When it comes to making good financial decisions, few people are more respected than Warren Buffett. So when the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company that counts GEICO, General Re and BH Reinsurance among its revenue generators, gives the insurance industry some advice, many will take note.
Buffett made the following pointed statements in a shareholder letter, warning the industry against “testosterone-driven CEO[s]” that chase policy volume even if it means writing business at “inadequate prices.”
“At bottom, a sound insurance operation requires four disciplines: (1) An understanding of all exposures that might cause a policy to incur losses; (2) A conservative evaluation of the likelihood of any exposure actually causing a loss and the probable cost if it does; (3) The setting of a premium that will deliver a profit, on average, after both prospective loss costs and operating expenses are covered; and (4) The willingness to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained,” the letter states. “Many insurers pass the first three tests and flunk the fourth. The urgings of Wall Street, pressures from the agency force and brokers, or simply a refusal by a testosterone-driven CEO to accept shrinking volumes has led too many insurers to write business at inadequate prices. ‘The other guy is doing it so we must as well’ spells trouble in any business, but none more so than insurance.”
Such comments are not surprising from someone with a conservative risk appetite like the one that has famously made billions of dollars for the Omaha Oracle. The only question, then, is whether the industry will follow his advice and re-prioritize underwriting discipline.
The history of the insurance market cycle tells us that this will occur.
We just don’t know when.