Lebanon’s insurance sector is approaching, ever so slowly, a time where global and regional macroeconomic enablers could provide the scale of economics that the industry has been chasing unsuccessfully for at least a decade.
Driven by the tectonic shift from developed insurance markets into emerging ones, the most optimistic forecasters hope for an increase of about 150 percent in domestic insurance penetration in the coming years, a leap forward in the use of insurance as risk management in financial markets and a surge in Arab and Muslim interest in insurance through social media and networking.
Scenarios for global insurance migration from saturated developed markets to those less well served are being discussed in the consulting houses trying to plot a future for the industry. A current study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) on the insurance industry predicts that in 2020 the big changes experienced by the sector in the early 21st century are likely to accelerate further in the next decade. It argues these will bring ‘STEEP’ changes, meaning “Social, Technical, Environmental, Economic and Political”.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) one is inclined to add demographics to the list of agents of change that could boost the regional insurance industry from its current status as the least successful market in the world, in terms of average spending on insurance.
While the industrialized countries still accounted for 85 percent of global insurance premiums in 2010 — $3.69 trillion versus $650 billion in emerging markets — the double-digit growth outside the industrialized markets has finally made a noticeable dent in that disparity. According to the Sigma report by global reinsurance firm Swiss Re, the share of emerging markets in global premiums last year grew by two full percentage points to 15 percent of worldwide insurance spending.
Yet it is still clear that the entire non-industrialized world is under-insured when compared with the insurance penetration range of between six and 13 percent in individual industrialized countries.
Expressed in total share of gross domestic product, the gap between individual MENA countries and the world average of 6.9 percent spans from four to over six percentage points, depending on which MENA country is reviewed. Lebanon ranks among the leaders in insurance penetration in MENA.
Yet this gap has not drastically diminished in the past decade and other MENA countries have generally recorded only minute annual improvements in insurance penetration. For positive business thinkers, the long-term perspective on being the global insurance laggards cannot but translate into a possible space for growth. The search is on for new opportunities where regional insurers can branch out and balloon their business.
Credit lines and risk management
One very interesting range of activity in times of global turmoil and regionally peaking political risk is credit insurance, yet it must be examined with care. Although a simple sounding term, it can refer to two very different financial safeguards.
The first one, better called consumer or retail credit insurance, describes policies that consumers buy to protect themselves against the eventuality of defaulting on payments for their Bahaman vacation loan, or for the 144-piece Louis XIV-style Christofle silverware they bought on the eve of the latest financial crisis in 72 installments of $700 each.
The second one, which is specified as trade or business credit insurance, is a risk management cover that a trading, manufacturing or services company obtains to insure receivables from its business partners.
What both credit insurance variants have in common is that they are extremely hard to find in the MENA.
“We are most probably the only private entity in Lebanon and the Middle East that does the business we do,” says Karim Nasrallah, general manager of the Lebanese Credit Insurer (LCI), a Beirut-based trade credit insurance specialist whose policies are tailored to cover international and domestic receivables for mainly MENA-based, corporate clients with invoice periods extending up to six months.
According to other senior Lebanese insurance managers, the coverage of credit risk is an activity for very few specialists. “The market of credit insurance can show growth but the actors are very rare and they are very specialized people,” Elie Nasnas, general manager of AXA Middle East Insurance, tells Executive.
In his view, trade credit insurance growth would not lead to a wide increase in the commodity most sought-after by the local insurance community — insurance awareness among the customer base. For Nasnas, “The people targeted by credit insurance are already tuned in to insurance. It might generate some business but it won’t spread insurance awareness.”
Credit insurance is a field where established companies focusing on the provision of general insurance services will not easily find opportunities, agrees Max Zaccar, chairman and general manager of Commercial Insurance. Before advanced insurance and risk management products can be viable in the Lebanese market, Zaccar believes the companies must first obtain the standard covers that they are often dodging today, in areas such as liability or other employee-related insurance.
Such experience-based reservations reflect the fact that financial insurance and other sophisticated insurance products have long faced hurdles of viability in the small Lebanese market.
The reservations do not imply that ideas such as consumer credit insurance should be written off here. Yet before insurance for retail credit contracts and other financing agreements can be considered a serious tool for protection against individual or business bankruptcy, changes will have to be implemented in a number of areas.
