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No credit crisis for insurance industry

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Robert Hartwig joined the Insurance Information Institute, an organization that compiles facts and statistics about the property/casualty insurance industry, in 1998, and served in various roles before being named president. Before joining, he was director of economic research and senior economist with the National Council on Compensation Insurance; he has also worked as senior economist for the Swiss Reinsurance Group in New York and as senior statistician for the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. BtoB recently spoke with Hartwig about how the overall economic downturn is affecting the insurance industry. BtoB: What effect has the economic downturn had on the insurance industry? Hartwig: Insurers are large institutional investors; in fact, after pension funds, they're the largest in the world. So clearly they have been hit by the global downturn in not only stock prices but in lower interest rates and other sorts of assets out there that have depreciated in value. ... And, to some extent, losses have picked back up due to higher catastrophe losses and so on. But the bottom line is this: While insurers have cer- tainly been impacted by the global economic downturn, we have not seen a parallel failure in insurers that we've seen in the banking industry. There's not a credit crisis, for instance, in the insurance industry. If you have a claim that needs to be paid, it'll be paid. If you need a policy renewed, it'll be renewed. If you need a new policy written, it'll be written. This stands in clear contrast to the banks. So when an insurer or an agent is marketing to a buyer of insurance, they're going to have to answer questions about financial strain. For larger businesses, that's always been part of the conversation, but it's something that is a front-burner issue in 2008-09. Obviously, the woes of AIG are on the minds of many insurance buyers. The company is the largest commercial insurer in the U.S. with an 11% market share. Its problems, mostly related to credit derivative instruments, originated in its London-based financial products subsidiary, not its insurance units. Repeated statements by regulators (and the company) assert that AIG's insurance units continue to function normally and continue to meet or exceed capital requirements in every jurisdiction in which they operate. BtoB: Are there particular types of insurance products that are generating a lot of interest right now? Hartwig: In most cases, you can view insurance as a staple commodity. In other words, you have to buy property insurance; you have to insure your fleet of vehicles, your aircraft, your buildings, your workers. So, [through] all of this, the demand remains fairly stable irrespective of the economic cycle. [But] there can be areas where interest increases, such as protection for directors and officers who may feel vulnerable in the current environment because of the volatility on Wall Street. Their stock prices may have plunged, and they see the issues that many of their competitors may have gotten into. They're aware of an increase in lawsuits against corporations being filed by trial lawyers. So that would be one area right now. —M.E.M
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