I wrote this piece once, and lost it, 1000 words.  Going to try again.

1) The first thing to realize is that diversification across insurance subindustries usually does not work.

Do not mix:

  • Life & P&C
  • Financial & Anything
  • Health & Anything

Maybe you can mix P&C, Mortgage & Title, after all Old Republic survived.  The main point is this.  Insurance is not uniform.  Coverages are sold and underwritten differently.  Generally, higher valuations will be obtained on “pure play” companies  Diversification is swamped by management inability.  These are reasons for AIG and Allstate to spin off their life operations.

2) Middle-sized companies tend to do best from a valuation standpoint: the large have nowhere to grow, and the small are always questionable on their viability.  With a few exceptions, I like sticking with focused mid-cap companies with my insurance names.

3) Be aware of total subindustry capital relative to need.  After a big disaster, those that underwrote well will have capital to deploy into a stronger underwriting environment, where capital is scarce.  But don’t make too much of it because capital has become very fluid in insurance; the barriers to entry and exit are low.  Still, it is best to be an investor after a disaster, when everyone is running scared.  When total capital is high, and companies are fat, dumb, and happy, it is time to leave.

4) It’s good to look through the Statutory statements [regulatory statements filed with state insurance regulators] of their operating insurance subsidiaries to look for odd entries.  Occasionally, you will run into problems that do not have to be reported under GAAP accounting.  (Note: they should be reported under the spirit of GAAP, but not the letter of GAAP.  I have a saying, “It is okay to violate GAAP to be more honest, but not to be less honest.”)

Here’s an example: I ran across a life company that had to post an extra statutory reserve because they would lose money if interest rates rose.  That’s a significant admission, and the company was invested far more aggressively than almost all the other life companies we were tracking.  We shorted it, and got ripped as the credit markets surged 2003-2005.  We got out with a small gain when their earnings proved inadequate as interest rates rose, and credit losses rose.  But it took a long time.

At this point, I would be looking for special reserves established for secondary guarantees established for Term and Universal Life, and Variable Life & Annuity policies.  There is no specific requirement to hold those reserves on a GAAP basis, even though there may be general principles that would encourage additional reserves or disclosures.

5) There are ways of multiplying capital across subsidiaries — Subsidiary A reinsures liabilities of subsidiary B, while Subsidiary B reinsures liabilities of subsidiary A.  This is a way to create hidden leverage, so be aware of what is being done at the subsidiary level.  Doing these sorts of things is dumb, though legal.

Reviewing leverage is a good idea as well, where it is located, and what conditions it has.  The practice of insurance subsidiaries issuing surplus notes to parent companies has become all too common, which allows subsidiaries to write more business at the risk that when a subsidiary becomes impaired, the domiciliary state takes it over, and the parent company gets little to nothing.  (Payments on surplus notes can only be made with the approval of the insurance commissioner. In insolvency surplus notes typically receive nothing.)

The thing is, it is a lot harder to produce return on assets than return on equity. Though part 6 focused on ROE, in the short run, insurance companies can improve their ROE through substituting debt for equity.  The same applies to insurance companies that write GIC Medium Term Notes.  It’s just a cheap way of making a little extra income arbitraging your subsidiary’s high claims paying ability rating.  It fascinates me that regulators have allowed the insurance industry such latitude with deposit contracts that are called annuities, but have never once been annuitized.

Another hidden source of leverage are financial reinsurance agreements.  Down in the insurance subsidiaries, companies trade away a portion of future profits for surplus today.  These are usually bad deals to enter into, but because some insurance companies have a sales culture that requires continual growth, even if the sales that don’t justify the cost of capital required to back the policies.

6) Free cash flow is difficult to determine for financials, this applies to insurers as well.  Each regulator has rules on how much can be paid in dividends to their holding company.  Typically, subsidiaries can dividend away surplus so long as they are still strongly capitalized after the dividend.  (If it is large, they may have to petition their regulator for approval)  So if you want to approximate free cash flow for an insurer, try the following:  (Income or loss outside your insurance companies for the current period) + (Distributable Income from insurance companies for the current period).  The latter figure is statutory income +/- any decrease/(increase) in capital required to maintain the remaining business with adequate financial strength, calculated separately for each subsidiary.

7) Last note: on DAC/VOBA [deferred acquisition costs, value of business acquired; they  are similar, so I will just talk about DAC].  Once I had to convince a boss that though it is an intangible, like goodwill, it is not like goodwill in that it is more rigorously tested for recoverability.  If DAC gets written down (as opposed to amortized) that means that the future sum of profits on some of the insurance business is expected to be less than the acquisition costs deferred for the business.

Now, DAC can be done conservatively, by product and class year.  The more disaggregated it is, the more conservative, generally.  A few cells getting written down is no big thing.  But DAC can be as liberal as having one cell, which means if DAC is written down, the total value of future profits from existing business has been reduced — the company is worth a lot less.  The change in value is even more than the reduction in the DAC, because in the writedown process, the discount rate on the DAC went from a positive number to zero.  All other things equal, a DAC asset is worth more the higher its discount rate.

S0 pay attention: if DAC amortization is high relative to net income before tax, it means there isn’t that much margin for adverse deviation in the DAC.  Also, all other things equal, lower levels of DAC as a fraction of net worth are better.

Close with a story: before Mony Group was bought by AXA, it was doing DAC for the company as a whole.  A value investor, seeing the discount to book value, and sensing opportunity bought a lot of Mony.  Profitability was so bad, they had to write down DAC.  Book value declined & price to book value declined as well.  The value investor agitated for a sale, and AXA stepped in, buying it for moderate premium to where it was trading.  The group I was with went long for an arbitrage trade on a cash deal.

But the value investor thought the premium wasn’t high enough and agitated for more.  Because the takeout price was 70% of book, the idea seemed plausible.  But when you factored in the DAC earning 0% and a few other items, it looked generous enough to me.  So when the price got several percent above the deal terms we sold our stake and went short as much as we could find without having to pay much interest on the borrow.  Bit-by-bit the stock price moved down until a few days before the deal would close, when the price collapsed below the deal price, and we covered.  We even arbed a little more on the long side, but the trade was over.

And the point is this: it may look cheap, but test your assumptions on the values of assets and liabilities before committing a lot of capital to a any insurance stock.  GAAP, Tax and adjusted Statutory income validate book value, so a cheap stock with a low return on equity or assets is often not cheap.

This piece is the sixth out of seven in a series that I have been writing at Aleph Blog.  Here are links to the first five pieces:

Recently I decided to spend some time analyzing the insurance industry.  It’s a different place today than when I became a buy-side analyst ten years ago.  Why?

