Matthew Josefowicz on reports that Aon is in talks to sell its employee benefits outsourcing group.
Yahoo News reports that Aon is in talks to sell its employee benefits outsourcing group. Aon bought Hewitt for $4.9 billion in mid-2010, when large brokers were under pressure to diversify into non-commission businesses after the financial crisis. Some interpret this as a signal that Aon wants to focus more on insurance and risk management businesses. With the large commercial insurance world being transformed by new entrants from the capital markets and new technology, and with the employee benefits market under pressure from the growing percentage of the labor force operating as freelancers, Aon may benefit from a tighter focus on its core market where disruption may create opportunity (as well as threats).
Federal regulators gave Tesla some good news this week when they cleared the automaker’s “Autopilot” system of responsibility for a fatal crash in 2016. Instead, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found the driver of a Tesla car that collided with a truck (the article says the car “drove itself into” the truck) ignored warnings by Tesla to keep control of the car at all times. This is certainly a victory for autonomous driving systems — the opposite finding would have been a major setback for Tesla — but not the end of the war.
Like seat belts, autonomous driving vehicles will reduce accidents and fatalities, not eliminate them. And Americans are litigious. Apple is being sued for not doing enough to prevent texting while driving, even though texting while driving is explicitly against the law. Companies with deep pockets, like Tesla, Apple, and Google, will continue to attract litigators, and insurers who provide product liability coverages to autonomous auto industry should not start cutting prices. However, auto insurers should anticipate reduced frequency and severity of accidents as safety features continue to be improved.
All of that being said, this week’s ruling is an indication that our society accepts this research and technology direction. Autonomous cars offer significant benefits to portions of our society that have disabilities and to the elderly who can become riskier drivers, not to mention the potential large-scale benefits of improving traffic flow and reducing air pollution. Lastly, with this decision as precedent, the profit potential for the winners in this space will continue to drive research and innovation.
Recently, innovation-focused startup insurers Lemonade and Haven Life both announced expansion beyond their initial states–Lemonade to all but 3 states and Haven Life adding five states and D.C., leaving only California and Montana to add. Both initially launched in limited states (33 for Haven and just New York for Lemonade). Add to this the announcement this week that Ladder has launched in its first market, California. The limited launch approach allows these companies to gather customer data and make the necessary process changes that will be critical to their data-driven approaches going forward.
As these insurance startups build their policy counts, more customer data will be accumulated that will provide better algorithm results. But, scaling up in size will offer different challenges for these “Creative Carriers”. Lemonade faces a transition of showing profitability while continuing to innovate, and Haven Life, backed by Mass Mutual, may face different pressures as they grow. In both cases, customers will continue to expect these startups to continue being innovative in how they approach customer experience.
Lemonade’s approach is centered on transparency to build trust. According to this recent blog post, they intend to soon release information on performance metrics and the impact of their ‘Giveback’ program (in which the company donates leftover money form premiums to causes customers choose). This is consistent with their focus on changing the industry by changing the dynamics of interaction based on behavioral economics principles infused in the organization by Chief Behavioral Officer Dan Ariely.
Haven Life on the other hand stays focused on creating the simplest and fastest possible experience–what they refer to as their “ridiculously easy process” for buying life insurance. Their value proposition also includes transparency, but more by providing a fast quote and enabling easy comparison price shopping.
With their expansion into new state markets, the continuing growth and adjustments at both of these innovators will be important for incumbent insurers and imitators to watch throughout 2017.
We have written previously about the ever increasing importance of data in Insurance. A related area of interest to insurers is the growth of predictive analytics. Modern predictive analytics solutions are capable of providing deep insight into a wide range of business areas such as underwriting risk, product profitability, and financial projections. However, maturity and adoption of predictive analytics solutions vary widely among insurers. As more carriers prioritize data strategy, usage of this potentially disruptive technology will grow rapidly. Data is a major component of Novarica’s “Hot Topics” for insurers, which include social, mobile, analytics, big data, cloud, digital, and Internet of Things/drones. Data is being utilized to speed up underwriting, utilizing external third party data (e.g. prescription information, telematics information for driving), improve actuarial models (e.g. data collected from drones, the National Weather Service), and help to process claims (e.g. data generated from devices, commercial vehicles, health devices). Over 25% of insurers ran big data programs last year in order to gain insights from large volumes of data with high variety (structured and unstructured) and velocity. This article from the New York Times discusses the increasing concern of regulators, mostly in Europe and the UK, that access to large amounts of data may ultimately lead to a decrease in competition by freezing out smaller firms who can’t get at as much data as large firms like Amazon, Google and Facebook. The article mentions the case of IBM, which is combining internal data with customer data in order to train Watson AI software for a wide variety of tasks in fields ranging from medicine to finance. Some insurance carriers are working with IBM’s Watson software to develop underwriting, claims, and actuarial modeling. Data will continue to grow in importance even as it grows in volume. It is inevitable that regulators will start looking more at data and access to it as we move forward into the 2020s.
