P&C Insurers Face Lower Profit Margins

High insured losses from natural catastrophes, challenges from the personal auto business and pricing competition will make it more difficult for the property and casualty industry to maintain the favorable underwriting results it has seen for the past three years, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

In its U.S. P&C Insurance Market Report, S&P predicts an increase in the industry’sDown chart2 statutory combined ratio to 99.5% in 2016 from 97.6% in 2015 and reduction of pretax returns on equity to 8.7% from 10.8%—or to 7.5% from 9.9% when adjusting for the impact of prior-year reserve development.

“Profit margins are projected to be much narrower than they have been in the last few years, unless something dramatic happens,” report authors Tim Zawacki, senior editor and Terry Leone, manager of insurance research at S&P Global Market Intelligence said in a statement. “While insurers have wisely accounted for the fact that they haven’t been able to depend on investment gains to subsidize underwriting losses, they still need to practice restraint as they seek growth.”

Commercial Lines
The commercial lines combined ratio is projected to increase to 95.1% from 93.4% for 2015, which represented the third-consecutive year that the measure of underwriting profitability had ranged between 93.3% and 93.5%.

According to the report, premium growth in the commercial lines has benefited from factors such as slow, but steady macroeconomic growth and rate increases in commercial auto business, offset by continued downward pressure on commercial property rates. The outlook anticipates that the 93.9% combined ratio in the workers compensation line in 2015—which marked the first sub-100% result in that business since 2006—will not be repeated and that historically favorable results of the past three years in commercial multiperil and the fire and allied lines will begin to normalize over time.

Factors such as abundant reinsurance capacity, favorable underwriting results and relatively high levels of capitalization have contributed to downward pressure on commercial lines rates. The outlook assumes that carriers will continue to exhibit discipline in their underwriting, as recent contractions in Treasury yields in the aftermath of the U.K.’s June Brexit vote offer a reminder of the reinvestment risk the industry continues to confront, in what remains a low-for-long interest rate environment, S&P said.

Key observations
• Reduced Profitability: The P&C industry’s pre-tax ROE is projected to decline about 2 percentage points in 2016 while its combined ratio, which measures expenses incurred relative to premiums earned, is projected to increase to 99.5%, the highest level since 2012.
• Increased Investment Risk: Declining Treasury yields in the aftermath of the U.K.’s Brexit referendum have reinforced the challenges the industry faces to earn reliable, low-risk investment income, putting additional pressure on underwriting discipline.
• Weak First Half: Large increases in the amount of insured catastrophe losses during the first half of 2016 will negatively impact loss ratios in several business lines that have produced historically favorable results during the past three years.
• Personal lines: Historically unfavorable results in the private-passenger auto business are projected to deteriorate further in 2016 as miles driven by Americans continue to rise due to low gas prices. They will begin to improve once broad-based rate increases fully take hold, but this will take some time.
• Financial Results Hinge on Auto Line Performance: Private auto lines accounted for 34.4% of the industry’s 2015 direct premiums and, as financials demonstrated, the performance of those lines have played a significant role on the fate of underwriting.
• Future Issues: Favorable reserve development, broad access to reinsurance capacity, and a series of benign hurricane seasons have provided tailwinds to the industry in recent years. But none of those elements will continue in perpetuity and the absence of any one of them could create additional hurdles for the industry from a profitability perspective in 2016 and beyond.

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