First, for practical purposes, all of the insurers of credit are gone.  Yes, we have Assured Guaranty, and MBIA is limping along. Old Republic still exists. Radian and MGIC exist in reduced states.  The rest have disappeared.  In one sense, this should not have been a surprise, because the mortgage and credit guaranty businesses never had a scientific model for reserving.  I’m not even sure it is possible to have that.

Second, the title insurers are diminished.  Some, like LandAmerica are gone. Fidelity National seems to be diversifying itself out of insurance, buying up a restaurant chain last year.

Third, health insurers face an uncertain future.  Obamacare may disappear, or Obamacare could slowly eliminate insurers.  It’s a mess.  Insurers debate to what degree they should compete in insurance exchanges.

But beyond all of that, valuations are fair-to-cheap across the insurance industry.  Part of that may stem from ETFs.  Insurers as a whole are smaller than the banks, but not as much smaller as they used to be.  Now, if you are a hedge fund, and you want to short banks, you probably have the best liquidity shorting a basket of financials, which shorts insurers as well.

That may be part of the issue.  There are other aspects, which I will try to address as I go through subindustries.


By “Offshore” I mean P&C reinsurers and secondarily insurers that do business significantly in the US, and who list primarily on US exchanges, but are not based in the US.  Most of them are located in Bermuda.

In 2011-2012, many of them were challenged by the high levels of catastrophes globally.  But the prices of the reinsurers did not fall because pricing power returned, and investors expect higher future earnings as a result.

Before I go on, I need to explain that what I will use to give a rough analysis of value is a Price-to-Book vs Return on Equity analysis [PB-ROE].  For more details, you can read my article here.  The short explanation is that companies in the insurance business (and other financials) are constrained by the amount of equity (net worth) that they have.  The ability to earn a return as a percentage of the equity [ROE] drives the market valuation as a fraction of the equity [P/B].

Here is a scatterplot for PB-ROE for the Offshore group:



Companies above the line may be overvalued, and companies below the line may be undervalued.  ROE is what is expected by analysts for the next fiscal year, not what has been obtained in the past.

The fit is fairly tight, and indicates mostly logical valuations for this group.  The companies that are possibly overvalued are: Arch Capital [ACGL] and Renaissance Re [RNR]. Possibly undervalued: Tower Group [TWGP] and Endurance Specialty [ENH].

Now, this simple model can fail if you have an intelligent management team that has a better model.  Arch Capital and Renaissance Re may be that.  But with an expected ROE of less than 20%, it is hard to justify their valuation, when the average stock in this group needs an expected 11% ROE to be valued at book.

Why such a high ROE to get book?  Earnings quality.  Reinsurers have noisy earnings due to catastrophes.  You don’t give high valuations to companies that run hot or cold.  But the trick here is to see who is accumulating book value the fastest – they tend to be the stars over time.  Endurance and Arch have been good at that.


The life insurance business would be simple, if it indeed were only life insurance.  Much of the industry is handed over to annuities, and all manner of asset gathering.  Even life insurance can be made more complex through variable and variable universal life, where assets are invested in stocks, and do not receive a rate from the company.

Part of the trouble is that variable products are not simple, but the insurers offer guarantees for a fee.  When I see those products, my reaction is usually, “How do they hedge that?!”

Thus I am concerned for insurers that are “equity-sensitive” as I reckon them.  Here is the PB-ROE scatterplot:



A tight fit.  The insurers that are seemingly undervalued are equity-sensitive ones: Phoenix Companies [PNX], Aegon [AEG], and ING [ING].  Those that are overvalued are Citizens [CIA], Eastern Insurance Holdings [EIHI], and Atlantic American [AAME].  For the undervalued companies, I am unlikely to buy because I am skeptical of the accounting.  I would look further down the list and consider buying some companies that are more reliable, like Assurant [AIZ], National Western [NWLI], and Fortegra Financial Corp [FRF].

One more note: to get book value in Life Insurance, you need a 9.8% ROE on average.  That’s high, but I expect that is so because investors are skeptical about the accounting.

Property & Casualty

This graph gives PB-ROE for the entire onshore P&C insurance industry:



It’s a good fit.  Again, the casualties of the last year weigh on the property-centric insurers, but for the most part, this is logical.

Potential underperformers include First Acceptance [FAC], Employers Holdings [EIG], and Erie Indemnity [ERIE].  Below the line: Hartford Financial Services [HIG], Hilltop Holdings [HTH] Hartford Financial [HIG], and United Insurance Holdings [USIH].

Again, these are only screening tools.  Before buying or selling, understanding management and reserving quality, and riskiness of the lines of business makes a considerable difference.  Erie Indemnity has an “asset light” model where it manages insurers, but does not bear underwriting risk.  Hartford has a significant life insurance and annuity exposure.  Models are models, and we have to understand their limitations.


With Obamacare, I don’t know which end is up.  It could end up being a giant sop to the health insurers, or it could destroy the health insurers in order to create a government single-payer model, rather than the optimal model for cost reduction, where first parties pay directly, or pay insurers.  You want reductions in medical costs, get the government out of healthcare, and that includes the corporate deduction for employee health insurance.

My rationale is this: it could mess up the private market enough that the solution reached for is a single payer solution. I’ve talked with a decent number of health actuaries on this. The ability to price risk is distinctly limited. Young people pay too much, older folks too little. That’s a formula for antiselection. I think Obamacare was badly designed. I will not achieve its ends, and when the expenses start coming in, they will be far higher than anticipated. That has been the experience of the government in health care in the US. Utilization is underestimated, the further removed people from feeling its costs.

There are many models for profitability here, which makes things complex, but here is the present PB-ROE graph:


It’s an okay fit, with the idea that the following companies might be undervalued: Wellpoint [WLP] and Humana [HUM].  And the following overvalued:  Molina Healthcare [MOH].

I don’t regard myself as an expert on the health insurance sub-industry, so treat this with skepticism.  I include it for completeness, because I think the PB-ROE concept has value in insurance.  One more note, the PB-ROE model thinks of this as a safe investment subindustry, because to have a book value valuation, you have to have an ROE of 1.8%.

Financial Insurers

This group comprises the surviving mortgage, title and financial insurers, and two companies in the ghoulish business of buying life insurance policies from sick people.  Here’s the PB-ROE graph:


This graph is weird, because it slopes down, and does not have a good fit.  That’s because we’ve been through a rough period financially, and in many cases GAAP accounting does not do a good job with these companies that take a lot of credit risk.

We can still look for companies that have high price-to-book, and low ROEs – note Life Partners [LPHI] and Radian [RDN] as possible sell candidates. We can also look for companies that have low price-to-book, and high ROEs – note Assured Guaranty [AGO] and MBIA [MBI] as possible buy candidates.

