This will be a short but important part in this series on insurance investing. It deals with the accounting, and applies to all areas of insurance. Insurance accounting is complex. When an insurance policy is written, the insurer does not know the true cost of the liability that it has incurred; that will only be known over time.
Now the actuaries inside the firm most of the time have a better idea than outsiders as to where reserve should be set to pay future claims from existing business, but even they don’t know for sure. Some lines of insurance do not have a strong method of calculating reserves. This was/is true of most financial insurance, title insurance, etc., and as such, many such insurers got wiped out in the collapse of the housing bubble, because they did not realize that they were taking one big nondiversifiable risk. The law of large numbers did not apply, because the results were highly correlated with housing prices, financial asset prices, etc.
Even with a long-tailed P&C insurance coverage, setting the reserves can be more of an art than science. That is why I try to underwrite insurance management teams to understand whether they are conservative or not. I would rather get a string of positive surprises than negative surprises, and you tend to one or the other.
There are a couple ways to analyze this:
1) This had more punch when interest rates were higher, because insurance managements were more tempted to compromise underwriting, because they had compelling investment opportunities, but asking the anti-question, “How are you planning on growing the top line next year?” is a good one.
An inexperienced or liberal management team will try to talk about business opportunities. An experienced, or conservative management team will say, “We don’t target top line growth. We aim for growth in fully converted book value per share. We only grow the top line when the market favors that, and ability to write risks at favorable prices is easy.”
Conservative investors should be wary of any financial company that is growing aggressively; finance is a mature industry, and sustainable competitive advantages are few.
2) What is the company’s attitude on reserving? How often do they report significant additional claims incurred from business written more than a year ago? Good companies establish strong reserves on current year business, which depress current year profits, but gain reserve releases from prior year strongly set reserves.
So get out the 10K, and look for “Increase (decrease) in net losses and loss expenses incurred in respect of losses occurring in: prior years.” That value should be consistently negative. That is a sign that he management team does not care about maximizing current period profits but is conservative in its reserving practices.
One final note: point 2 does not work with life insurers. They don’t have to give that disclosure. My concern with life insurers is different at present because I don’t trust the reserving of secondary guarantees, which are promises made where the liability cannot easily be calculated, and where the regulators are behind the curve.
As such, I am leery of life insurers that write a lot of variable business, among other hard-to-value practices. Simplicity of product design is a plus to investors.
In all things as investors, aim for a margin of safety. That is the hallmark of value investing.