Firstly on the legislative and regulatory side of banking, credit check and consumer protection will have to be brought up to international standards. Secondly, changes must occur in the mindsets and expectations of business people, consumers and consumer advocates, by way of embedding awareness that an insurance contract is mutually based on the insurer’s diligence in servicing his policy obligations and the insured’s prudent efforts to avoid careless or even reckless handling of risks.
According to Nasrallah, the business of trade credit insurance, while admittedly a niche product, has yielded excellent performances in the past three to four years. He tells Executive that LCI has been growing annually at percentage rates in the high double digits over the past three years, including a doubling of results from 2009 to 2010.
Therefore LCI’s exposure to risk has been increasing but it is not a reason to worry the insurer whose business it is to accept and manage corporate risk. “Any day when I go to sleep at night I go to bed with about $350 million to $360 million at risk, which represents a turnover of almost $1 billion a year so far,” says Nasrallah. “We have risks in Syria, in Jordan, in Egypt and all what has been happening [in the region] has not really contributed to diminishing our risk appetite; however, we use a little more caution in the distribution of our insurance capacity.”
Buying trade credit insurance carries a relatively low cost but enables a manufacturer or trader to manage the risk of having to achieve new sales equal to a multiple of the profit that he foregoes when a buyer defaults. While corporations are more likely to use trade credit insurance than small firms or startups, Nasrallah thinks the service is neglected by corporations in the MENA.
“Credit insurance is a very interesting branch and the main obstacle to developing this branch is the lack of awareness,” he says, adding, “The awareness that we have to create is about the added value of credit insurance not only as a protection of receivables but also as a management and marketing tool.”
A handful of government-sponsored export credit agencies exist in the region and offer insurance backing for trade and investment deals that meet their usually narrow requirements. However, the risk management potential of this and other financial insurance specialty lines is hampered rather severely by the lack of focus on risk management in the region’s business community. According to surveys over the past five years, large numbers of corporate decision-makers regard insurance as a necessary evil more than as logical investment.
An Arab insurance spring?
Looking further into the future for regional insurance companies, the shift from developed to emerging markets is highly probable. However, the shift of global insurance markets could happen in many ways, and those companies who want to benefit from new opportunities will have to be nimble and open to what could be some very specific concepts that turn their relations with customers upside-down.
In the PwC ‘Insurance 2020’ scenario paper, options for development in the next 10 years include the politico-economic consequences of a global downturn and a global recovery spearheaded by emerging markets. In other words, everything could happen, but in PwC’s view, today’s insurance companies will be strongly affected in at least three areas over the next few years and will need to adjust or wholly revamp their business models, their value chains and their talent management.
On the technical side, one PwC scenario postulates a shift of economic decision-making towards the customer, “with virtual social networks acting as trusted networks for insurance purchase or self-insurance.”
This suggests new realities in insurance marketing, realities that must benefit from the ideas and tools which the “Arab Spring” has come to be associated with. At a conference for Arab insurance brokers, held at the end of last month in Beirut, a youthful local insurance industry manager spoke about the idea.
According to Roger Zaccar, marketing manager of Lebanon’s Commercial Insurance, social media should have a marketing role for insurance in Arab countries and enable insurance providers, “…to understand what the consumer needs. Social media should act as a bridge between the insurance company and the consumers. It is a tool that gives consumers a voice and we are not listening. As insurance companies and banks we are not as active as we should be in social media,” he says.
As he presented the concept of social media as a crucial element in the interaction of insurance companies and clients, Taghreed Yehia, an equally youthful Egyptian insurance advisor, becomes enthused. “I have started to use interactive media because this makes the client open up and be more open-minded to communicate with the insurance company or broker freely and tell his opinions in a free way that can also make us reply in a free way that satisfies the client.”
In Yehia’s view, using social media will reduce fear barriers among the region’s insurance customers who have been turned off by pushy sellers. Yet she also warns that awareness of social networking “is not yet present in insurance companies. I started developing a personal interactive website and am going to publish this website shortly, aiming, inshallah, to have good responses from my clients. Most of my personal clients are waiting for such social media because it facilitates the communication between us.”
It is no surprise that the next generation of leaders in Arab insurance companies are excited about the potential for social networking in the industry. But it also begs the question on how much time will have to pass before an Arab insurance spring will see the light of day. For the moment at least, insurance companies in Lebanon — many of which 10 years ago said they embraced the idea of using online channels for insurance marketing — seem to have turned their online channels to low maintenance, as there is not a ‘tweet’ or Facebook link to be seen on many a provider’s website.