, both economic and insured losses were close to their 10-year averages. Insured losses made up about 30% of total losses, with some areas faring much better because of higher insurance penetration,” Kurt Karl, Swiss Re’s chief economist said in a statement.

More than half of insured losses occurred in North America as a record number of severe convective storm events hit the region. These included an April hail storm in Texas, which caused $3.5 billion in economic loss and $3 billion in insured loss as some 86% of losses were covered. An August system brought severe storms and flooding to Louisiana, causing $10 billion in economic loss and $3.1 billion in insured loss.

The region saw several major disaster events.

In May and June, wildfires in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada caused $4 billion in economic losses and $2.8 billion in insured losses, Canada’s largest-ever insurance loss. The fire consumed 590,000 hectares of land and caused the evacuation of about 88,000 people. In October, hurricane Matthew, the first Category 5 storm in the North Atlantic since 2007, led to $12 billion in economic losses and $4 billion in insured losses while also, sadly, causing the greatest loss of life as 700 were lost, mainly in Haiti.

Flooding across Europe and China was also devastating at times. In May and June, severe rain and floods hit Belgium, France and parts of Germany, causing economic losses of $3.9 billion and insured losses of $2.9 billion. Flooding along China’s Yangtze River basin caused an estimated $22 billion in economic losses but low insurance penetration, in contrast to Europe, led to insured losses of just $400 million, according to the report.

Sears Suppliers Wary as Shares Plummet

Sears Holding Corps’ “going concern” filing has vendors and their insurers running for cover as the venerable American department store appears heading for bankruptcy or some other final disposition.

In a filing this week with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Sears Holding Corp. told investors and observers that, “substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” The company is parent to Sears stores and sister retailer Kmart.

The filing sent Sears shares down as much as 16% to $7.60 in New York trading, the company’s biggest intraday drop since October 2014. Prior to the drop, shares had gained some 60% since Feb. 9, according to Bloomberg.

As a result, Sears’ suppliers are changing business terms with the troubled retailer, in some cases cutting back inventory or insisting on faster payment terms, in order to mitigate the downside associated with doing business with Sears.

One such supplier, a textile maker in Bangladesh, has sharply cut back on the amount of goods it manufactures for Sears. “We have to protect ourselves from the risk of nonpayment,” the textile maker’s managing director told Reuters. “So far there was only speculation that they would declare bankruptcy in 2017. But now they are acknowledging it, which definitely complicates our relationship with them and our decision to accept future orders from Sears.”

Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Noel Hebert noted, “They’ve got all kinds of issues.” Sears has enough cash to get through 2017, he said, but its declining payables-to-inventory ratio shows that vendors have been increasingly reluctant to keep the retailer stocked.

Although Sears posted a smaller loss than expected in the fourth quarter, the company has lost some $10 billion over the past few years, according to Bloomberg.

“Whatever vendors continue to support them are now going to put them on even more of a short string. That means they’ll ship them smaller quantities and demand payment either in advance or immediately upon delivery,” Mark Cohen, the former chief executive of Sears Canada and director of retail studies at Columbia Business School in New York City, said in the Reuters piece. “Sears stores are pathetically badly inventoried today and they will become worse.”

Insurers that supply coverage against the nonpayment of goods are also looking to limit their exposure to what appears to be a worsening situation by backing away from business with Sears as it sinks.

“We tried to hang in as long as we could,” said Doug Collins, regional director for risk services at Atradius Trade Credit Insurance, who added that his firm has stopped providing insurance to Sears’ vendors. “Vendors may try to get a few more cycles in before the worst happens, and then it just depends if they’re lucky or not,” he said.

The situation is complicated by the personal involvement of billionaire owner Edward Lampert, who has poured hundreds of millions into Sears from his other business interests, using some of Sears’ assets as guarantees against the loans. This has resulted in a complex, even byzantine ownership structure which may complicate or preclude assets sales which could generate cash, according to some observers.

Sears’ cash position has crashed to just $286 million at the end of 2016 from a high of $1.7 billion in 2009, according to the Street.com, which added that the company hasn’t generated cash flow from its operations since 2006. “With negative news like this, it’s never good for confidence on the company,” Moody’s vice president, Christina Boni said. Earlier this year, Moody’s downgraded Sears’ credit rating to Caa2 from Caa1 to reflect the accelerating negative sales performance of its business and risk of possible default.