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GCC & Levant – The fog of financial crisis

Transparency at a premium as insurers issue obfuscation

by Executive Staff

The long-term effects of the global financial crisis have already begun to take hold of the industry as lower demand for oil, resulting from the effects of a global financial crisis, has pulled the rug from under the inflated oil revenues the region was lavishing in only a few months ago — albeit with double-digit inflation. Oil-rich governments do have a certain amount of financial cushion hoarded in their sovereign wealth funds, but individual disposable income will suffer as a result of lower cash flow in the region. Oil-poor nations will also be directly affected by less disposable income in places like the GCC, as their residents will be less able to send remittances to countries such as Lebanon, where remittances constitute around 25% of GDP. The decrease in regional disposable income will prove another substantial hurdle for a regional insurance industry already dealing with low demand and penetration.

For an industry that depends heavily on investment revenues, it comes as no surprise that Return on Investments (ROIs) have suffered greatly as a direct result of the global financial crisis. “Some of the largest players’ 2008 Q3 year-on-year income came down by 70% or more,” said Thomas Schellen, publishing editor at Zawya Dow Jones. Previous statements touting the region’s relative immunity to the effects of the financial crisis have proved to be nothing more than wishful thinking, as the Middle East’s equity markets have tumbled subsequent to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, exacerbating an already unstable market environment. As Executive went to press, the Tadawul, the largest Arab bourse by capitalization ($296 billion), had lost half its value in 2008. Other regional equity markets have followed suit creating a situation where the regional insurance industry will be hard pressed to find lucrative investment opportunities to prop up their recent profit losses in 2009. “The whole investment philosophy is changing […] what we see now is that whatever diversification you do or assets you acquire, everything is going down,” explained Farid Chedid, managing director at Chedid Re.

The bottom line dropping out
The perilous financial environment prevailing today has undoubtedly prompted regional insurers to shift their focus from investment income to technical underwriting, but they will be unable to completely retrench from the investment side of the industry, as “there will be no escape from their [insurer’s] financial dependency [and] this will affect the bottom line of insurers very directly,” Schellen said. Thus, all regional insurance companies can do to shield themselves somewhat from the effects of the global financial crisis is to change their bullish investment strategy to one that mitigates risk and, where possible, pulls out completely. “The average rate of investment income will drop heavily and become very conservative,” said Elie Nasnas, director general of AXA Middle East. According to Michael Bitzer, CEO of Daman, “People will start to reevaluate how they invest for retirement. In the past they were investing in real estate and stock markets here and in their own countries, and now I think that they will be looking for a more stable form of investment and return so this might spur more demand for such products.” Bitzer explained that risky investment products will also make up much less of a proportion of insurers portfolios as customers are less willing to embrace risks under the current financial circumstances.
Furthermore, the exposure of the American Insurance Group (AIG) to subprime losses has tarnished the image of insurance agencies in the public consciousness in the West but has yet to significantly affect the regional insurance environment. “People do not realize that this might affect their local insurer,” Bitzer said. “I think that the majority of our clients are not educated enough to understand that even AIG has a problem and maybe they should check with their own insurer.” Moreover, there is a perceived notion that the losses at AIG have aided many of their competitors in the region. “The troubles at AIG have helped their competitors; there is no doubt about that,” said Chedid. However, if the financial crisis continues to affect AIG the outlook for many regional insurance markets does not look promising, as “there are territories where if, God forbid, AIG falls you will have a crisis, like Lebanon, where their market share is huge and this would become a social problem,” Chedid concluded.
Both AIG and Alico Lebanon (a subsidiary of AIG) declined to be interviewed for this article. However, Osama Abdeen, executive vice president of AIG MEMSA released a statement to Executive saying, “AIG’s insurance companies remain financially healthy and are meeting all policyholder obligations. Insurance is a regulated business. Regulators ensure that each AIG member insurance company has adequate assets to back each policy and meet all policyholder obligations. Policyholders are protected and their policies are safe.”