This subsector is more difficult than most, because credit is not an underwritable risk.  It is feast and famine.  We are in a period of feast now, so in some ways what is bad is good.  The more risk, the more return.  But winter may come soon – who knows what the Fed may do?  In general, I avoid this subsector for longs.

Insurance-Related Companies

This is a group that is a non-group.  It comprises brokers and insurance service providers.  Here’s the PB-ROE graph:

Insurance Related

It doesn’t look like much of a group.

As it is the potential outperformers include Brown & Brown [BRO], and Aon [AON], two leading insurance brokers.  A potential underperformer Willis Group [WSH], another leading insurance broker.


Insurance is complex, and the accounting is doubly complex, which is a major reason why many stay away from it.  But insurers as a group have had reliable and outsized returns over the rememberable past, which should encourage us to do a little kicking of the tires when a decent amount of the industry trades below its net worth and is still earning money with little debt.

In my opinion, this is a recipe for earnings in the future, and why I own a lot of insurers for myself, and for clients.

In the final part of this series, I will go over some nuances of insurance accounting – I leave it to the end because it is kind of dull, but can make a lot of difference, because some companies look cheap and aren’t really cheap.

Full disclosure: long AIZ, ENH, NWLI for clients and myself


The Squishy Stuff

I think I have just one more post left after this one, and this series ends.  This post deals with qualitative factors, which are harder to ascertain than the quantitative factors, and require more experience in order to learn.  But maybe I can aid my readers with a few pointers so they can learn faster.

Before we go, this series published at The Street.com University is an excellent start for any analyst, and includes many insurance examples.  But now for the rest.

Some products cannot be underwritten.  Anytime the insured knows more than the company, that is not a policy to write.  As an example, I toss out Long-term care policies, where the insurance industry has lost and lost again.  The insureds know their likely claims far better than the insurers do.  I feel the same about credit and mortgage insurance, where losses are so correlated that in a real crisis the insurance company fails, and those relying on the insurance fail as well.

I feel the same way about variable annuity living benefits at present — a rising market sets up the losses for when the market falls.

Avoid investing in companies where the law of large numbers does not apply.  This is true of all financial coverages.  If there is one big macro factor that drives your business it is not a safe place to be.

On Management

Management teams should be reliable.  They should always give complete and consistent answers to all questions, and demonstrate that they are managing the business, with underwriting being profitable.  They also should be willing to let results fall short of analysts’ estimates when it is true.

Though the short-term stock performance will be bad, the honesty will support the stock nearer to book value.  Investors appreciate honest companies, even when they do badly.

Finally if management has any sustainable competitive advantages (rare in insurance) they will use the advantages, and describe them in general terms so hat other insurers don’t reverse engineer them.

Be sure and read my series listed above.  It offers far more than what I have written here.

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.

Subtitle: The Value of Momentum and Mean-Reversion

In the extreme short-run, mean-reversion dominates.  Over a year, momentum dominates.  Over a four year period mean-reversion returns.

The same applies to insurance stocks.  This is perhaps more true of insurance stocks, because the accounting is so opaque.  When accounting is opaque, it takes a longer period of time for market prices to catch up with the underlying reality.

I do not trust momentum naively.  I compare it to fundamentals and ask if it has more room to run or fall.  Remember, insurance is a mature industry… there are few sustainable competitive advantages here.  Near turning points, valuations are stretched or in the dumps.

That said, here is my table of momentum for the insurance industry:



Radian Group Inc.RDN0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               882.0


Homeowners Choice, Inc.HCI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               241.1


Stewart Information Services CSTC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               528.1


Imperial Holdings, Inc.IFT0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)                 89.7


Kingsway Financial Services InKFS0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)                 54.0


Atlantic American CorporationAAME0709 – Insurance (Life)                 69.7


eHealth, Inc.EHTH0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)               506.9


Investors Title CompanyITIC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               135.2


First American Financial CorpFAF0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           2,522.8


Coventry Health Care, Inc.CVH0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)           6,239.6


Hilltop Holdings Inc.HTH0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               753.0


CNO Financial Group IncCNO0709 – Insurance (Life)           2,315.5


Allstate Corporation, TheALL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)         21,154.9


Symetra Financial CorporationSYA0709 – Insurance (Life)           1,629.6


American International Group,AIG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)         54,180.4


Sun Life Financial Inc. (USA)SLF0709 – Insurance (Life)         17,505.2


Platinum Underwriters HoldingsPTP0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           1,595.2


Hartford Financial Services GrHIG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)         10,829.2


Lincoln National CorporationLNC0709 – Insurance (Life)           8,005.7


Amtrust Financial Services, InAFSI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           2,232.4


HCC Insurance Holdings, Inc.HCC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           3,989.2


Fidelity National Financial InFNF0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           5,669.5


Horace Mann Educators CorporatHMN0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               847.4


Montpelier Re Holdings Ltd.MRH0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           1,341.4


Seabright Holdings IncSBX0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               249.3


Verisk Analytics, Inc.VRSK0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)           9,172.3


AEGON N.V. (ADR)AEG0709 – Insurance (Life)         13,026.1


Fortegra Financial CorpFRF0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)               179.3


XL Group plcXL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           8,353.8


Primerica, Inc.PRI0709 – Insurance (Life)           1,877.3


Allied World Assurance Co HoldAWH0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           2,946.7


Travelers Companies, Inc., TheTRV0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)         29,569.3


Everest Re Group LtdRE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           5,944.0


Prudential Public Limited CompPUK0709 – Insurance (Life)         38,254.3


CIGNA CorporationCI0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)         16,718.9


United Insurance Holdings CorpUIHC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)                 91.9


Partnerre LtdPRE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           5,236.2


Cincinnati Financial CorporatiCINF0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           6,959.7


Protective Life Corp.PL0709 – Insurance (Life)           2,500.8


Argo Group International HoldiAGII0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               926.7


Hallmark Financial Services, IHALL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               171.6


Aspen Insurance Holdings LimitAHL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           2,380.3


Alterra Capital Holdings LtdALTE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           2,911.1


Torchmark CorporationTMK0709 – Insurance (Life)           5,314.2


Alleghany CorporationY0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           6,048.5


Eastern Insurance Holdings IncEIHI0709 – Insurance (Life)               135.2


Berkshire Hathaway Inc.BRK.A0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)      242,512.2


Manulife Financial CorporationMFC0709 – Insurance (Life)         26,899.6


Arch Capital Group Ltd.ACGL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           6,188.5


Enstar Group Ltd.ESGR0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           2,006.2


Axis Capital Holdings LimitedAXS0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           4,664.5


Genworth Financial  IncGNW0709 – Insurance (Life)           4,647.8


Aon PLCAON0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)         18,361.6


