Controversial though they can be, financial strength ratings, and particularly those from S&P and AM Best, continue to be central to the transaction process in reinsurance globally and in many primary markets.
The confirmation this week of fundamental changes in S&P’s ratings process is therefore, to borrow a phrase beloved of financial markets mathematicians, a ‘non-trivial’ event.
S&P’s new criteria for rating re/insurers will result in ratings changes – including downgrades. It’s not yet clear how many insurers will be impacted. However, even if a relatively small percentage of ratings change, this could still mean dozens of re/insurers being affected.
In July last year S&P published a ‘request for comment’ (RFC) on the proposed criteria changes. At their seminar later in the year, they reinforced the concepts behind the changes and confirmed that ratings actions, including some downgrades, are highly likely. Shortly afterwards we published a commentary (“S&P insurance rating criteria change means downgrades – and upgrades – are on the way”) noting that “What S&P are saying is that an insurer or reinsurer with exactly the same profile as it has today could have a lower – or higher – rating by the middle of next year”.
This week, having taken on board feedback to the RFC , S&P published the new criteria. They have stressed that they “expect that a significant majority of our ratings will not change as a result of the publication of these criteria”. Which therefore means a minority will change; although there is a somewhat more upbeat note than previously stressing that “preliminary results suggest that positive rating actions will likely slightly outweigh negative rating actions”.
Our initial observations and conclusions are:
• Whilst there are likely to be more positive than negative actions, and the ‘significant majority’ will not change, given the breadth of S&P’s coverage of insurers we could still see a meaningful number of downgrades.
• Ratings on over 2000 insurers have been put ‘under observation’ following the introduction of the new criteria, but this does not mean most ratings will change. Indeed, S&P has stressed that only a minority will. (The ’under observation’ status is a regulatory requirement when introducing new criteria – so no need for panic!)
• S&P’s language does allow for some two notch (or more) rating changes although the implication is that this will be unusual.
• For the minority of re/insurers downgraded a one or even two notch downgrade may not have a great impact on their daily operations. But given the extensive use of ratings triggers and the binary usage of ratings in insurance markets, those on the cusp of ‘ratings cliffs’ could see a major impact.
• Our experience and S&P’s comments suggests they have been testing the criteria thoroughly since the RFC via running it in parallel to the existing criteria in order to ascertain the impact.
• Their target is likely to have been to minimise the impact of the criteria change. However the process will have identified ‘outliers’- insurers who appear to be either better or worse under the new criteria.
• Some, though not necessarily all, of these ‘outliers’ are likely to have seen an increase in the depth of the analytical interest they have received from S&P over the past 9 months. Anyone who has seen such an increase should be particularly alert to the fact that either an upgrade or a downgrade could be on the horizon and consider giving very detailed attention to the questions they are being asked.
Among the key technical aspects of the changes taking place we would highlight that –
• There is some additional flexibility to assign ratings higher than the sovereign given a tightly defined set of circumstances.
• The new ‘Insurance Industry and Country Risk Assessments’ (“IICRA”) could prove to be an important driver of ratings changes in the future – a change to one IICRA could impact numerous insurers at once.
• Nevertheless the IICRA’s show a positive endorsement of certain sectors – for example the P&I Sector, where reading the historical rationales it wouldn’t be difficult to conclude that the S&P view of the industry might have been worse than the ‘Intermediate Risk’ now assigned by S&P. This puts the sector on a par with the UK, Belgium or Global P&C reinsurance.
• Full IICRA reports will be published after revised ratings.
• Public Information based ratings (‘pi’s’) will also be impacted, although they will be reviewed at a later stage.
• All research updates will be re-worded based on new criteria – this increased transparency should help insurers determine where to focus discussions with S&P.
Among the more detailed amendments following the RFC are; the elimination of the controversial fixed charge cover test and more emphasis on analytical judgement/prudential assessment versus strict reliance on mechanical cut-offs.
S&P have also removed the prescriptive approach to assessment of operating underperformance & outperformance; this perhaps implies that they have found it too challenging to identify truly coherent peer groups. In addition some other tables containing scoring metrics for geographical diversification, financial flexibility and liquidity have also not made it into the final criteria. S&P have thus avoided tying themselves into the straitjacket that the original proposal could have lead to.
Even if it does appear that S&P may have achieved its goal of ensuring that the new criteria enhance the transparency of its ratings, this new criteria is one of the most important changes to the approach a rating agency has taken to the insurance industry.
Standard & Poor’s –
Insurers: Rating Methodology–Shows how eight rating factors determine the stand-alone credit profile (SACP) or group credit profile (GCP).
Group Rating Methodology–Discusses external support from a subsidiary’s parent group, depending on how we classify the subsidiary within five specified “group status” categories, and how ICRs and FSRs are assigned to operating and holding companies within a group.
Criteria | Insurance | General: Enterprise Risk Management–Examines how enterprise risk management (ERM)is scored using five subfactors.
Methodology For Linking Short-Term And Long-Term Ratings For Corporate, Insurance, And Sovereign Issuers–Looks at how the descriptor for the insurer’s liquidity determined in the rating methodology combines with its long-term rating to determine its short-term rating.
Litmus Analysis –