IN THE stormy and ever-changing world of global finance, insurance has remained a relatively placid backwater. With the notable exception of AIG, an American insurer bailed out by the taxpayer in 2008, the industry rode out the financial crisis largely unscathed. Now, however, insurers face unprecedented competitive pressure owing to technological change. This pressure is demanding not just adaptation, but transformation.
The essential product of insurance—protection, usually in the form of money, when things go wrong—has few obvious substitutes. Insurers have built huge customer bases as a result. Investment revenue has provided a reliable boost to profits. This easy life led to a complacent refusal to modernise. The industry is still astonishingly reliant on human labour. Underwriters look at data but plenty still rely on human judgment to evaluate risks and set premiums. Claims are often reviewed manually.
The march of automation and technology is an opportunity for new entrants. Although starting a new soup-to-nuts insurer from scratch is rare, many companies are taking aim at parts of the insurance process. Two Sigma, a large American “quant” hedge fund, for example, is betting its number-crunching algorithms can gauge risks and set prices for insurance better and faster than any human could. Other upstarts have developed alternative sales channels. Simplesurance, a German firm, for example, has integrated product-warranty insurance into e-commerce sites.
Insurers are responding to technological disruption in a variety of ways. Two Sigma contributes its analytical prowess to a joint venture with Hamilton, a Bermudian insurer, and AIG, which actually issues the policies (currently only for small-business insurance in America). Allianz, a German insurer, simply bought into Simplesurance; many insurers have internal venture-capital arms for this purpose. A third approach is to try to foster internal innovation, as Aviva, a British insurer, has done by building a “digital garage” in Hoxton, a trendy part of London.
The biggest threat that incumbents face is to their bottom line. Life insurers, reliant on investment returns to meet guaranteed payouts, have been stung by a prolonged period of low interest rates. The tough environment has accelerated a shift in life insurance towards products that pass more of the risk to investors. Standard Life, a British firm, made the transition earlier than most, for example, and has long been primarily an asset manager.
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