So close and yet so far! How to turn a positive outlook into an upgrade.

Achieving a rating upgrade once the outlook has been changed to positive is often regarded as little more than a formality. However, what could be taken for granted may turn out to be a long-drawn process or might never materialize.

Of course, a change to ‘positive’ is good news, but it should not be misunderstood to be a guarantee for a subsequent upgrade. According to S&P a negative or positive outlook implies at least a one-in-three chance of a change to the rating in the next two years if it is investment-grade. An outlook change means that an agency’s assessment of how future circumstances may evolve have altered, but that there is not yet enough certainty to warrant a change in the rating.

So once your rating has a positive outlook, how can you achieve your goal of an upgrade in the most effective way?

First we believe it is important to be aware that, by nature, rating agencies will look at a company differently from management or other stakeholders, such as equity investors. However, when engaging with the agency it is important to address their perspective and to present the information in a format that suits their needs.

Critical to this is to understand what their expectations are. Over the years, most rating agencies have become more transparent and disclose in their outlook statement the scenarios under which they could see a rating change. Time is therefore well invested in getting underneath the terminology of the outlook in order to fully comprehend the qualitative and quantitative targets the agency expects to be met for an upgrade.

Through that exercise you will sometimes discover that the rating agency’s targets may diverge from your own. For example, if you pursue a growth strategy, involving writing business in new markets, a rating committee’s focus will likely be on the risks such a strategy may add rather than the opportunities that may come with it. The key focus of your discussions with the analysts should therefore not only be why and how you grow but in particular what makes you profitable.  Indeed, addressing the “what and why” of how your specific characteristics will drive the sustainability of future performance/capital is always key to your rating.

Having a clear message how your enterprise risk management constantly evolves in line with your strategy is also critical. A demonstration of your ability to effectively control and integrate risk management in your decision making will be essential in making analysts comfortable with your strategy.

Given that the rating is a prospective view of an insurer’s financial strength, it will be equally important to support your strategy with a credible forecast of your earnings, ideally including the key ratios agencies typically use. Another key factor is communicating a forward-looking view of your capital adequacy against the backdrop of your strategy.

Last, the committee will not look at a rating in isolation, but will compare your company with your peers. Benchmarking with competitors already rated at your current and target level can be a powerful tool in influencing the rating agency.

Karin Clemens
Senior Consultant Analyst
September 2017

Optimising your financial strength rating

1 Comment
  1. Great article.
    I was wondering what the statistics are on conversions of positive outlooks to actual upgrades? I guess if the positive outlook is based on an anticipated sector change then it is likely beyond the firm’s control (if you discount lobbying). But it is a huge missed opportunity – and probably a negative hit when it goes back to stable – if it is firm-specific and in the firm’s control.

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