Emerging Markets business review
“Emerging Markets has had a challenging year; however, continued profitable growth in Asia Pacific coupled with ongoing business remediation in Latin America provide a strong foundation for future success.”David Fried
Chief Executive Officer • Emerging Markets
Outlook for 2015
Given likely continued strong economic growth, increasing intra-regional trade flows between Asian economies and forecast growth in regional infrastructure investment, we remain confident in our business growth prospects in the Asia Pacific region. With our enhanced distribution strategy, aligned focus and improved operational efficiency across the region we expect to maintain our retention rates and generate strong new business flows.
The outlook for Latin American Operations will remain heavily impacted by economic conditions in the region, particularly in Argentina. We are confident that we are taking the appropriate steps to insulate the business against further economic volatility. Our Latin American business strategy is currently under review with a clear focus on determining the optimal classes of business and countries to grow our business profitably in 2015 and beyond. The establishment of our regional management team in Miami will be a key enabler in this process.
In the course of reviewing and implementing our growth strategies in Latin America, we will also fully leverage the skills and best practices that we have already established across the Asia Pacific region.
2014 was a year of change for both Asia Pacific and Latin American Operations, as both regions have come together under the Emerging Markets umbrella. Moving forward, we see opportunities and challenges in both regions as we seek to build an integrated operating model to drive future growth.
My thanks go to our business partners for their continued support and our dedicated staff for their efforts, resulting in a year of solid top-line growth. We look forward to further unleashing the potential of the two regions and developing the Emerging Markets Division as the growth engine of the QBE Group.
“2014 was a year of change for both Asia Pacific and Latin American Operations, as both regions have come together under the Emerging Markets umbrella. Moving forward, we see opportunities and challenges in both regions as we seek to build an operating model to drive future growth.”
Asia Pacific Operations
The Asia Pacific market continues to grow, buoyed by continued investment in infrastructure which is expected to grow by 7% to 8% a year over the next decade until 2025 and intra-regional trade flows between Asian economies. These trends provide opportunities for QBE in Asia to utilise our expertise to help customers with the rising insurance needs in construction/engineering, property, marine and trade credit. Rising individual wealth and an ageing population in Asia Pacific are also creating opportunities for insurers.
The abundance of capacity coupled with the aggressive pursuit of market share by competitors remains a key challenge for insurers in Asia Pacific, exacerbated by slowing economic growth and a potentially sustained low interest rate environment.
Latin American Operations
Latin America remains challenging, with uncertainty in both the economic and political landscape. Conditions in Argentina remain difficult with a 32% devaluation of the peso during 2014 and a volatile economic outlook moving into 2015. The fall in the price of oil towards the end of the year is also expected to adversely impact the Latin American economies, most notably Ecuador and Mexico.
Our updated regional strategy will take into account major economic trends, which we continue to monitor.
Emerging Markets underwriting result
Asia Pacific Operations
Asia Pacific Operations achieved strong organic growth in both gross written and net earned premium.
We retain leading market positions in markets such as Hong Kong (ranked 2nd) and Singapore (ranked 6th) and we remain the leading general insurer in the Pacific markets of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
Asia Pacific’s underwriting result of $38 million was 28% lower than last year with a combined operating ratio of 93.5% compared with 89.8% in 2013. Similarly, our insurance profit of $42 million was 26% lower than last year, mainly due to continued investment in our growth strategy, higher than expected large individual risk claims, flood claims in Malaysia in December and foreign exchange movements which adversely impacted results in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.
Adverse large individual risk claim experience and an adverse discount rate impact were partially offset by $20 million of favourable prior accident year claims development.
Asia Pacific Operations recorded an 8% increase in gross written premium to $785 million.
Excluding the distorting impact of $63 million of premium associated with the 2013 multi-year Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTRC) contract and a $15 million adverse foreign exchange impact, underlying gross written premium growth on a constant currency basis was impressive at 21%.
Particularly strong growth was achieved in our engineering, workers’ compensation, fire and marine portfolios.
The Asia region generated gross written premium of $671 million, representing underlying growth of 24% against last year (net of MTRC). All operations recorded premium growth on a constant currency basis with countries such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines recording growth rates in excess of 20%.
The Pacific region recorded a 1% decrease in gross written premium when compared with 2013 or 4% growth on a constant currency basis. With the exception of Vanuatu, all Pacific operations recorded gross written premium growth on this basis, reflecting strong retention and solid new business growth.