American Equity Investment LifAEL0709 – Insurance (Life)               862.9


White Mountains Insurance GrouWTM0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           3,585.0


ACE LimitedACE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)         28,999.2


Markel CorporationMKL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           4,581.2


United Fire Group, Inc.UFCS0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               595.0


Employers Holdings, Inc.EIG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               658.7


W.R. Berkley CorporationWRB0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           5,643.1


Amerisafe, Inc.AMSF0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               517.4


National Interstate CorporatioNATL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               592.7


Old Republic International CorORI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           2,906.0


Kansas City Life Insurance CoKCLI0709 – Insurance (Life)               418.7


Brown & Brown, Inc.BRO0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)           3,901.8


Aetna Inc.AET0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)         16,644.7


Crawford & CompanyCRD.B0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)               305.5


Universal Insurance Holdings,UVE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               182.4


Chubb Corporation, TheCB0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)         21,220.1


National Western Life InsurancNWLI0709 – Insurance (Life)               593.0


American Financial GroupAFG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           3,862.0


Loews CorporationL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)         17,109.9


Endurance Specialty Holdings LENH0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           1,839.7


China Life Insurance Company LLFC0709 – Insurance (Life)         91,295.3


State Auto FinancialSTFC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               602.7


Principal Financial Group IncPFG0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)           9,036.6


EMC Insurance Group Inc.EMCI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               324.6


Maiden Holdings, Ltd.MHLD0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               758.2


RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd.RNR0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           3,982.5


Validus Holdings, Ltd.VR0709 – Insurance (Life)           3,340.1


Selective Insurance GroupSIGI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           1,106.6


UnitedHealth Group Inc.UNH0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)         57,244.5


Hanover Insurance Group, Inc.,THG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           1,821.7


Cna Financial CorpCNA0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           8,351.3


ProAssurance CorporationPRA0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           2,752.6


Assured Guaranty Ltd.AGO0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           3,264.4


Marsh & McLennan Companies, InMMC0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)         19,053.5


Safety Insurance Group, Inc.SAFT0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               728.8


Unico American CorporationUNAM0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)                 68.2


Progressive Corporation, ThePGR0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)         13,682.1


Independence Holding CompanyIHC0709 – Insurance (Life)               167.3


AFLAC IncorporatedAFL0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)         25,077.1


Navigators Group, Inc, TheNAVG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               751.0


Metlife IncMET0709 – Insurance (Life)         41,077.8


Kemper CorpKMPR0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           1,874.3


ING Groep N.V. (ADR)ING0709 – Insurance (Life)         37,707.5


Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.AJG0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)           4,502.5


American National Insurance CoANAT0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           2,070.2


Prudential Financial IncPRU0709 – Insurance (Life)         27,417.8


StanCorp Financial Group, Inc.SFG0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)           1,776.7


Global Indemnity plcGBLI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               535.1


WellPoint, Inc.WLP0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)         20,092.9


FBL Financial GroupFFG0709 – Insurance (Life)               902.6


Unum GroupUNM0709 – Insurance (Life)           6,407.6


Infinity Property and CasualtyIPCC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               684.9


Baldwin & Lyons, Inc.BWINB0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               340.7


Molina Healthcare, Inc.MOH0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)           1,357.9


Reinsurance Group of America IRGA0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)           4,098.1


Assurant, Inc.AIZ0709 – Insurance (Life)           3,039.7


RLI Corp.RLI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           1,439.5


Erie Indemnity CompanyERIE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           3,283.2


Citizens, Inc.CIA0709 – Insurance (Life)               459.8


American Safety Insurance HoldASI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               196.8


Tower Group IncTWGP0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               740.9


Willis Group Holdings PLCWSH0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)           6,032.0


Mercury General CorporationMCY0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           2,183.3


OneBeacon Insurance Group, LtdOB0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           1,308.7


Greenlight Capital Re, Ltd.GLRE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               835.9


Donegal Group Inc.DGICA0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               371.4


Universal American CorporationUAM0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)               801.3


Humana Inc.HUM0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)         11,855.7


CNinsure Inc. (ADR)CISG0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)               330.1


Health Net, Inc.HNT0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)           2,204.9


MGIC Investment Corp.MTG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               581.9


MBIA Inc.MBI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)           1,631.2


Meadowbrook Insurance Group, IMIG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)               318.1


Phoenix Companies, Inc., ThePNX0709 – Insurance (Life)               156.1


Life Partners Holdings, Inc.LPHI0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)                 50.3


I note that the basement contains a lot of funky companies with issues.  The penthouse contains a lot of credit-sensitive companies that have rallied off of the strong equity market, and moderately strong housing market.

I do not have much trust in the momentum now, because many are trusting in the rosy scenario where losses have been normalized.  I do not think that is the case, and think that there will be additional losses from credit risk coming soon.

If you grow book value, particularly if your liabilities are short, you will grow market value.  Many reinsurance and insurance companies aim at growing fully convertible book value per share.

Fully convertible book value per share assumes that you invest your dividends in the common stock (without taxation), and thus compound your gains through reinvestment, taking account of dilution.  Hmmm… when will someone dream up the idea of structuring an insurance company as an MLP or a REIT?  I don’t think it is likely, but maybe someone could dream it up.

It also implies that all possible dilution is factored in from convertible preferred stock or convertible bonds.  Now insurance companies tend to trade near book value over the long run, so companies that can grow their book value rapidly and pay dividends can be interesting investments.  Particularly where the liabilities of the company are short — property reinsurance or personal lines insurance, growth in book value plus dividends tends to be a reliable indicator of value creation.

If liabilities are longer, it gets more questionable, because under-reserving becomes more likely — it is very hard to be certain of the reserving of long-dated or volatile coverages.