Losses? What losses?
The unwillingness to divulge information to the public and press about profits and losses during a global financial meltdown is suspicious, as well as indicative, of a general industry slowdown and a loss of profit growth. “Numerous companies in the GCC have put off their announcements of their 3rd quarter results as far back as they can, to as much as 45 days, rather than 10 or 20 days” said Schellen. “This is an indicator that they are not really happy about what they will have to say.”
The lack of transparency in an industry that operates using reserves from their clients to attain ROIs seems contradictory to the interests of the industry as a whole. “The success of the insurance industry is linked to its transparency,” Chedid said. “There is definitely a need for better regulation and automatically more access to information.”
Countries like Qatar, Jordan and the UAE increased their transparency rating in 2008 according to Transparency International (TI), the global organization that monitors transparency and corruption. This, however, is not indicative of wider regional reform and the effects of the sector’s opaqueness are being felt in the regional insurance industry.
“One indicator is that there are laggards currently in announcing quarterly results,” said Schellen. “It took a lot of convincing in order for companies to tell us their breakdown figures in terms of the real benchmarks, like how much revenue comes from underwriting and how much comes from investment. In some countries, like the UAE, they won’t do it by line of business; they will give us technical results but will not announce them for each line of business,” he explained. In Lebanon this trend is proving to be a huge impediment to the growth of the local market, as current legislation is deemed inadequate and government is uncooperative in providing information to local insurers.
“Legislation only goes so far as to require companies to publish their financial statements,” said Nasnas. “We used to compile a report for the Lebanese market, but this year we still have not gotten the consolidated figures from the Ministry of Economics for us to carry on in making the report. Many reinsurers and insurers, both regional and international, as well as many international groups are asking for the figures from Lebanon for 2007 and we don’t have them.”
With the need for growth potential as high as ever, one can only hope that governments increase their efforts to increase transparency in the region for the good of the insurance industry and us all.

Propping up the industry
In times of crisis, the need to stay ahead of the competition is even more pertinent to a company’s operations and the insurance industry is no different. “Modernization is a necessity for local companies to be able to survive if we have an economic downturn in the region,” said Chedid.
To stay ahead, many regional organizations are making blanket investments in the modernization of business sectors and processes. One of the main areas in which the regional insurance industry is undergoing an overhaul is in the IT sector.
“Any company that wants to be significant has to beef up their IT and bring it up to global standards — this started in 2008 and will definitely continue in 2009,” Bitzer asserted. “Companies are focusing more on this, especially regional companies, because when you are of a certain size you cannot operate without a very efficient IT system,” added Nasnas.
Another area of the industry where companies are suffering is in the lack of adequate human resources for regional markets to accommodate the needs of the regional insurance industry, which is “an issue weighing heavily on the back of insurance companies in the region,” according to Schellen. Today, except for Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan, most of the insurance staffing is imported from outside the region. Furthermore, within the region itself local talent is being uprooted from countries in the region where insurance penetration and expertise is concentrated to the more lucrative areas in the region, inevitably causing a brain drain on many local markets. “In Lebanon we had a huge HR problem in 2008 because all the people we train get great offers from the Gulf and leave,” Nasnas said. Also, within the Gulf states many traditional staffers from the Indian subcontinent are moving back to their home countries, now that the opportunity cost of returning has decreased as a result of the emerging nature of these economies. The void created further exacerbates the human resource shortage in countries like Lebanon. “There is a need to replace [the workers from South Asia] and they are doing it with highly qualified human resources that mostly come from Lebanon,” Nasnas said.
At the end of the day, however, it is growth which will accommodate for any pitfalls in the insurance industry. The implications of lower oil prices will have their ramifications on growth capabilities across the region in 2009. However, the nature of the regional insurance environment has the ‘wiggle-room’, as well as the willpower to endure the effects of a global financial crisis and come out on the other end looking better off than when this whole mess began.


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