Following S&P’s initial downgrade last month we noted that RSA faced a further risk to its rating without fresh equity.  This reflected the fact that even prior to its recent problems RSA’s prospective capital was only consistent with an S&P ‘BBB’ range financial strength rating.

At that time however the agency was stressing a downside limit to the rating of ‘A-‘. RSA was duly downgraded to that level yesterday evening but S&P now indicates up to two further notches of ratings downside, which would lead to a ‘BBB’ financial strength rating for the group’s core carriers.

That’s well below the rating level frequently required by brokers and larger commercial insurance buyers (operations S&P deems strategically important but not core to RSA, including Ireland, are already now in the BBB range). S&P’s ratings are particularly high profile among brokers and buyers in many of RSA’s core markets and RSA dropped its rating from the second most commonly followed agency in these markets, A.M. Best, last year.

In essence the problems remain those we highlighted last month; the need for management actions to shore up current and prospective capital (the latter being in part predicated on both improved earnings and a dividend policy that retains these as capital) and S&P’s reduced confidence in both RSA’s ‘Management & Governance’ and its ERM (Enterprise Risk Management) system.

Following the recent losses and reserve hikes RSA’s prospective capital is now viewed by the agency as below even the ‘BBB’ level.  We continue to believe that to address that RSA will need fresh equity.

The specific trigger for yesterday’s downgrade was a reduction in the ‘Management & Governance’ assessment from “satisfactory” to “fair” (S&P reviews 17 sub-factors for this, several of which would be impacted by the issues behind the profit warnings and management changes at the group).

However, two currently still positive features of RSA’s credit profile are also under review by S&P and a worsening of the agency’s view of either could push the rating below ‘A-‘.

Firstly RSA’s rating is substantially higher than that implied by its capital score due to its “very strong” Business Risk Profile; that in turn is highly impacted by its performance relative to peers which clearly S&P will be reviewing in the light of recent losses. Secondly RSA also still carries the highest S&P assessment for its ERM; that looks inconsistent with the recent losses (the “very strong” ERM assessment is supposed to indicate a robust ability to avoid surprise losses) and S&P has noted that it is reviewing this.

The agency does, however, also note some upside to the potential rating (i.e. moving back to ‘A’ for the group’s core carriers). Basically this requires a positive out-turn of the Business Risk Profile and ERM reviews AND an increase in prospective capital adequacy.

Raising capital however is never easy when shareholders are nursing unexpected losses, and in this case especially so since it is difficult to see how this could be done without further pressurising the group’s expected ‘return on equity’.  RSA might convince S&P that its actions now will generate sufficiently strong retained capital from future earnings to avoid the need for equity raising but that would require a considerable leap of faith by the agency given recent events.

All of which may well make a trade sale or substantial disposals that much more attractive for shareholders. That though requires that the buyer has a lot of confidence that there are no further skeletons in the cupboard.

Stuart Shipperlee, Analytical MD, Litmus Analysis.

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