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Your money Print article | Email
Legacy of fierce storms darkens future for Names
By Brian Mooney
Published: February 6 2004 12:24 | Last Updated: February 6 2004 12:24

A year ago I stuck my head above the parapet and wrote in FT Money and Business about how I and many other Names, or private capital providers, had been losing on average about £12,000 a month for five years at Lloyd's.

A year on, most of us who braved the storm and continued underwriting at the same level of £1m are now making £12,000 a month - and in some cases much more.

This is based on the latest forecast profits for Names for 2002. Barring a string of catastrophes in the next few months before the 2003 year starts to come off risk, a similar or even better result is forecast for 2003.

After losing money for five years - at least £7.4bn from 1997 to 2001 - Lloyd's is back in profit. But while this is welcome, Names and other capital providers will continue to face testing times. Many may never actually see their profits.

To start, there will be a "final" bill this June for the 2001 account - the year of September 11 - and it may contain the judgment of the US courts on whether the attack on the Twin Towers constituted a single or double event. A ruling that it was two events could add one or two percentage points to Names' average losses, which in most cases already exceed 14 per cent of underwriting capacity for 2001.

There is then the problem of finality itself. Many syndicates that traded through the unprofitable cycle have either gone out of business or have had their three-year accounts left open because there was too much uncertainty to close them. Even before any attempt is made to close off the 2001 account in June this year, Lloyd's already has a total of 82 syndicate years left open between 1996 and 2000 - an abyss spewing out losses.

A number of the 82 are multiple years relating to the same syndicate, but to put this into context Lloyd's is trading in 2004 with just 66 syndicates. Most Names are on a dozen or more open years, and many of these were badly run syndicates that are still haemorrhaging - particularly from US casualty losses and from the seemingly bottomless pit of directors and officers (D&O) and errors and omissions (E&O) claims stemming from the dotcom crash.

One now-collapsed syndicate recently revised the estimated losses on its open 2000 year of account from 85 per cent to 163 per cent, a measure of how poor some of the underwriting was in the soft market, and and what little Lloyd's senior management did to prevent it.

Such sharp deteriorations in forecasts, which were once endemic, now seem rare. Although there is still room for improvement, most syndicates trading at Lloyd's appear to have finally got on top of their forecasting.

In contrast to 1999 and 2000, when the loss projections moved out quarterly almost as if by geometric proportion, the market's forecast losses for the 2001 year have remained broadly constant, and are currently 17.1 per cent.

The back years' deterioration means that the £12,000 a month the average underwriting Names are currently making is gross. Most of the profits, and in some cases maybe all of them, will be have to be ploughed back to pay for and close off the open years.

The problem of open years aside, trading prospects continue to look bright. Premium rates had been driven down to ludicrously low levels before the September 11 wake-up call. They rocketed in the immediate aftermath and have generally held up since - but for how long will they remain firm?

Will there have to be another catastrophe to prevent them from sliding back to unprofitable levels? Lloyd's was hit by comparatively few catastrophes in 2002 and 2003, but in these good years the market overall is forecasting to make back less than it lost in the two preceding bad years of 2000 and 2001 - profits of 13 per cent and an estimated 15 per cent respectively.

Perhaps more disturbingly, 12 of the 83 syndicates trading in the benign environment in 2002 in the wake of the September 11 upturn, when underwriters could literally name their price, are forecasting a loss for that year. If the best the market can do is to limp back into recovery only to nosedive again into stomach-churning losses, long-term investors will simply give up.

There are, however, encouraging signs that Lloyd's has grasped this nettle. The huge recent losses came in the main from the lower quartile of syndicates, and not primarily from the big hit of September 11, and the market's new franchise board is now working to weed out the poor performers or at least control their excesses.

All 12 of the lossmaking syndicates in 2002 have been closed. The emphasis on quality rather than quantity was reflected in the fact that Lloyd's entered 2004 with its total capacity, £14.9bn, unchanged from the previous year.

The hope is that the franchise board keeps its eye firmly on the business; if rates hold up, even in years of catastrophes, the market should remain profitable, or at worst only marginally lossmaking.

Names, many of whom have been through hell and back, are pinning their hopes on the effectiveness of the board and are looking forward to a few years of respite - and even, perhaps in 2005, to their first cheque in five years.

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I've been losing 12,000 a month  Feb 08 2003 04:00
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