Anyway, here is a list of insurance companies, and how they have accumulated book value plus dividends over the past seven years.  Note that this is a mathematical calculation off a limited database, and that splits and M&A can throw this calculation off.  With that caveat, here is the list:

companytickersicimg_descmktcapGrowth of FCBV
Life Partners Holdings, Inc.LPHI64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)



Universal Insurance Holdings,UVE63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



CNinsure Inc. (ADR)CISG64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)



Amtrust Financial Services, InAFSI63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Employers Holdings, Inc.EIG63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Enstar Group Ltd.ESGR63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Tower Group IncTWGP63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Amerisafe, Inc.AMSF63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Humana Inc.HUM63240706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



Allied World Assurance Co HoldAWH63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.AJG64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)



Willis Group Holdings PLCWSH64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)



China Life Insurance Company LLFC63110709 – Insurance (Life)



ProAssurance CorporationPRA63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd.RNR63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



National Interstate CorporatioNATL63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Argo Group International HoldiAGII63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Brown & Brown, Inc.BRO64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)



AFLAC IncorporatedAFL63210706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



Endurance Specialty Holdings LENH63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



W.R. Berkley CorporationWRB63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



American Financial GroupAFG63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Horace Mann Educators CorporatHMN63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Eastern Insurance Holdings IncEIHI63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Validus Holdings, Ltd.VR63310709 – Insurance (Life)



CIGNA CorporationCI63240706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



Reinsurance Group of America IRGA63210706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



Safety Insurance Group, Inc.SAFT63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Chubb Corporation, TheCB63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Loews CorporationL63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



ACE LimitedACE63510715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



HCC Insurance Holdings, Inc.HCC63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Travelers Companies, Inc., TheTRV63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Coventry Health Care, Inc.CVH63240706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



Markel CorporationMKL63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Torchmark CorporationTMK63110709 – Insurance (Life)



UnitedHealth Group Inc.UNH63240706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



Partnerre LtdPRE63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Meadowbrook Insurance Group, IMIG63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



StanCorp Financial Group, Inc.SFG63210706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



Prudential Financial IncPRU63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Infinity Property and CasualtyIPCC63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Assurant, Inc.AIZ63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Greenlight Capital Re, Ltd.GLRE63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Progressive Corporation, ThePGR63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Protective Life Corp.PL63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Axis Capital Holdings LimitedAXS63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Molina Healthcare, Inc.MOH63240706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



American Equity Investment LifAEL63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Symetra Financial CorporationSYA63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Aon PLCAON64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)



Mercury General CorporationMCY63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Everest Re Group LtdRE63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



American Safety Insurance HoldASI63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Prudential Public Limited CompPUK63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Aspen Insurance Holdings LimitAHL63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Berkshire Hathaway Inc.BRK.A63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



EMC Insurance Group Inc.EMCI63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



RLI Corp.RLI63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Hanover Insurance Group, Inc.,THG63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Unico American CorporationUNAM63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Montpelier Re Holdings Ltd.MRH63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Seabright Holdings IncSBX63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Alleghany CorporationY63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Hallmark Financial Services, IHALL63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



White Mountains Insurance GrouWTM63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Investors Title CompanyITIC63610715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Marsh & McLennan Companies, InMMC64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)



FBL Financial GroupFFG63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Erie Indemnity CompanyERIE63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Metlife IncMET63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Aetna Inc.AET63240706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



WellPoint, Inc.WLP63240706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



Hilltop Holdings Inc.HTH63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Citizens, Inc.CIA63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Donegal Group Inc.DGICA63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



National Western Life InsurancNWLI63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Navigators Group, Inc, TheNAVG63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Kemper CorpKMPR63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Allstate Corporation, TheALL63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Cna Financial CorpCNA63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Lincoln National CorporationLNC63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Arch Capital Group Ltd.ACGL63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Platinum Underwriters HoldingsPTP63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Baldwin & Lyons, Inc.BWINB63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Selective Insurance GroupSIGI63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



United Fire Group, Inc.UFCS63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Universal American CorporationUAM63240706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



Principal Financial Group IncPFG63210706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



American National Insurance CoANAT63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Kansas City Life Insurance CoKCLI63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Cincinnati Financial CorporatiCINF63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Independence Holding CompanyIHC63110709 – Insurance (Life)



State Auto FinancialSTFC63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Unum GroupUNM63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Sun Life Financial Inc. (USA)SLF63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Alterra Capital Holdings LtdALTE63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Assured Guaranty Ltd.AGO63510715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Fidelity National Financial InFNF63610715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Atlantic American CorporationAAME63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Health Net, Inc.HNT63240706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)



Hartford Financial Services GrHIG63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



ING Groep N.V. (ADR)ING63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Manulife Financial CorporationMFC63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Genworth Financial  IncGNW63110709 – Insurance (Life)



AEGON N.V. (ADR)AEG63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Old Republic International CorORI63510715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



OneBeacon Insurance Group, LtdOB63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Global Indemnity plcGBLI63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



CNO Financial Group IncCNO63110709 – Insurance (Life)



Crawford & CompanyCRD.B64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)



Stewart Information Services CSTC63610715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



XL Group plcXL63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Phoenix Companies, Inc., ThePNX63110709 – Insurance (Life)



First Acceptance CorporationFAC63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Radian Group Inc.RDN63510715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



MBIA Inc.MBI63510715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



Kingsway Financial Services InKFS63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



MGIC Investment Corp.MTG63510715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



American International Group,AIG63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)



eHealth, Inc.EHTH64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


Maiden Holdings, Ltd.MHLD63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


United Insurance Holdings CorpUIHC63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Homeowners Choice, Inc.HCI63310715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Verisk Analytics, Inc.VRSK64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


Primerica, Inc.PRI63110709 – Insurance (Life)


First American Financial CorpFAF63610715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Imperial Holdings, Inc.IFT64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


Fortegra Financial CorpFRF64110712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


Now, it makes a lot of difference how dividends are set, and how buybacks are done.  Dividends should reflect a conservative estimate of how much free cash flow that a company is willing to part with.  Buybacks should only be done when it is at a discount to the intrinsic value of the firm.  If you have to distribute capital when the stock price is above fair market value, do a special dividend.

And when capital is dear, stop the buyback, maybe even reduce the dividend, or do a small secondary IPO.  When there are genuinely profitable opportunities to write business take them.

This is yet another reason why insurance stocks tend to trade near book — capital is so flexible that if capital can enter and exit easily, it should trade near book, because capital enters and exits at book, for the most part.

Ignore the extremes, but realize that companies that compound their fully converted book values can be excellent investments.

Shrinking the Share Count

This post was prompted by this post from Avondale Asset Management on how the share count from The Travelers has shrunk since 2005 (two years after their merger with The St. Paul, a company that I once worked for).  Only 57% of the shares remain.  Way to go.

Now, buying back stock is not a panacea.  It is only good when the shares are trading below or not much above fair market value.  What’s fair market value, you ask?  Well, that’s not an easy question to answer in most places, but in insurance, it means around 1.3x book value, adjusting for intangibles that have no economic significance.

Now if a company has some proprietary products, technologies or methods that give it a sustainable competitive advantage, that multiple can rise — AFLAC might be an example of that.  But sustainable competitive advantages in a mature and competitive industry like insurance are rare.  Above the 1.3x book value hurdle, it would be better to do special dividends.

