Freed from the cufflinks
Apr 7th 2004
From The Economist print edition
“Unlimited liability” was once the pride of Lloyd's. It's on the way out
HABITAT, diet and climate have changed and the species is becoming extinct. In 1990 there were almost 30,000 Lloyd's “names”, wealthy people who at that time provided the entire backing for the famous London insurance market and were, proverbially, liable “down to their cufflinks” to meet claims. Today, they number barely 2,000; those with unlimited liability are heading into history.
For most of the past 300 years, being a Lloyd's name signified both status and riches. All you had to do was show, not even actually invest, the right level of wealth. Then you signed up to several syndicates to spread your risks, and picked up the profits (or, sometimes, losses). The actual insurance work was done by another bunch of supposedly gentlemanly types.
But a series of shocks in 1988-92 changed all that. Old conventions of trustworthiness had already been eroded by scandal and sharp practice: some people managing the syndicates shifted the worst risks on to gullible outsiders, keeping the best ones for themselves. Lloyd's had long since moved from a headquarters reminiscent of a posh gentlemen's club into a shiny new high-tech one. The names began to fear that the good times were gone for good.
To pay for disasters like the Piper Alpha oil-rig fire of 1988, and then 1989's Exxon Valdez shipwreck off Alaska, unprecedented wads of money were now required from the names' own pockets. With these came a less visible but potentially vastly greater disaster: American tort lawyers' discovery of asbestosis. To survive, Lloyd's in 1994 had to admit corporate capital, and in 1996 to set up a special vehicle, Equitas, to reinsure names' pre-1993 “long-tail” liabilities for things like asbestosis. But for these vigorous conservation measures, the unlimited-liability names might well be an extinct species already.
What may now doom the species is a concession made in the small print of Gordon Brown's budget. After some further dismal years around 2000, Lloyd's is now back to health: a year ago it reported £834m of profits for 2002, and this week did better still, with £1.9 billion for 2003, thanks to an unusual combination: the fat premium rises due, notably though not solely, to the World Trade Centre attack, and a rare shortage of catastrophes such as hurricanes or airliner crashes. But many of the names are still deep in the red from the earlier disasters, and it is to them that Mr Brown has thrown a lifeline.
Till now, a name unwilling to go on risking bankruptcy could limit his liability by switching to one of the new “namecos” invented for that purpose by Lloyd's in the 1990s (or to an antique form of Scottish partnership, with odd disadvantages of its own). But he could not take his tax losses with him, to set against his new vehicle's future profits. For all the risk of their old status, many names were naturally unwilling to make the shift. But now, from April 6th, the coming Finance Act will let them limit their risk but keep their tax losses.
The old-style names, who even now provide nearly £2 billion of the Lloyd's market's £15 billion insurance capacity, roughly twice as much as their “limited” cousins, won't all rush to switch at once. But the market is a truly risky one, prone to large and volatile swings between good years and bad. Premiums are already slipping for some classes of insurance, so the 2003 profits may turn out to have been a peak. And with al-Qaeda and climate change on the loose—let alone American lawyers, whose latest gimmick is to sue Lloyd's for insuring 18th-century slave ships—this is no place for a wise man to risk his cufflinks.
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