Insurance Post

Blog: From AIG to Zurich, five predictions for insurers in 2016


Now that we have all had a chance to get back into our pre-Xmas routines; quit our cous-cous diets and break our new year’s resolutions, I thought it would be a good time to look into my crystal ball and predict how the year might pan out for insurers.

Here are five themes and stories I suspect we could hear plenty more about as 2016 plays out.

1) RSA to remain independent
The previous 12 months was notable for the merger story that never was; Zurich acquiring RSA.

The original news was met with plenty of speculation about counter bids and conjecture over other firms in the running to buy the insurer. But to many people's surprise a bidding war never emerged; and even more surprise when talks were terminated with a deal a hair's breadth from being completed.

Roll on to 2016, and I am sure there will be renewed speculation about RSA; especially given that many are still not convinced by CEO Stephen Hester's long term dedication to the cause.

But it has been interesting to see the vigour with which RSA has been working since the Zurich talks stalled to give the impression of a business with an independent future. The Nationwide contract win and Cunningham Lindsey adjusting transfers being two examples of this.

I for one, am sold, and predict RSA will begin 2017 as it started the year, the master of its own destiny.


2) The A to Z of transition

One of the key reasons behind my conviction that RSA will remain independent is that its former suitor Zurich; and a firm that was expected to be a bidder, AIG, are looking to bed in some significant internal changes in 2016.

AIG was linked with RSA, but it would be surprising to see it make a move now after setting out a cost cutting programme following the firm posting a $231m loss in the third quarter of 2015.

One of the high profile casualties of this proposal was the UK boss Jaqueline McNamee, whose responsibilities were taken on by European CEO Anthony Baldwin earlier this month.

Elsewhere, Zurich found enough lose change to buy Rural Community Insurance Services in the US after deciding RSA was not a good fit, but the last quarter of 2015 was distinguished by the news the insurer was to cut 440 posts in a bid to both cut costs and make it easier to do business with.

It would be safe to say that given this internal soul searching, RSA will not be on any agenda for the foreseeable future.

What made these moves more surprising than other similar announcements in recent history was that Zurich had been viewed as beacon of stability; and AIG had received plaudits for riding out the post-crisis storm and reclaiming its brand and top spot in the UK general insurance market.

In light of recent events, it will be interesting to see how both firms emerge from these cost cutting drives in the eyes of customers and brokers, and how the new senior teams rise to the challenge of stamping their personality on their businesses.

As such I would not expect to see these two firms - previously linked with anything that moved - part of many M&A conversations in the foreseeable future.

3) Difficult acts to follow?

In an insurance market that is known to churn senior executives, two of the longer serving industry bosses step down this year.

Both John O'Roarke and Sandy Scott have received plaudits for turning around the LV general insurance business and the Chartered Insurance Institute in their tenures of 10 years and 16 years respectively.

Indeed it has been remarked that both organisations are "unrecognisable" from the businesses they first assumed control of; so where does that leave the people who will inherit their posts?

LV looked outside the business to recruit Steve Treloar who has experience of working at both Direct Line Group and Aviva. Given that there are a number of senior figures at LV who have worked with - and indeed over - him before, especially from the DLG days - his appointment might push a few noses out of joint.

However, with an established culture in place, Steve will probably provide a safe pair of hands to take the business on; with a focus on profit and innovation, rather than the blockbuster growth that marked its early days.

At the CII there will be more scope for Sian Fisher to make her mark in the short to mid-term when she takes over as CEO at the professional body next month, especially given the potential both overseas and in markets in which penetration remains relatively low, like personal lines.

Sian's name came up repeatedly in the run up to the announcement and the initial market reaction shows her appointment is a popular one, and her plans to "broaden the momentum behind the professionalism agenda" more than hint she wants to hit the ground running.

4) Softly, softly ...
Entering 2016, the eternal question of whether the market will get out of its pricing slump across commercial and personal will again be asked throughout the board rooms of the land.

The 2015/2016 windstorms and subsequent flooding is predicted to cost the insurance market over £1bn, which is expected to have a detrimental effect on the property combined operating ratios at many insurers and ultimatley the 2016 year end results; and thus could result in some rate hardening.

While, in the motor space, the insurance industry looks happy to give up any rate increases for government reforms that will reduce whiplash fraud.

Ultimately though, signs from the reinsurance renewal season - where Guy Carpenter spoke of a "market flush with capacity" - indicate that even with the floods - and the introduction of Solvency II - insurers will have to look elsewhere to bolster their returns over the coming 12 months.

5) Can a UK insurer unearth the next Oscar?
Which brings me nicely onto the subject of 'innovation'.

Insurance has long been marked as an industry set in its traditional ways. But recently the talk has been more about the fact that it is ripe for disruption.

As such insurers seem to have rekindled their interest in setting aside funds to invest in 'ideas' that might stave off outside players - Google and Apple are mentioned repeatedly - from gobbling their cake.

Aviva and Axa were among the first to make public announcements to this effect; but others have followed, with Start-up Bootcamp proving popular among players that  might want to dip their toe in rather than throw the kitchen sink at it.

This investment harks back to a time pre-mega mergers when the likes of Aviva backed the first telematics pilot in the UK insurance market and an eBay style site for salvage in Bluecycle, and points to fact insurers are waking up to the fact that they need to do something ‘new' to attract new customers. And it seems they are finally admitting there is no shame in seeking external brain power to do this.

KPMG's recent fintech 100, covering leading global innovators in the space, put Chinese insurer Zhong An Insurance at number one and US health insurer Oscar in the number two slot. Could a UK player break into the 2016 list? It may be a bit too early, but things are shaping up well for 2017.

So there you have it. If you agree/disagree or have any thoughts, I would love to hear them in the comment section below.

Or read about my five predictions for the broking sector on Post's sister title Insurance Age.

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