Premium rates reduced by 0.4% on average across the Asia Pacific portfolio compared with an increase of 0.6% in 2013.
The reinsurance expense ratio improved to 17.6% from 19.6% a year earlier due to the absence of 2013 reinstatement premiums and a shift in business mix from fire/property exposure to workers’ compensation.
Net earned premium increased 15% to $593 million reflecting top-line growth coupled with reduced reinsurance expense. Detailed reviews of our workers’ compensation, marine and property portfolios were undertaken in the second half of 2014 with strategies and actions identified to help ensure sustainable and profitable growth.
Asia Pacific Operations’ net claims ratio increased to 51.5% in 2014, compared with 48.3% in the prior year.
Notwithstanding another relatively benign year of catastrophe experience with December floods in Malaysia being the only noteworthy event, the portfolio experienced a significantly higher than usual frequency of large individual risk claims in our property and marine portfolios, particularly in Singapore and Papua New Guinea. Large individual risk and catastrophe claims accounted for 7.9% of net earned premium compared with only 3.7% in 2013.
Pleasingly, the increased frequency of small claims that impacted our 2013 result did not recur and, as a consequence, Asia Pacific Operations’ attritional claims ratio improved to 45.0% from 48.7% a year earlier.
The net claims ratio also benefitted from $20 million or 3.4% of favourable prior accident year claims development compared with $1 million or 0.2% favourable impact in 2013. This was partially offset by an adverse discount rate adjustment of $2 million or 0.3% compared with a negligible impact in the prior year.
Commission and expenses
Despite business mix changes, the net commission ratio was stable when compared with the previous corresponding year at 20.6%.
Asia Pacific Operations’ underwriting expense ratio increased slightly to 21.4% from 20.9% in 2013, largely reflecting increased investment to support the regional growth strategy, with a particular focus on people and technology.
Asia Pacific underwriting result
Implementing the Asia Pacific profitable growth strategy
Asia Pacific has achieved 16% compound annual growth in gross written premium over the past two years, however, in our focus markets of Asia the compound annual growth rate has been 21%. The ongoing and successful implementation of the Asia Pacific profitable growth strategy (APPGS) remains critical to sustaining profitable premium growth over the longer term.
In the second half of 2014, we launched an innovative online insurance portal ‘QBE Qnect’ (Qnect) in Hong Kong and Singapore. A web-based system, Qnect enables brokers and agents to transact insurance directly with QBE. Available via desktop, mobile and tablet devices, Qnect meets a rising demand from intermediaries to quote, bind and provide documentation at the point of sale.
Alongside Qnect, QBE also launched ‘QBE Business Insurance Solutions’ (BIS), a new 10-section commercial insurance product developed to capture the growth opportunities in the SME markets in Hong Kong and Singapore. Qnect and BIS represent key components of our growth strategy and are critical to the development of a leading digital platform and product offering for the fast-growing SME commercial customer segment in the region.
Qnect will be extended to other countries in Asia and more products aligned with our growth strategy will be added to the platform in 2015. Other initiatives, such as standardisation of underwriting process to improve operational efficiency and consistency of service delivery for our distribution partners across the region, will also be introduced next year.
Latin American Operations
Latin American Operations’ combined operating ratio increased to 122.9% from 99.6% in the prior year.
This significant deterioration in underwriting profitability largely reflected $212 million of adverse prior accident year claims development, primarily due to a material upgrade to our Argentine workers’ compensation claims reserves. This follows the introduction of a new actuarial model that we believe more appropriately captures recent trends in the claims environment and the extreme inflationary conditions.
Expenses were well controlled throughout the year with a flat expense ratio year on year.
Strong underwriting profitability was recorded in Ecuador and Brazil; our businesses in Chile and Brazil continue to grow; and our remediation activities in Colombia are demonstrating positive results. Although Puerto Rico and Mexico saw a decline in underwriting margin relative to 2013, both businesses remain profitable.
Gross written premium for the year was $1,394 million, up only 1% compared with $1,380 million in 2013.
Excluding an adverse foreign exchange impact of $328 million largely as a result of the 32% depreciation of the Argentine peso against the US dollar, gross written premium increased 25% on a constant currency basis.
Premium income was impacted by a one-off positive adjustment of $152 million to reflect the expected annual premium on Argentine workers’ compensation policies, previously recognised on a monthly basis. QBE had previously recognised Argentine workers’ compensation written premium on a monthly basis to align with the practice of monthly premium adjustments intended to assist in countering inflation. The aforementioned one-off adjustment more appropriately recognises written premium in line with the annual policy nature of the business and had no impact on earned premium during the period.