Avondale was spot-on to feature The Travelers.  They are in the upper end of those that bought back shares 2005-2012.  Here’s my list:

CompanyTickerIndustry% of shares remaining since 2005
WellPoint, Inc.WLP0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


Infinity Property and CasualtyIPCC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Travelers Companies, Inc., TheTRV0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Aetna Inc.AET0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


Employers Holdings, Inc.EIG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


White Mountains Insurance GrouWTM0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Torchmark CorporationTMK0709 – Insurance (Life)


Assurant, Inc.AIZ0709 – Insurance (Life)


Chubb Corporation, TheCB0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Erie Indemnity CompanyERIE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd.RNR0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Endurance Specialty Holdings LENH0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Loews CorporationL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Allied World Assurance Co HoldAWH0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


W.R. Berkley CorporationWRB0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Health Net, Inc.HNT0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


Platinum Underwriters HoldingsPTP0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Allstate Corporation, TheALL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


CIGNA CorporationCI0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


UnitedHealth Group Inc.UNH0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


Progressive Corporation, ThePGR0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Montpelier Re Holdings Ltd.MRH0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Verisk Analytics, Inc.VRSK0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


American Financial GroupAFG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


StanCorp Financial Group, Inc.SFG0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


Primerica, Inc.PRI0709 – Insurance (Life)


Investors Title CompanyITIC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Hanover Insurance Group, Inc.,THG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Coventry Health Care, Inc.CVH0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


RLI Corp.RLI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Kemper CorpKMPR0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Axis Capital Holdings LimitedAXS0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


First Acceptance CorporationFAC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Everest Re Group LtdRE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Eastern Insurance Holdings IncEIHI0709 – Insurance (Life)


Prudential Financial IncPRU0709 – Insurance (Life)


Horace Mann Educators CorporatHMN0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


FBL Financial GroupFFG0709 – Insurance (Life)


AFLAC IncorporatedAFL0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


Cincinnati Financial CorporatiCINF0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Kansas City Life Insurance CoKCLI0709 – Insurance (Life)


Kingsway Financial Services InKFS0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


HCC Insurance Holdings, Inc.HCC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Unum GroupUNM0709 – Insurance (Life)


EMC Insurance Group Inc.EMCI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


eHealth, Inc.EHTH0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


OneBeacon Insurance Group, LtdOB0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Aspen Insurance Holdings LimitAHL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Unico American CorporationUNAM0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Markel CorporationMKL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Safety Insurance Group, Inc.SAFT0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Humana Inc.HUM0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


Atlantic American CorporationAAME0709 – Insurance (Life)


State Auto FinancialSTFC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


A.F.P Provida SA (ADR)PVD0718 – Investment Services


American National Insurance CoANAT0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Baldwin & Lyons, Inc.BWINB0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Mercury General CorporationMCY0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Marsh & McLennan Companies, InMMC0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


National Western Life InsurancNWLI0709 – Insurance (Life)


Brown & Brown, Inc.BRO0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


Selective Insurance GroupSIGI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Sun Life Financial Inc. (USA)SLF0709 – Insurance (Life)


Life Partners Holdings, Inc.LPHI0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


Aon PLCAON0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


ProAssurance CorporationPRA0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Principal Financial Group IncPFG0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


First American Financial CorpFAF0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


China Life Insurance Company LLFC0709 – Insurance (Life)


Genworth Financial  IncGNW0709 – Insurance (Life)


Navigators Group, Inc, TheNAVG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


National Interstate CorporatioNATL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Amerisafe, Inc.AMSF0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Cna Financial CorpCNA0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Donegal Group Inc.DGICA0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Stewart Information Services CSTC0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Berkshire Hathaway Inc.BRK.A0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Prudential Public Limited CompPUK0709 – Insurance (Life)


Willis Group Holdings PLCWSH0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


Crawford & CompanyCRD.B0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


Old Republic International CorORI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Molina Healthcare, Inc.MOH0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


United Fire Group, Inc.UFCS0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Partnerre LtdPRE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Protective Life Corp.PL0709 – Insurance (Life)


Manulife Financial CorporationMFC0709 – Insurance (Life)


Independence Holding CompanyIHC0709 – Insurance (Life)


ACE LimitedACE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Reinsurance Group of America IRGA0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


Citizens, Inc.CIA0709 – Insurance (Life)


Universal Insurance Holdings,UVE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Phoenix Companies, Inc., ThePNX0709 – Insurance (Life)


AEGON N.V. (ADR)AEG0709 – Insurance (Life)


Symetra Financial CorporationSYA0709 – Insurance (Life)


Arch Capital Group Ltd.ACGL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Fidelity National Financial InFNF0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Hilltop Holdings Inc.HTH0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.AJG0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


ING Groep N.V. (ADR)ING0709 – Insurance (Life)


Argo Group International HoldiAGII0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Seabright Holdings IncSBX0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Global Indemnity plcGBLI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Metlife IncMET0709 – Insurance (Life)


MBIA Inc.MBI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Hartford Financial Services GrHIG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


American Safety Insurance HoldASI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


CNO Financial Group IncCNO0709 – Insurance (Life)


Universal American CorporationUAM0706 – Insurance (Accident & Health)


Radian Group Inc.RDN0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


American Equity Investment LifAEL0709 – Insurance (Life)


Hallmark Financial Services, IHALL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Validus Holdings, Ltd.VR0709 – Insurance (Life)


Lincoln National CorporationLNC0709 – Insurance (Life)


Enstar Group Ltd.ESGR0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Meadowbrook Insurance Group, IMIG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Greenlight Capital Re, Ltd.GLRE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Alleghany CorporationY0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Tower Group IncTWGP0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Alterra Capital Holdings LtdALTE0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


CNinsure Inc. (ADR)CISG0712 – Insurance (Miscellaneous)


XL Group plcXL0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


MGIC Investment Corp.MTG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Amtrust Financial Services, InAFSI0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


Assured Guaranty Ltd.AGO0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


American International Group,AIG0715 – Insurance (Property & Casualty)


On the top side, and I did not see any of these, be aware of reverse splits, which can reduce the share count, are a sign of a badly run company, but do nothing for the economics of a firm, aside from keeping them listed on a major exchange.

On the bottom side, factor in large mergers paid for with shares.  Most large-scale mergers don’t work out well, so I don’t mind those companies being near the bottom of the list.

On a closing note, there is a weak positive correlation in most mature industries between stock price performance and relative decreases in share count, assets, and sales.  This sounds counter-intuitive, but good management teams know when to grow and when not to grow.  They don’t do acquisitions for scale.  They don’t grow sales if the sales growth won’t justify the cost of capital.  Building the assets of the company bigger does nothing for the bottom line; selective asset sales can free up cash for more productive uses.  Good management teams do not build empires — they add when it makes sense (grow), subtract when it makes sense (shrink), divide when it makes sense (spinoffs), and multiply when it makes sense (IPOs, JVs, new projects).

