April 2003 saw ACAL succeed in reaching a viable framework for the implementation of the 1972 law governing compulsory third party car insurance covering bodily damage. Although some may argue that the early period of implementation may not have been as smooth as one may have hoped for, it did not take long to appreciate that the scenario whereby uninsured bodily injuries and/or deaths arising out of motor accidents have been eliminated. Most importantly, the “hit-and-run” culture has also been significantly reduced as those involved in accidents are less likely to flee the scene of an accident and more likely to help those injured.
The subject of extending this policy to include third party material damage is under review and may be implemented in the near future. No more will we hear stories from friends and acquaintances about how they have had accidents with cars that could not afford to offer indemnification. Statistics have proven that many accidents happen in the work place, especially construction sites. Another observation was that the low-income labor bracket has the highest exposure not only to minor injuries, but also to disabilities that can jeopardize their and their dependents welfare. Following fruitful discussions with the relevant authorities, providing proper insurance for workers has now become a prerequisite to obtaining a construction permit. Such insurance provides compensation for medical treatment (including hospitalization) and compensation following work related disabilities or deaths.
We all remember the tragic scenes of collapsed buildings and the consequences to the tenants. The government has now felt the need to promote safety standards for new buildings starting with early in the design phase. ACAL was actively involved in working with the official committee that took charge of studying this issue and the result included a recommendation to have various insurance policies for the different stages, including a 10 year insurance plan following the completion of the construction to compensate for inherent structural defects. A parliamentary committee is now reviewing these recommendations and we feel that it will not be long before building safety standards are significantly improved.
From our perspective, our work is not only contributing to the improvement of the quality of life in our society but also gradually creating new opportunities for our sector and increasing the size of the Lebanese workforce. ACAL has also been working to improve the difficult working conditions of insurance companies, including the slow recovery and development of the Lebanese economy following the years of war and the high increase in the cost of reinsurance following 9/11 with no possibility of increasing the price of insurance in our market. The latter has led to a drop in profit margins, the relatively small size of the Lebanese market and structural features not facilitating the expansion of Lebanese insurance operations in other countries Faced with these challenges, the insurance sector has worked individually and collectively through ACAL towards maximizing the potential of their development. We have seen remarkable progress in the quality of insurance contracts made available to the customers and I believe that this has been the natural result of our free market economy. In this sense, traditional single cover policies are being replaced by a variety of covers with competitive premiums.
Although debatable, there was surely extensive innovation in the distribution channels of insurance policies and here we have to acknowledge the introduction of Bancassurance and e-business. These reduce administrative costs of insurance sales transactions and the cost of premium collection, as well as the time dedicated to complete the sales operation
In conjunction with the above, the challenge will always be to provide the client with professional consultancy on his risk transfer requirements and the adequacy of the insurance contracts that he is buying, aspects that still seem to be better served through the traditional insurance intermediaries.
Regionally, Lebanese insurance companies have a proud tradition of regional expansion, especially in the Gulf. However, their role may be gradually diminishing due to the development of Arab insurance sectors with large financial capitalization and national interests. At present, there seem to be good prospects in Syria. There are high expectations that Damascus may be granting licenses to Lebanese insurance companies. ACAL is working closely with the Syrian insurance representatives and we have already established an excellent level of cross border co-operation.
Elsewhere, we have been witnessing serious efforts to optimize the potential of the Lebanese insurance companies to grow and compete. These efforts are the result of the joint commitments of the legislators, regulators and ACAL. Capital adequacy and regulatory control have formed the essential elements of our efforts. From the legal side, the law governing the insurance operations in Lebanon was subject to serious review, resulting in the promulgation of the amended 1999 law. The outcome was surely a step in the right direction but ACAL is aiming at further improvements and is currently working on further law amendments, which we shall reveal in due time.
ACAL has initiated the framework for the continuous evaluations of the sector, and we shall continue to issue the necessary recommendations within a context of active co-operation with all concerned. We do however hope to change our role to become binding with all licensed insurance companies.
To elaborate, we have created what we call CENTRALE DE RISQUES, where we will collect risk related data from all insurance companies to be made available to all member companies with the aim of improving the quality of insurance underwriting and minimizing the risk of fraud. We have also established a joint committee with the regulatory bodies that will be concerned in building up market statistics to promote transparency. Our agenda for the future will be to increase communication with the authorities on the taxation imposed on insurance clients and beneficiaries. The readers may well be aware that clients acquiring all non-life insurance contracts have to bear tax and stamp duties ranging between 9% and 11% of insurance premiums. Also, compensations received from life contracts are also subject to 5% tax deductions. Although these would appear to contribute in the public income, they do not promote growth in the insurance market, a growth that may well compensate for any loss of tax and stamp duty. Other economies have been long promoted the acquisition of insurance by making it tax deductible. Our system has instead contributed to lost local insurance opportunities, mainly in the marine and life sectors, where internationally rates are attractive and easily available and the loss of potential foreign direct investment.
Finally, it is an honor for me to announce that the 25th General Arab Insurance Conference will be held in Lebanon in May 2004 with the participation of a large number of participants from both the Arab and international insurance companies. The event will be presided by ACAL and the theme will be “Arab Insurance: An Outlook to the Future.” In brief, our work will concentrate on setting recommendations of a proactive nature that will allow Arab insurers to meet the challenges of the future with a high level of readiness.