Insurance solutions to mitigate risk-weighted asset retentions by banks

By Bernie De Haldevang, Head of Specialty, Canopius at Lloyd’s

Capital requirements for banks are on the rise. Under the latest amendments to the Basel Accords, which set out international banking standards, regulators worldwide require banks to hold more capital than ever. According to KPMG, UK banks alone may have to hold up to £50 billion of additional capital; yet UK banks are already among the highest capitalised banks globally. Many banks around the world, including in Asia, are struggling to fund the extra assets, and typically do not wish to or cannot easily raise new money to capitalise existing loans. They are on the lookout for alternatives. Over the past few years, they have begun to discover that insurance is an excellent mechanism to mitigate additional capital requirements.

Demand is therefore mounting for what is in effect contingent capital provided by insurers under conditions controlled by the insured. When insurers act as non-funding, risk-taking participants in new or existing loans, and the contracts are structured correctly, backing such loan credits under conditional policies of indemnity can be Basel compliant. The insurance market, particularly in London, is under welcome pressure to deliver these solutions.

Lloyd’s has traditionally drawn a clear distinction between trade and non-trade credit risk insurances. Financing a sales contract or the sale of goods has been permissible, but under the former regulations dating back nearly a century the insurance of loans to entities which are not active in trade, including banks, has been unacceptable, due to the fear of moral hazard resting in synthetic transactions. That has changed in recent decades and the debate about trade versus non-trade has also seen positive movement.

The structure, credit quality, and priority of loans obligations as well as the (inevitably linked underlying priority of the sales contract) are the key variables when determining their insurability. Such factors are much more important than the label applied to them.

Managing agents at Lloyd’s approach to such risks is changing. The tendency had been to assess credit risks in the same way that Contract Frustration insurances are underwritten, but several significant differences subvert this approach. A government cannot declare its Ministry of Finance insolvent, and successor governments are bound to the repayment of the nation’s debts incurred by earlier administrations. That makes most Contract Frustration risks inherently better risks than unsecured Credit Risks, which may see recovery of credits from bankrupt of only cents on the dollar.

The emerging approach in Lloyd’s proffers a different way of handling financial risk. Portfolio Excess of Loss cover for short term credit risk for corporates differs dramatically from traditional whole account credit insurance. Under such contracts, the insured may assess credit risks itself, define the corridor of risk they wish to transfer, and agree a meaningful deductible set by insurers, that will also want to approve and amend the insured’s credit manual and insist as a condition on its consistent application. Some, though not many, insurers are beginning to build a book of such credit risks, analysing a maximum of perhaps 30 buyers, mostly fewer. However, building a sizeable portfolio is a slow process and brings with it development and systems investment costs. It requires the conversion of existing insureds to a different way of handling and assessing risks. The insureds, in turn, enjoy cheaper insurance and greater freedom of movement.

An alignment of interests and a partnership approach is crucial for underwriters of corporates and banks alike in this sector; insurers typically wish to insure only those banks that understand such insurances as a partnership. Insurers are committed, they are a hold-to-maturity market whereas not many banks are and regulators would prefer them not to be: insurers cannot ordinarily sell their contingent liabilities, and, with their bank insureds are the first party in the queue to pay losses. Banks often have a different approach to risk and its evaluation, and may transfer risks. Part of this is because banks see loans as assets whereas insurers treat them as contingent liabilities. Finding bankers willing to look beyond insurers’ non-funding role and understand these differences is crucial to the development of a stable book of credit excess of loss coverage. Others are likely to deliver surprises.

Asian and Middle Eastern lenders are at the beginning of this journey of understanding, primarily offering in Asia credit risks acquired in other Asian territories. In Singapore, for example, most banks are subsidiaries of lenders from some other jurisdiction, and do not originate and insure domestic risk. Dedicated credit risk underwriters are very interested in such risks, those originating in, for example, Malaysia, Indonesia, and South Korea – places with strong, capitalist-based economies that do not suffer the ponderous decision-making philosophy that demands enormous patience from insurers.

Geographical origin is just one factor considered when underwriters assess risks under this form of insurance, which is growing in popularity. It is not a risk for the faint of heart, but for banks working in partnership with forward-looking credit risk insurers, it is a proven solution to the increasing capital squeeze.