I am sure all of us frequently read in the newspapers about motor insurance premiums having to go up because of ever increasing claims. And how insurance companies are making losses from their motor insurance portfolio.
Have you ever wondered why so many of them are still around despite (supposedly) making losses year after year?
I don’t for one second doubt the part on increasing motor claims, but that only reflects half the story. The profitability of a general insurance company depends heavily on two factors:
What most people fail to appreciate is that an underwriting loss is expected and perfectly normal in the course of business. A good insurance company would be able to remain profitable even in the face of underwriting losses.
This is something that Warren Buffett has bought up repeatedly many times in his annual letters to his shareholders. I have reproduced below the section that deals with this subject from his latest letter which was published last Saturday (The entire letter can be found here).
Note: Property-casualty insurance would be similar to what we call General Insurance in Singapore. It refers to the class of insurance that covers motor, home, property, etc. The other class of insurance is Life Insurance.
Extracted from Warren Buffett’s 2010 letter to Berkshire’s Shareholders on 2009 Performance
Our property-casualty (P/C) insurance business has been the engine behind Berkshire’s growth and will continue to be. It has worked wonders for us. We carry our P/C companies on our books at $15.5 billion more than their net tangible assets, an amount lodged in our “Goodwill” account. These companies, however, are worth far more than their carrying value – and the following look at the economic model of the P/C industry will tell you why.
Insurers receive premiums upfront and pay claims later. In extreme cases, such as those arising from certain workers’ compensation accidents, payments can stretch over decades. This collect-now, pay-later model leaves us holding large sums – money we call float” – that will eventually go to others. Meanwhile, we get to invest this float for Berkshire’s benefit. Though individual policies and claims come and go, the amount of float we hold remains remarkably stable in relation to premium volume. Consequently, as our business grows, so does our float.
If premiums exceed the total of expenses and eventual losses, we register an underwriting profit that adds to the investment income produced from the float. This combination allows us to enjoy the use of free money – and, better yet, get paid for holding it. Alas, the hope of this happy result attracts intense competition, so vigorous in most years as to cause the P/C industry as a whole to operate at a significant underwriting loss. This loss, in effect, is what the industry pays to hold its float. Usually this cost is fairly low, but in some catastrophe-ridden years the cost from underwriting losses more than eats up the income derived from use of float.
In my perhaps biased view, Berkshire has the best large insurance operation in the world. And I will absolutely state that we have the best managers. Our float has grown from $16 million in 1967, when we entered the business, to $62 billion at the end of 2009. Moreover, we have now operated at an underwriting profit for seven consecutive years. I believe it likely that we will continue to underwrite profitably in most – though certainly not all – future years. If we do so, our float will be cost-free, much as if someone deposited $62 billion with us that we could invest for our own benefit without the payment of interest.
Let me emphasize again that cost-free float is not a result to be expected for the P/C industry as a whole: In most years, premiums have been inadequate to cover claims plus expenses.
Consequently, the industry’s overall return on tangible equity has for many decades fallen far short of that achieved by the S&P 500. Outstanding economics exist at Berkshire only because we have some outstanding managers running some unusual businesses. Our insurance CEOs deserve your thanks, having added many billions of dollars to Berkshire’s value. It’s a pleasure for me to tell you about these all-stars.