An interesting article came out over the weekend that delves into the consolidation that has taken place among publicly traded life insurance companies, and contrasts this trend with the relatively stable number of mutual carriers that are in the market today. We are now the better part of two decades past the period when there was a significant demutualization effort which included notable, name-brand, national carriers. In that period, we have weathered multiple recessions, one of them the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, and emerged into a world that has experienced persistent low interest rates. Taken as a whole, these factors have produced a series of economic outcomes which were outside of the planning corridors that many carriers executed against. As the article suggests, carriers face some very interesting challenges going forward. For those with long tail liabilities such as life and annuity contracts, the conflicts associated with quarterly earnings reports and maximizing shareholder value appear to be particularly daunting.
There is more to this story, however, which may suggest some additional advantages for mutual carriers. Almost without exception, life carriers are grappling with aging technology platforms which may date as far back as the Kennedy administration. The blocks of business on these platforms are themselves old, and may be closed to new business. But because they were at the heart of these businesses over multiple decades they have become, through the magic of cost accounting, blocks of business which absorb significant overhead for carriers. For many companies, these platforms represent a significant drag in terms of being able to implement new products and services effectively. At the same time, however, these platforms, if they are walled off, can become quite stable and relatively inexpensive to operate. This can meaningfully influence both operational and financial outcomes for carriers.
We recently unearthed a 1995 chronicle from MIT which provides a fascinating view of the first 35 years of policy administration utilization in North America. The fact that many of the systems that were deemed to be aging in that 22-year-old report are still being used by carriers should give cause for concern to some!
In any case, as carriers plot their technology strategy for the future, addressing these old systems and blocks of business running on them will become increasingly critical. The investments and planning horizon required to make them successful may be easier for mutually owned companies to execute than it will be for their publicly traded competitors given their respective focus on long- versus short-term results.
Even as market competitive threats loom large, it is not just a technology challenge that many life insurance carriers face. There is an accounting and a reporting issue which carriers would be well advised to consider as they put their strategic plans in place.
The major tech players are all betting that smart home automation and digital assistants will be the next big thing for consumers. Grange is taking advantage of this emerging area with their recent announcement that Amazon’s voice-controlled Alexa can now help users learn about Grange insurance or find local agents. It’s clear that the insurance marketplace has not always adapted quickly to improve the customer experience, so this is a great example of an insurer working to serve consumers in whatever way they prefer. It also demonstrates the necessity for insurers to think to the future when they modernize their back-end systems. Will a new core system support future channels? Over the last five to ten years insurers have poured a lot of time and money into building web-based consumer portals. Those that didn’t build for future flexibility had to start from scratch in order to create mobile-ready sites. Will they have to begin again to leverage voice-based home assistants or some as-of-yet unknown customer interaction? Insurers who are thinking in an omni-channel way will instead be architecting agile back-end systems that can support any number of channels and–just as importantly–can support transfers between channels when necessary.
A recent survey of younger agents highlighted a generally optimistic view of the future. In addition to reflecting positive sentiments about economic prospects, they also appear to feel good about the security of their positions, given the significant number of current producers that are expected to retire from the labor force. The average age of an agent in the United States is greater than 59 and there are forecasts of up to 25% of the current population of agents planning to retire by the end of 2018.
While there may well be room for optimism for those who properly frame a career in insurance distribution, the likely reality is that carriers will need far fewer agent relationships in the future. Increasing focus on self service capabilities, desires from consumers to be able to have direct interaction with the companies they do business with and greater commoditization will all put pressure on the industry to do things in a more efficient, less labor intensive, fashion. Distribution will hardly be the only function to experience this pressure. More automated underwriting and automated claims adjudication are two other examples.
This also ties to research Novarica recently competed on Millennial consumers. As a generation, Millennials will represent half of the US labor force by 2020. As a group, they have a strong preference for DIY capabilities.
This doesn’t mean that the agent role will become extinct but rather that it will morph and evolve. There are likely to be far fewer, but on average more highly skilled, producers in the future. They will be experts on dealing with complex and difficult situations which don’t lend themselves to a do it yourself model. That could be a very good place for producers to be, albeit with a substantially different business model, than is currently the norm. Carriers will want to be preparing for these changes sooner rather than later, given the speed with which consumer preferences can be influenced by the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple.