IFSC insurers not shaken by crisis
Despite the crash and competition from Switzerland, international insurers are still drawn to these shores, writes Laura Noonan
Published 02/12/2010 | 05:00
THERE was more than a hint of the surreal as IFSC tsar John Bruton took to the podium in London last Thursday.
Back home, the IMF was running a fine tooth comb through Ireland's books and putting the finishing touches on a banking rescue necessitated by a decade of abysmal regulation.
And here in London, Bruton was telling international insurance and reinsurance powerhouses that Ireland was the place to be, now more than ever.
Even more peculiarly, the 100 or so lawyers and executives who'd gathered for the event weren't sniggering into their lattes or blinking in disbelief.
"We foresee terrific opportunities in Ireland," says Mark Hewlett, head of Beazley Re, confirming insurers' enduring love for Ireland. "Often when a country goes through crisis it comes out of it much better."
Beazley Re has already voted with its feet, setting up its Irish reinsurance base in 2009 -- after the economy had already turned and massive financial regulation failings were revealed on the global stage.
And they're not the only ones.
Since 2008, big name insurers like Willis, Zurich, Aviva and XL have all set up substantial operations here, using Ireland to sell to the wider world or as a regional hub or global headquarters.
DIMA, which represents international insurance entities trading out of Ireland, has added about 10 members in the last year alone and now represents about 70 companies, including some of the world's biggest reinsurers.
"I haven't had anyone come to me and say they're concerned about being in Ireland because of the economic situation and everything that's being going on," says DIMA chief executive Sarah Goddard.
"They're a little bit separate from what's going on domestically because their business is international -- if anything, because of the economic crisis, costs have come down making Ireland more attractive."
But while the onward march of Ireland's international insurance hub continues despite the country's many woes, the sector is not without its own risks and challenges.
As the reach of international insurance grows ever deeper -- DIMA's members controlled about €65bn of assets at the last count in 2008 -- comparisons with Ireland's rapidly growing banking system and its collapse are inevitable.
How long before the insurance black hole appears, people ask, and how long before Ireland's taxpayers end up footing the multi-billion euro bill for that as well? And should insurers not be footing the bill for their future bailouts up front, to minimise the risk to us?
The insurers themselves aren't universally happy campers either. The recent talk about changing Ireland's corporate tax rate sent out some serious frighteners internationally, and some companies are still fearful that changes may come if the four-year plan fails to deliver.
The "exuberant" regulatory approach adopted by fledgling Financial Regulator Matthew Elderfield has knocked some noises out of joint as well, with some insurers still smarting over corporate governance changes proposed and later abandoned.
Meanwhile, fresh competitive challenges loom in the form of Switzerland, which is fast developing a new regulatory regime that could give it "equivalency" to EU member states, making the Swiss capital a credible threat to Ireland's insurance dominance.
The spectre of Ireland ending up on the hook for billions of international insurers' losses is one Dima's Goddard is particularly keen to dispel.
"You don't get a run on insurance companies the same way you get a run on banks," she says. "The nature of insurance means that the run off can take decades and may end up being solvent. You don't get the same catastrophic failures as you do in banking."
Over at the London conference, William Fry's insurance head John Larkin was also quick to point out that insurers don't pose the same "systemic risk" at banks and were at "no particular risk of becoming insolvent".
The European Commission, however, appears unconvinced by the insurance-is-safe-as-houses argument; so much so that it's drawing up plans for an insurance guarantee scheme that would cover the cost of future collapses.
"Although not the root of the crisis, the insurance sector has proved far from being immune," the EC says in a consultation paper on the scheme, pointing to "particularly severe losses" suffered by some European insurers in recent years.
The commission wants to establish a scheme that would protect consumers by making all retail insurers pay a levy that would go into a fund to cover any bailout.
Under the proposals, the Irish fund would be on the hook for bailing out international policyholders of Dublin-regulated retail insurers like Zurich and Aviva -- though these insurers would make proportionate contributions to the scheme.
Goddard is adamant that, even if a massive IFSC-based reinsurer collapsed, there would be no come back on the Irish taxpayer. "There's no guarantee because they're only dealing with other companies not consumers," she says.
