Swiss Re makes digital side-bet as premiums languish

FILE PHOTO: CEO Mumenthaler of the world's second largest reinsurer Swiss Re addresses a news conference to present the company's full year results, in Zurich
FILE PHOTO: Chief Executive Christian Mumenthaler of the world’s second largest reinsurer Swiss Re addresses a news conference to present the company’s full year results, in Zurich, Switzerland, February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Moritz Hager/File Photo

January 25, 2019

By Mark Bendeich and Silvia Aloisi

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – The world’s second-largest reinsurer, Swiss Re, plans to double down on a small, new online insurance venture as its huge core business continues to be pinched by losses on natural disasters and what it calls unsustainably low premiums.

Chief Executive Christian Mumenthaler told Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Friday that the company was “fired up” about the online venture, Life Capital, which hooks Swiss Re into the primary insurance market.

The Life Capital platform brings together Swiss Re, primary insurers and online retailers to sell life insurance and soon also general insurance to the large number of people who do not insure. Many households still do not fully insure their homes and cars despite a growing risk of fire, flood and hurricanes.

“We talk to a lot of companies about this model and we believe it could become a big part of who we are,” Mumenthaler said, adding that roughly half of the economic damage unleashed by catastrophes is typically uninsured.

The concept of an online business model lay behind a recent approach by Japanese tech giant SoftBank for a stake in Swiss Re, Mumenthaler said.

“There’s an interesting thought behind it that has intrigued us, continues to intrigue us and has actually fired us up.”

He said Swiss Re continued to explore non-equity tie-ups with online businesses and small or regional primary insurers to expand the Life Capital venture, but he did not elaborate if other big tech groups were among potential partners.

He portrayed Life Capital as a strategic long-term hedge, with no respite in sight for premiums in the core business.

A growing band of investors have been piling into the underwriting market, willing to insure risks like natural and man-made disasters despite climate change, as an alternative to volatile stock markets and low returns on cash.

“This is a sensitive area where the prices should go up but so far we have seen little movement after 2017,” Mumenthaler said, adding that the annual renewal season had seen little uptick despite last year’s devastating fires in California, Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas and typhoons in Asia.

“It means the whole value chain is under significant pressure…Costs have become much more important over the last years and for the foreseeable future, so there will be continual pressure on costs, and not just for Swiss Re.”

Swiss Re expects a pre-tax combined claims burden from natural and major man-made disasters of $2.9 billion for 2018. Industry-wide, it sees global insured losses of $81 billion, which would be the fourth highest on record.

Mumenthaler said the group still planned to float its British unit, ReAssure, on the London stock market this year despite volatile markets and news reports that Rothesay Life planned a 3.5 billion pound ($4.6 billion) bid for the business.

“When you do an IPO this always brings in people who are interested to buy it…but we are heading towards the IPO,” he said, though he added that a private sale was not out of the question.

“Only if we can see something that would be more interesting for our shareholders would we consider something like that.”

He declined to comment when asked if Swiss Re was in talks with Rothesay Life or any other potential buyers. Rothesay declined to comment when the news reports surfaced this month.

($1 = 0.7648 pounds)

(Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

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