Premium outlook on growth of UAE insurance market

Total insurance premiums in this country are forecast to rise this year even as premium rates continue to drop but new regulations are likely to help shore up the fragmented and highly competitive industry.

Written premiums rose 13.5 per cent annually to Dh33.5 billion last year, according to the Insurance Authority.

Written premiums of the 29 listed insurers in the UAE is forecast to rise 10 per cent annually, this year and next year, according to estimates by ratings agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P). Motor and medical constitutes about 60 per cent of market growth, according to S&P.

“There is a very promising outlook for market growth,” says Raymond Hurley, a PwC partner for financial services and deals in Dubai. “Economics and demographics support the outlook for market growth but it will continue to be a challenge for insurers in the UAE.

“On the retail side, the whole life side of insurance is under penetrated.”

Insurance premiums are likely to grow despite a slower economy due to the low oil price environment.

“If oil prices remain low for a long period and affect the economic growth of the UAE, it will not have a major knock on effect on the insurance market due to the low penetration rates and the continued introduction of compulsory insurance products,” says Mahesh Mistry, the director of analytics at the ratings agency AM Best.

A new law requiring compulsory health insurance for all Dubai residents, which will be implemented over two and a half years, is expected to be a key driver for the industry.

Insurance penetration in the Arabian Gulf remains low, at about 1.1 per cent in 2012, below one-sixth of the global average, according to a 2013 insurance report by the Dubai investment bank Alpen Capital. The penetration rate indicates the level of development of the insurance sector in a country. It is measured as the ratio of premium underwritten in a particular year to GDP. Gulf penetration levels are forecast to reach 2 per cent by 2017, according to Alpen.

Despite the growth, premium rates are nosediving. With 60 insurers competing in a country of 9.5 million, premium rates particularly for motor and medical are under pressure. But some insurers are taking a stand and raising some of their prices.

“We think that persistent trend of weakening pricing on the medical side and motor side is slowly coming to a halt in 2015,” says Kevin Willis an analyst at S&P. “The hunt for premium at any price is slowly being seen as a flawed practice.” The low premium environment has hit the profitability of insurance companies.

For example, Abu Dhabi National Insurance Company, which is listed in the capital, reported a net loss of Dh299 million in the first half of this year, compared with a net profit of Dh104m in the year-earlier period, due to a net underwriting loss of Dh248m in the first half of this year. The listed insurers had a net underwriting deficit last year, for the first time in years, with an aggregate combined ratio of 102 per cent versus 97 per cent in 2013, according to S&P.

A combined ratio measures claims and expenses to premium income. A combined ratio of above 100 per cent is a loss, and under 100 per cent is a profit.

“Greater scrutiny of underwriting practices should install greater market discipline; however, intense competition is likely to keep rates soft and thereby make the operating environment challenging over the coming year,” says Mr Mistry.

Besides their underwriting woes, insurers face tough times with their investment portfolios.

The Insurance Authority issued new regulations in February that place restrictions on how companies can invest their money and how much exposure they can have to an asset class.

Traditionally, insurers in the UAE have invested in the property and equities markets, asset classes that suffer from volatility. That is why some, such as Oman Insurance Company, are diversifying away into bonds to have a more stable stream of income.

“The fact we are operating in a low interest rate environment and companies cannot depend on high investment yields, buoyant real estate and equity markets that companies have enjoyed in the past, this creates more pressure on the technical margins,” says Mr Mistry.

“In order to improve return on equity, given the low yield environment, there is greater focus to create sustained earnings on the investment side and maintain greater prudence on underwriting.”

The rules also require companies to have an independent investment committee and included measures aimed at strengthening corporate governance, compliance and risk management. All of these measures are expected to help foster consolation in the industry.

“The single biggest impetus to it [mergers and acquisitions] is probably in the insurance regulations, with an implementation horizon of three to five years,” says Mr Hurley.

“Do you invest a lot of money to change your business to be compliant with these new rules to bring the capital levels up to the level that the Insurance Authority will require going forward or would it make more financial sense to consider selling your business to a larger insurer?,” he says.

The consolidation drive, though, may be hampered by the nature of insurance companies. Many are owned by family groups that may be reluctant to relinquish control.

“The cultural challenge is that a lot of the smaller to midsize insurers have their origin in family groups and there is a certain amount of understandable pride by family groups in continuing to have a part in the insurance industry,” says Mr Hurley.

“That is something that can be resolved only through a combination of the Insurance Authority and Ministry of Finance seeing how best to ensure that only those who have the financial wherewithal are the ones who stay in the business.”

The brokers and reinsurers are also to blame for some of the industry’s troubles, according to analysts.

“There is an oversupply in reinsurance capacity in the market, which had kept pricing soft,” says Mr Mistry.

“A lot of the primary insurers in the market benefit from inward commissions from the reinsurers, particularly on high value risks.

“Where reinsurers see margins being excessively squeezed, they are looking to restructure the reinsurance contract, reduce commissions or tightening terms and conditions.”

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