"The bottom line is that if one of the big reinsurers goes, that portfolio would not be the responsibility of the State."
For his part, regulator Elderfield is doing his damnedest to make sure none of the Irish-regulated international insurers go belly up at all.
Having arrived in Ireland from the insurance hub of Bermuda, Elderfield is praised for being more familiar with insurance matters than his predecessors, and his recent appointment to the International Association of Insurance Supervisors has also won him fans.
Under his leadership, the insurance team at the Central Bank has grown from 58 in May to about 90, and is set to rise to 120 by 2012, and newcomers now enjoy a much faster authorisation process.
On a day-to-day basis, insurers across the board are experiencing heightened oversight and more vigorous interrogations.
"Insurers wouldn't have had the same cosy relationship with the Regulator that the banks had, but regulation is definitely getting more intense," says Stephen Devine who heads TransAmerica Re, one of Ireland's largest reinsurers.
While international insurers rush to welcome enhanced supervision that ultimately copperfastens their reputations, not all elements of the new regime have gone down so smoothly.
Last spring, Elderfield published draft corporate governance rules for banks and insurers requiring all boards to meet monthly, have independent chairmen and have a majority of independent directors.
IFSC insurers, along with IFSC banks, vigorously opposed the proposals -- which they deemed wholly inappropriate for subsidiary companies that had no consumer operations.
Elderfield ultimately backed away, imposing the harshest rules on "major" institutions and leaving the IFSC firms with a much watered-down version, something Dima's Goddard says "reinforced trust" with the industry.
Others disagree. "They proposals were changed, but you have to ask, what was he [Elderfield] thinking publishing them in the first place," asks one major reinsurer.
"It certainly raised eyebrows at our parent company and showed us how important he thinks we are."
While the corporate governance legacy hangs over the international insurance sector, the corporate tax debacle casts a longer shadow.
In London, Bruton was at pains to insist that Ireland's 12.5pc rate was sacrosanct and predated our entry to the EU by almost two decades.
Some audiences remain tough to convince. "The corporate tax threat was a real time issue for our parent," says TransAmerica Re's Devine. "They would certainly have been looking at fall-back plans if anything changed.
"Now they're trying to understand how plausible the Government's solutions are; they're still concerned that corporate tax might be changed if the plan doesn't work. It's something they'll be keeping a watching brief on."
While the insurers who are already in Ireland seem unperturbed by the country's current woes, prospective insurers could well be another story.
"The core ingredients of the industry are still sound," says William Fry's Larkin. "The first and biggest challenge is repairing the damage to Ireland's reputation . . . there's a perception out there that the whole market is about to collapse."
Niggling uncertainties about the tax rate and concerns about Ireland generally are coming at a crucial time in the insurance sector.
Across Europe, insurers are looking to reorganise their balance sheets to deal with new European regulations -- known as Solvency II.
So far Ireland has enjoyed much of this uplift, with William Fry's Larkin suggesting that more companies could flock to our shores as Solvency II draws nearer. "It's not a good time for people to be wondering about things like corporate tax," says one source.
A new competitive threat is lurking in the wings, poised to jump on any Ireland-wary insurers. Dima's Goddard says there's a "growing phenomenon" of insurers choosing to locate in Switzerland as the non-EU country develops a new regulatory regime.
"It will be assessed by the EU next year with a view to equivalency [with EU regulations]," says Goddard.
"As things stand, if an insurance company from the EU buys reinsurance from Switzerland they may have to put up more solvency capital to make up for the fact that their reinsurer is regulated to a different standard.
"If Switzerland gets equivalency, insurance companies won't be penalised for buying from Swiss-based reinsurers."
Challenges or not, Ireland certainly has built up a loyal guard of existing international insurers in Ireland.
In London, Met Life Europe's boss Dan Gallagher said his company continued to have a "very positive" view of their Irish business, comments that were echoed by XL Re Europe's general manager Mark Berry.
"You're taking a very negative line on this," says Beazley's Hewlett. "We see terriffic opportunities in Ireland . . . Ireland will come out stronger as a result of the difficult it's going through."