PS —  What does the WSJ have today?  An article on buybacks.  Enjoy.

  1. Doug Kass over at RealMoney made the following comment: “The next shoe to drop will be the failure of a public homebuilder and a private mortgage insurer. The latter concerns me more than the former, as the markets are not aware of the economic implications of my view.”  An interesting comment to be sure.  Unlike other insurers that benefit from state guarantee funds, the mortgage insurers do not so benefit.  That said, in a concentrated sub-industry that has only seven players (MTG, RDN, PMI, TGIC, GNW, ORI, and AIG), one advantage that poses is that failure of one company will not lead to assessments on the rest of the companies, leading to cascading failures.  So who would be affected?  Fannie and Freddie would get a lot of credit risk back, as would any private lender that used the mortgage insurers to reduce risks.  Even some of the mortgage originators with captive mortgage reinsurers would take some degree of a hit (most of the top originators had these).
  2. Some younger friends of mine asked me for advice recently, and the question came up, “Should I invest in the market, or pay down debt?”  Now, we weren’t talking about credit card debt, which they paid off in full every month.  They did have a home equity loan at 8.5% fixed.  My view was this: with 10-year Treasuries yielding 4.4%, and marginal investment grade corporate bonds yielding 6.0% or so, a reasonable return expectation for the equity markets as a whole would be in the 8-9% region.  Add 2-3% to the BBB-bond yield, and that should be a reasonable guess, given that I think the market is somewhere between lightly undervalued and fairly valued.  My advice to them was to pay down the home equity loan, and once it was paid off, invest in an index fund, or a diversified mutual fund.  Until then, better to earn 8.5% with certainty, than 8-9% with uncertainty.
  3. As can be seen from my recent reshaping, yes, I do buy sectors of the market that look ugly.  Shoe retailers and mortgage REITs have not done well of late.  Am I predicting no recession by buying the retailers?  No; so long as the shoe retailers aren’t too trendy, demand for shoes is relatively stable, and these stocks are already discounting a recession.  I chose two that had virtually no debt, so I am on the safer side of the trade, maybe.
  4. Does buying a mortgage REIT mean that I am betting on further FOMC loosening?  No.  The mortgage REITs that I hold embed a pretty nasty set of assumptions for the riskiness of the safest parts of the mortgage bond markets.  While a FOMC loosening would probably help, I’m not counting on that.
  5. My value investing is different than most value investors, because I spend more time on industries, either buying quality companies in beaten-up sectors, or companies with pricing power, where that power is underdiscounted by the market.
  6. If we are trying to estimate the central tendency of inflation and eliminate volatility, it is better to use a trimmed mean, or median, rather than toss out volatile components like food and energy, particularly when those components have led inflation for the last 5-10 years.  The unadjusted CPI is a better predictor of the unadjusted CPI than is the core CPI.
  7. Personally, I think the next ten years will be kinder to “long only” equity managers than hedged managers.  There is only so much room for shorting, which is an artificial overlay on the system.  We aren’t at the limits of shorting yet, but we are getting closer to those limits.  It would not surprise me to see ten years from now to find that balanced fund managers beat hedge fund managers on average (after correcting for survivor bias, which is more severe with hedge funds).  It’s much easier and more effective to do risk management in a long only mode, and I believe that the virtues of long only management, and balanced funds, will become more apparent over the next ten years.
  8. I’m thinking of doing a personal finance post on what insurance to buy.  Is that something that readers would like to read about?

Photo Credit: Boston Public Library

Well, I never thought I would get this question, but here it is:

Thank you for your dedication to your blog.

I was wondering if you have any skill development advice for recent graduates to gain a job in insurance – is technical or programming skills the most important or perhaps making business cases, or showing that you can make sound and reasonable conclusions?

Thank you for your time.

Kind regards,

There are many things to do in insurance.  Some are technical, like being an actuary, accountant, investment analyst/manager/trader, underwriter, lawyer or computer programmer.  Some take a great deal of interpersonal skills, like being an administrator, marketer or agent.  Then there are the drones in customer service and claims.  Ancillary jobs can include secretaries, janitors, human resources, and a variety of other helpers to the main positions.

Before I begin, I want to say a few things.  FIrst, if you work in insurance, be kind to the drones and helpers.  It is the right thing to do, but beyond that, they don’t have to go beyond their job description — they know their opportunities are limited — it is only a job.  Treat them with respect and kindness, and they will go above and beyond for you.  I learned this positively first-hand, and a few of them 20-30 years older explained it to me when I noticed they weren’t helping others who were full of themselves.

Second, the insurance industry does a lot to train drones, helpers, agents, marketers, underwriters, and younger people generally, if they are willing to work at it.  There are self-study courses and exams that vary based on what part of the industry you are in.  Take the courses and exams, and your value goes up — it is not obvious how that will work, but it often pays off.

Third, it is not a growing industry, but lots of Baby Boomers are retiring, and leave openings for others.  Also, drone and helper positions often don’t pay so well at the entry level, and turnover is somewhat high.  The same is true of agents — more on that later.

Fourth, watch “The Billion Dollar Bubble,” and episodes of Banacek if you want.  The actual practices of how they did things in the ’60s and ’70s don’t matter so much, but it gets the characterization of the various occupations in insurance right.

FIfth, insurance is a little like the “Six Blind Men and the Elephant.”  Actuaries, Accountants, Administrators, Marketers, Underwriters, and Investment Managers (and Lawyers and Programmers) each have a few bits of the puzzle — the challenge is to work together effectively.  It is easier said than done.  You can read my articles on my work life to get a good idea of how that was.  I’ve written over 30 articles on the topic.  Here are most of the links:

DId I leave out the one on insurance company lawyers?  Guess not.

Sixth, it is easier to teach those with technical skills how the business works than to teach drones and helpers technical skills.  It’s kind of like how you can’t easily teach math and science to humanities and social science majors, but you can do the reverse (with higher probability).  It is worth explaining the business to computer programmers.  It is worth explaining marketing and sales to actuaries.  Accountants get better when they understand what is going on behind the line items, and maybe a touch of what the actuaries are doing (and vice-versa).

Seventh, only a few of the areas are close to global — the administrators, the underwriters, the actuaries, and the marketers — and that’s where the fights can occur, or, the most profitable collaborations can occur.

Eighth, insurance companies vary in terms of how aggressive they are, and the dynamism of positions and ethical conundrums vary in direct proportion.

