Ahead of the new tax year, UK insurers were reportedly updating policies to remove references to pandemics and wording that could leave them liable to future coronavirus claims.
On one level, that’s eminently sensible. Insurers are not charities, and are only able to provide cover by pooling collective exposure to unforeseen risks. There’s little sense in walking out into a packed motorway, after all.
But the anecdotal evidence mirrors two themes that explain why sector share prices have been so badly impaired, despite little tangible evidence that the coronavirus will prove a catastrophic hit to insurers’ reserves and capital.
The first is implied: if insurers were indeed scrambling to tweak policies, does this mean valid claims might already be massive?
Here, it is hard to say. Direct Line (DLG) reported a spike in travel claims in March, although this was beneath its reinsurance threshold and likely to be offset by lower motor claims. Peel Hunt reckons the hit from business claims including interruption, general liability and event cancellation insurance could have a “material impact” on the likes of Beazley (BEZ), Lancashire (LRE) and Hiscox (HSX), although the latter has said pandemics are only covered in a “very small part” of its portfolio.
The second theme is equally hard for investors to process: how beholden are insurers to political pressure, and what is the cost of a conciliatory approach to claims?
Judging by the tone of some lawmakers and regulators, it seems increasingly likely that a highly solvent sector will be asked to share some of the broader economic pain – even if specific risks are not covered. Here, we are treading into the unknown.
Then there is optics, which explains why regulatory pressure is mounting in both the UK and Europe for dividend cuts. “When deciding on distributions boards should satisfy themselves that each distribution is prudent and consistent with their risk appetite,” wrote the Prudential Regulation Authority in a letter to insurance CEOs last week. In doing so, the watchdog wants companies to play their “full part in supporting the real economy throughout the economic disruption arising from Covid-19”.
When national duty is invoked in this way, you can forget shareholder primacy. As such, until they are paid, the dividends of UK giants Aviva (AV.), RSA (RSA), and Direct Line (DLG) all look vulnerable, despite those companies’ varying exposure to coronavirus-related claims.
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