Tied up in risk

What's your safe word?

Lebanese entrepreneurs traditionally have approached risks with the attitude that they prefer to carry them themselves rather than pay for risk transfer, unless there is a compelling reason to buy insurance. Companies insure their vehicle fleets and some contract medical coverage for staff as add-on benefits beyond the obligatory payments to the social security system. Larger companies are usually more insurance-aware and acquire basic asset protection, such as property, fire, and cargo insurance. But the vast majority of commercial enterprises are small ventures and their insurance blankets reveal more risks than they cover — small and medium-sized Lebanese companies are underinsured on several and perhaps even most fronts.

The only insurance that has been compulsory for Lebanese companies until now, with some level of enforcement, has been workmen’s compensation, a basic accident policy for employees. This year, the Ministry of Industry introduced a new requirement for industrial establishments, which from this summer on have to obtain a fire insurance policy in order to renew their industrial licenses.

Interestingly though, demand for fire insurance has already been on the rise before the Ministry of Industry introduced its decree. According to the quarterly statistical report of the Lebanese insurance association, ACAL, premiums in the fire business increased 14 percent to $81.7 million in 2011 and represented a 9.3 percent market share of non-life insurance.

The corresponding numbers for the first and second quarters in 2012 show continued growth at 14 percent for January to March, and 16 percent for April to June. According to the report for the second quarter, the share of fire premiums in total non-life premiums has expanded to 10.3 percent of non-life premiums in Lebanon.

One factor that insurance leaders say influenced the demand — and also the consideration to create a mandatory fire package for industrial establishments — was a $12 million industrial fire that was settled by the insurer, Arabia Insurance, with quite some public fanfare in November 2011.

An unsure fire-sale

The latest statistics on insurance sales in the first half of 2012 do not necessarily enable growth estimations for fire insurance in the coming years. On one hand, implementation of the decree requiring coverage in industrial establishments still has to be shown in practice; companies in Lebanon are noted for their inventiveness when it comes to cost avoidance. On the other hand, the insurance providers do not have market data that would reveal how many industrial establishments and of what sizes are currently lacking fire coverage.

The new requirement, which insurance companies — no surprise — are supporting enthusiastically, has already generated applications from industrial companies that never before felt the need to buy fire insurance. The application surveys of these companies have shown that many do not conform to important standards, said Fateh Bekdache, general manager of Arope Insurance.

“Every insurance company has its own strategy on this but the companies that look for fire insurance have some risks that they need to work on, a lot, in order to be insurable,” he said.

It is a different case with managerial and professional liability insurance coverage in Lebanon, where growth is not led by any new regulatory initiatives. A discussion at the Ministry of Tourism regarding the introduction of mandatory liability coverage for restaurants and hospitality enterprises, to protect patrons if they suffer an accident or a food-related illness, was recently aborted.

But some factors have sparked interest in liability covers. When judicial authorities in Mount Lebanon ordered a doctor arrested in a dispute over medical treatment in June, it was the first case where alleged negligence and malpractice by a physician resulted in such action by the public prosecutor. According to Bekdache, the doctor’s arrest triggered inquiries by medical practitioners asking for quotations on malpractice insurance.

In parallel to newly malpractice-risk aware physicians, lawyers are also asking for professional liability coverage, but do so mainly for reasons of wanting to enter international partnerships. “A month ago I got a call from a prominent law firm which asked about the price indication for this kind of professional indemnity cover,” Bekdache said.

Demand for professional liability insurance by a law firm is attractive for the insurer, but these inquiries cannot be answered with a ready-made policy, he added. “It is a big proposal,” said Bekdache. “I have to know the track record of the law firm, how many cases were lost and won, what kind of litigation they do and what their turnover is.”

D&O’s and Don’ts

Another complex need is management liability insurance. Directors and officers, or D&O in insurance-speak, are today held responsible for a growing range of risks that range from unintentional errors and omissions in delivering projects, as well as products for financial and managerial liabilities. Regulators, shareholders and stakeholders such as employees and competitors represent a pool of litigation threats for both companies and directors as individuals.

Cases, which can be both civil and criminal, are brought for issues as diverse as a violation of anti-money laundering rules, failure to fulfill duties, keep adequate records or apply regulations, harassment, wrongful termination, or abuse of power. The range is so broad that insurance covering corporate errors and wider management liabilities, subsumed under the term D&O insurance, is “a must for any large company in Lebanon,” according to Bekdache.

Against the severity and frequency of this risk, however, the number of D&O policies issued in Lebanon is falling seriously short and the market is underpowered. Chartis, a prominent name in global D&O insurance that has presence in each of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Lebanon, has seen demand for D&O coverage grow in some Arab markets. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are leading demand developments for D&O insurance, said Muhannad Abdul-Majeed, an expert on financial insurance lines with Chartis Middle East.  “Unfortunately, Lebanon is a challenging market for management liability covers.”

Roger Zaccar, business development manager of Commercial Insurance, an independent Lebanese insurer, was blunter. “There is no demand [in the Lebanese market]; you have only two or three clients who are buying [D&O]. People don’t know why they need it and insurers don’t have the volumes to create specialized departments for it” he said.

Local providers are not equipped to assess and underwrite corporate liability policies, said also Arope’s Bekdache. “Nobody has a facility on those policies so we go via international brokers. It doesn’t make sense to have facility for such a product.” Among the reasons why D&O insurance in Lebanon is a tougher sell than in the GCC is so few companies are publicly traded on the Beirut Stock Exchange and very few international investors are looking to acquire stakes in Lebanese companies, according to Abdul-Majeed.

Regional D&O growth

At Chartis Middle East, 61 percent of premiums underwritten on management liability coverage in 2011 came from first-time buyers, evidencing demand growth, he said. “The majority of buyers were companies that were publicly listed, and/or had exposure to international jurisdictions via their customers, shareholders, suppliers, and so forth.”

However, the insurer also found that regional D&O insurance demand is still mostly reactive, as companies respond to demand from international investors and business partners, or to high-profile incidents where executives and corporate officers are scrutinized.

In the UAE and other GCC countries, regulators are popularizing D&O as they are stepping up investigations of corporate managerial liabilities. Chartis observed 20 percent more notifications of claims brought against D&O in 2011 when compared with 2009 and 2010.

Corporate and managerial liability insurances are just some of the protections that companies in Lebanon and the region will need more of in future if global markets are the guidepost. While no concise data on the presence of D&O insurance is available, Chartis estimates that current premium volumes invested in D&O liability protections is no more than 5 percent of non-life premiums across the GCC and Levant.

The level of coverage in the region is definitely lower than in more mature economies, Abdul-Majeed noted, even though corporate liability protection is anything but a than needless luxury.  “In terms of [a] corporation’s budget, a D&O policy is usually much cheaper than other more traditional insurances, such as property insurance or group medical, but whereas companies are prepared to pay the higher premiums for these covers, they unfortunately do not give much thought to management liability insurance.”

Circumstances could however boost adoption of some insurance policies for corporate decision makers and key persons. Besides seeing more corporate demand for insurance against terrorism, political violence and war risk, insurers in Beirut and the Middle East have been starting this year to get more calls asking about kidnap and ransom policies.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.