So, back to your question, and I will go by job category:

  1. Drones and helpers typically don’t need a college education, but if they show initiative, they can grow into a limited number of greater positions.
  2. Computer programmers probably need a college degree, but if you are clever, and work at another insurance job first, you might be able to wedge your way in.  While I was an actuary, I turned down a programming job, despite no formal training in programming.
  3. Lawyers go through the standard academic legal training, pass the bar exams, nothing that unusual about that, but finding one that truly understands insurance law well is tough.
  4. Accountants are similar.  Academic training, pass the accounting exams, work for a major accounting firm and become a CPA — but then you have to learn the idiosyncrasies of insurance accounting, which blends uncertainty and discounting with interest.  The actuaries take care of a lot of it, but capturing and categorizing the right data is a challenge.
  5. Actuaries have to be good with math to a high degree, a college degree is almost required, and have to understand in a broad way all of the other disciplines.  The credentialing is tough, and may take 5-10 years, with many exams, but you often get study time at work.
  6. Agents — can you sell?  Can you do a high quality sale that actually meets the needs of the client?  That may not require college, but it does require significant intelligence in understanding people, and understanding your product.  Many agents can fob some bad policies off on some simpletons, but it comes back to bite, because the business does not last, and the marketing department either revokes your commissions, or puts you on a trouble list.  “Market conduct” is a big thing in insuring individuals.  The agents that win are the ones that serve needs, are honest, and make many sales.  Many people are looking for someone they can trust with reasonable returns, rather than the highest possible return.  One more note: there are many exams and certifications available.
  7. Marketers — This is the province of agents that were mediocre, and wanted more reliable hours and income.  It’s like the old saw, “Those who cannot do, teach. Those who cannot teach, administrate.”  It is possible to get into the marketing area by starting at a low level helper, but it is difficult to manage agents if you don’t have their experience of rejection.  Again, there are certifications available, but nothing will train you like trying to sell insurance policies.
  8. Underwriters — as with most of these credentials, a college degree helps, but there is a path for those without such a degree if you start at a low level as a helper, show initiative, and learn, learn, learn. Underwriters make a greater difference in coverages that are less common.  Where the law of large numbers applies, underwriters recede.  The key to being an underwriter is developing specialized expertise that allows for better risk selection.  There are certifications and exams for this, pursue them particularly if you don’t have a college degree.  Pursue them anyway — as an actuary, I received some training in underwriting.  It is intensely interesting, especially if you have a mind for analyzing the why and how of insured events.
  9. Investment personnel — this is a separate issue and is covered in my articles in how one can get a job in finance.  That said, insurance can be an easier road into investing, if you get a helper position, and display competence.  (After all, how did I get here?)  You have to be ready to deal with fixed income, which  means your math skills have to be good.  As a bonus, you might have to deal with directly originated assets like mortgages, credit tenant leases, private placements, odd asset-backed securities, and more.  It is far more dynamic than most imagine, if you are working for an adventurous firm.  (I have only worked for adventurous firms, or at least adventurous divisions of firms.)  Getting the CFA credential is quite useful.
  10. Administrators — the best administrators have a bit of all the skills.  They have to if they are managing the company aright.  Most of them are marketers, and  a few are actuaries, accountants,or lawyers.  Marketing has an advantage, because it is the main constraint that insurance companies face.  It is a competitive market, and those who make good sales prosper.  VIrtually all administrators are college educated, and most have done additional credentialing.  Good administrators can do project, people and data management.  it is not easy, and personally, few of the administrators I have known were truly competent.  If you have the skills, who knows?  You could be a real success.

Please understand that I have my biases, and talk to others in the field before you pursue this in depth.  Informational interviewing is wise in any job search, and helps you understand what you are really getting into, including corporate culture, which can make or break your career.  Some people thrive in ugly environments, and some die.  Some people get bored to death in squeaky-clean environments, and some thrive.

So be wise, do your research, and if you think insurance would be an interesting career, pursue it assiduously.  Then, remember me when you are at the top, and you need my clever advice. 😉


Photo Credit: eflon || The title of the article comes from a comment Greenberg supposedly made to Buffett when AIG was much bigger than Berkshire Hathaway — times change…


The title of the article comes from a comment Greenberg supposedly made to Buffett when AIG was much bigger than Berkshire Hathaway [BRK] — times change…

It’s come to this: AIG has sought out reinsurance from BRK to cap the amount of losses they will pay for prior business written.  It’s quite a statement when you are willing to pay $10 billion in order to have BRK pay 80% of claims over $25 billion, up to $20 billion in total.  At $50 Billion in claims AIG is on its own again.

So what business was covered?  A lot.  This is the one of the biggest deals of its type, ever:

The agreement covers 80% of substantially all of AIG’s U.S. Commercial long-tail exposures for accident years 2015 and prior, which includes the largest part of AIG’s U.S. casualty exposures during that period. AIG will retain sole authority to handle and resolve claims, and NICO has various access, association and consultation rights.

Or as was said in the Wall Street Journal article:

The pact covers such product lines as workers’ compensation, directors’ and officers’ liability, professional indemnity, medical malpractice, commercial automobile and some other liability policies.

Now, AIG is not among the better P&C insurance companies for reserving out there.  2.5 years ago, they made the Aleph Blog Hall of Shame for P&C reserving.  Now if you would have looked on the last 10-K on page 296 for item 8, note 12, you would note that AIG’s reserving remained weak for 2014 and 2015 as losses and loss adjustment expenses incurred for the business of prior years continued positive.

For AIG, this puts a lot of its troubles behind it, after the upcoming writeoff (from the WSJ article):

AIG, one of the biggest sellers of insurance by volume to businesses around the globe, also said it expects a material fourth-quarter charge to boost its claims reserves. AIG declined to comment on the possible size. Its fourth-quarter earnings will be released next month.

For BRK, this is an opportunity to make money investing the $10 billion as claims on the long-tail business get paid out slowly.  It’s called float, which isn’t magic, but Buffett has done better than most at investing the float, and choosing insurance business to write and reinsure that doesn’t result in large losses for BRK.

I expect BRK to make an underwriting profit on this, but let’s assume the worst, that BRK pays out the full $20 billion.  Say the claims come at a rate of $5 billion/year.  The average payout period would be 7.5 years, and BRK would have to earn 9.2% on the float to break even.  At $3.75B/yr, the figures would be 10 years and 6.9%.  At $2.5B/yr, 15 years and 4.6%.

This doesn’t seem so bad to me — now I don’t know how bad reserve development will be for AIG, but BRK is usually pretty careful about underwriting this sort of thing. That said BRK has a lot of excess cash sitting around already, and desirable targets for large investments are few.  This had better make an underwriting profit, or a small loss, or maybe Buffett is ready for the market to fall apart, and thus the rate he can earn goes up.

All that said, it is an interesting chapter in the relationship between the two companies.  If BRK wasn’t the dominant insurance company of the US after the 2008 financial crisis, it definitely is now.

Full disclosure: long BRK/B for myself and clients