Underlying premium growth was therefore closer to 14% reflecting rate increases on our workers’ compensation book, better than anticipated premiums from our cargo and motor business and strong premium growth in our smaller operations in Chile, Brazil and Puerto Rico. In Brazil we are seeing growth in our travel portfolio, where we are now the market leader. Whilst property remains our biggest portfolio in Chile, our fastest growing lines were casualty and engineering. We continue to grow in Puerto Rico.
Premium rates increased by 10.6% on average across Latin America compared with an increase of 8.9% in 2013, largely reflecting higher regional inflation, particularly in Argentina.
Net earned premiums decreased 6% to $1,112 million, primarily due to the aforementioned adverse year on year exchange rate movement with the divergence in headline growth rate relative to written premium growth reflecting the workers’ compensation premium adjustment that did not impact earned premium.
The net claims ratio of 84.4% represents a significant deterioration from 61.5% in the same period last year, and largely reflects $212 million of adverse prior accident year claims development of which $193 million was in Argentina.
The net claims ratio was also impacted by a number of large individual risk claims, most notably major fire claims in Argentina, Chile and Mexico. At the same time the Mexican portfolio was adversely impacted by catastrophe claims associated with Hurricane Odile and the Chilean portfolio was impacted by earthquake claims.
In response to increased workers’ compensation claims frequency following legislative changes in 2012 and 2013 and challenging economic conditions, we performed an additional in-depth review of the claims reserves pertaining to all of our businesses in Argentina in the lead up to the interim result. The result of this review, combined with a change in the actuarial reserving approach to better reflect the claims environment and the extreme inflationary conditions, led to a $151 million increase in claims reserves in the first half of 2014, the majority of which related to our Argentine workers’ compensation portfolio.
An additional $42 million of adverse prior accident year development was recognised during the second half of 2014, largely due to a further increase in frequency of litigated claims pertaining to the Argentine workers’ compensation portfolio.
Also impacting the net claims ratio was $22 million of adverse prior accident year claims development in our Colombian SOAT (Compulsory Motor Personal Accident) portfolio that was recognised in our interim result. Significantly improved underwriting protocols, including a change in the regional bias of the portfolio away from the Atlantic Coast, are expected to lead to improved underwriting performance in 2015.
The new actuarial model implemented in our Argentine workers’ compensation business means that inflation and discount rates are now explicitly linked on over 75% of outstanding claims. While discounted claims liabilities were favourably impacted by an increase in Argentine risk-free rates during the year, the underwriting result was largely immunised by virtue of a corresponding and offsetting increase in assumed inflation.
Commission and expenses
The net commission ratio increased slightly to 22.1% from 21.6% in the prior year. This increase reflected a shift in portfolio mix with a relative increase in premium contribution from the higher commission paying Brazilian affinity portfolio along with increased commission rates in Colombia and Ecuador where we are diversifying our portfolios. There was some partial offset with the benefit of a regulatory change in the Argentine workers’ compensation market that limits commissions to 5.0% plus VAT.
The underwriting expense ratio remained relatively stable at 16.4% compared with 16.5% in the prior year.
Inflationary pressures in Argentina coupled with increased business development and restructuring charges in Colombia, Ecuador and Puerto Rico exerted upward pressure on the expense ratio. This was more than offset, however, by cost control in Brazil, Mexico and Chile and improvements in our calculation of deferred acquisition costs.
Latin America underwriting result
Other results impacts
In June 2014, we combined the Latin American and Asia Pacific Operations, with the creation of the Emerging Markets division under my leadership. Supporting the decision to consolidate our emerging markets operations under the one leadership team, we believe there are clear synergies with respect to key focus areas of risk management, IT/technology development and leveraging the maximum value out of our global trading partners.
In August 2014, we initiated a review of our Latin American business with the aim of rectifying the issues that have adversely impacted underwriting margins over the past 12 months while, at the same time, implementing a revised strategy to more appropriately identify and capture the growth opportunities available to QBE in the region.
This review is due to be finalised and approved by the QBE Group Board in the first quarter of 2015.
Implementation of the strategy will require operational changes to our business including alignment, where appropriate, with our Asia Pacific growth strategy.
A number of senior management changes have been made throughout the year and a central regional office will be established in Miami, Florida. Further changes are anticipated in 2015 to ensure that we have the right team in place to deliver on our revised Latin America strategy.