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P&C reserves and asbestos

ACE Insurance’s recent announcement that it is increasing asbestos reserves by almost $300 million may be a case of too little, but perhaps not too late.
Rating agencies have been closely monitoring reserving practices, paying particular attention to the actual amounts set aside as compared to actuarial estimates of future liability. For the layman, this means the companies that determine the financial viability of insurers want to make sure they have set aside enough money to pay for future claims.
This is important stuff – insurance is predicated on the policyholder’s confidence in the insurer’s ability to pay claims. Any concern on the part of present or potential policyholders about this ability is going to hurt the insurance company’s ability to attract new customers.
While one would think the close monitoring of insurance company financials will provide ample warning of impending problems, history shows that when troubles hit insurers, they can collapse seemingly overnight.
In this case, AM Best, one of the leading rating agencies, believes ACE has not set aside enough cash to pay for future asbestos liabilities. Best goes on to say:
“A.M. Best expects that additional charges will need to be taken in the next several years. However, given ACE’s current capital levels and its substantial earnings projections, potential charges taken in subsequent years should be readily absorbed.”
Best did not reduce ACE’s rating. Fitch Ratings (my personal favorite) did cut its rating of an ACE’s subsidiary’s ratings from a B+ to a B- on concerns over future claims and the impact of the charge on overall financials.
Fitch has been very cognizant of the asbestos reserving issue, noting in their latest review of the industry a potential shortfall of $43-$60 billion in reserves for asbestos-related claims at the end of 2003.
While this may seem arcane, esoteric, and generally pretty uninteresting, asbestos reserving practices and results thereof are a key to the viability of many an insurer.
Those who buy insurance should take notice.

Joe Paduda is the principal of Health Strategy Associates




A national consulting firm specializing in managed care for workers’ compensation, group health and auto, and health care cost containment. We serve insurers, employers and health care providers.



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