Of silver linings and dark new clouds

  • An industry is born: the devastation wrought by 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, when it struck Florida, led to the creation of catastrophe bonds, for which Bermuda became a global hub (Photograph supplied)

As a number of commentators have crassly but not inaccurately noted over the years, the storm clouds of 1992’s monstrous Hurricane Andrew had a shimmering silver lining for Bermuda.

When that Category 5 storm buzz-sawed its way across Florida almost exactly 25 years ago, it caused more than $15 billion in insured losses — the equivalent of $56 billion today — making it the costliest natural disaster in American history up to that point.

Not only did the superstorm kill dozens and damage or destroy thousands of properties, it also devastated 11 US insurance companies, along with most of the traditional methods and thinking that insurers and reinsurers had used for managing hurricane risk.

Enter Bermuda.

At the time, the island was primarily known in insurance circles as a domicile for captive insurers, those self-owned vehicles through which leading businesses or groups of businesses provide coverage for themselves.

But that changed almost literally overnight.

A handful of industry visionaries brainstormed an audacious plan to provide much needed new capacity to an international insurance marketplace struggling to contend with the severity of losses stemming from Andrew.

This amounted to attempting to remake Bermuda into a new global centre for property-catastrophe reinsurance, harnessing the island’s infrastructure, location and tax advantages to fill a massive market void.

Their plan amounted to a roll of the dice based more on optimism than firm data. But in the event a new industry was born and Bermuda’s economy was, in essence, reborn.

By 1993, eight new property-catastrophe reinsurers had been formed in Bermuda, firms selling insurance to the primary insurers providing coverage for natural and man-made disasters, bringing $4 billion in fresh capital to the industry.

The island’s position was cemented by the horrific events of September 11, 2001, which led to almost $20 billion in new capital being injected into the local industry within months of the al-Qaeda terror attacks on the United States and a dozen new companies being set up here.

In the intervening years, Bermuda has evolved into a global re/insurance powerhouse.

The island is now home to more than half-a-trillion dollars in capital, provides coverage in almost all lines of insurance and reinsurance, and boasts an unparalleled pool of talent, experience and corporate leadership.

Bermuda has established an enviable global reputation for itself and is considered a global model of its kind, a respected and well-regulated blue-chip domicile — a byword for quality, innovation and above-board dealings.

And on the home front, of course, what was a bold but entirely unproven idea for a start-up industry 25 years ago has become the mainstay of Bermuda’s economy. Despite the present softness in the global re/insurance sector and the continuing series of mergers and acquisitions that have resulted in consolidation rather than growth in the Bermuda industry in recent years, the companies based here contributed $886.4 million to the local economy in 2016 — up 6 per cent from 2015.

As industry trade group the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers noted when releasing the latest data on its members’ economic contributions last month, the indirect impact of global insurance and reinsurance operations based here is actually “a multiple of that nearly billion-dollar figure”.

These benefits are felt throughout the economy.

They encompass everything from employee salaries and benefits to spending on housing, construction, and entertainment and travel expenses, as well as donations to charities, scholarships and other community-related causes.

By and large, the essential role this industry plays in maintaining Bermuda’s economy and society is neither underestimated nor taken for granted.

After all, with fully 1,090 of the 1,621 full-time staff members Abir employs being Bermudians, spouses of Bermudians or permanent residents, the industry hardly can be viewed as a foreign-dominated adjunct to the local community, as some critics attempted to paint it during the early years.

The sector is now an increasingly well-integrated, and increasingly indispensable, component of the broader Bermudian whole.

As a global industry, the sector is vulnerable to any number of international forces.

The extended period of low interest rates since 2008, for instance, has led to the Bermuda re/insurance industry’s investments continuing to produce relatively anaemic returns, further diminishing profitability.

Now it faces the prospect of new political and regulatory challenges on both sides of the Atlantic, given the election of protectionist-minded Donald Trump to the US presidency and pending British withdrawal from the European Union.

Increasingly cost-conscious and focused on ways to control — or reduce — spending, the re/insurance sector is also wary of domestic developments that may result in the kind of tax or fee hikes it once could afford to absorb without too much grousing, or too much impact on its bottom line.

Abir issued a none-too-veiled warning to this effect while announcing the industry’s 2016 economic contributions to Bermuda, one that seems to have gone largely overlooked.

But it’s a caution that should have galvanised the attention of every adult in Bermuda.

“Payroll tax changes can deter senior executive employment in Bermuda, and we expect that any further payroll tax change will have a negative impact,” said Abir chairman Kevin O’Donnell, who is president and chief executive officer of RenaissanceRe Holdings.

“Companies are very sensitive to these costs. Relocation of senior executives logically leads to a relocation of direct reporting teams, which further dampens local employment opportunities.”

In recent years payroll tax has become successive Bermuda governments’ preferred method for boosting revenues — and is by far the largest single contributor to the public coffers. In 2017-18, the Ministry of Finance projects payroll tax will generate $439 million, or 42 per cent of total government revenue.

The employer’s share of payroll tax — for companies with a total annual payroll of more than $1 million — has risen to 10.25 per cent, up from 8.25 per cent in 2008, or a rate increase of more than 24 per cent for employers over the past decade.

And just last year, the former One Bermuda Alliance government retooled the tax to make it increasingly progressive, ensuring that higher earners pay more.

Such higher earners, of course, include the senior re/insurance executives whom O’Donnell suggested may be relocated from Bermuda if any further changes to the payroll tax are unveiled by the new Progressive Labour Party administration.

It seemed to be an entirely straightforward and unambiguous declaration by Abir members.

Just as these companies continue to attempt to “reduce expenses further and to maximise efficiencies around the globe”, they are clearly expecting the new Bermuda Government to do the same — and not to regard their once cash-flush sector as a fail-safe means of making up any shortfalls between ambitious spending plans outlined in its election campaign and stagnant public revenues.

As Bermuda marks the silver anniversary of the silver lining that Hurricane Andrew provided the island in terms of its re/insurance sector, it would seem some dark new storm clouds may be gathering on this front. All Bermuda residents would do well to keep a weather eye on the economic horizon in the coming months to see what ensues.