Black Swans for Thanksgiving

I, for one, am glad its Thanksgiving next week. First, I love the feast! Family and friends (well, er, no friends this year) gather for dinner and conversation – no gifts, no chocolates, no decorations. Just like me: boring but predictable. Second, like everybody I could use a break from the craziness that is 2020, and Thanksgiving does allow one the opportunity to take a reality “time out” at least for a day.

But as my mind drifted to turkey, another bird edged its way into my brain. The proverbial black swan that is at the top of mind for many of us in the insurance community. An article yesterday in the London Times by Alex Wright highlights how many in our world are working to create insurance solutions for things that historically have been labeled uninsurable, like the pandemic.

As Alex outlined in his article, traditionally, companies have mitigated against risk by taking out an insurance policy. Underwriters would spend hours poring over reams of historical data to determine the likelihood of the risk occurring before giving a quote.  But black swans don’t fit this mode well, as by definition they defy historical data – at least in the linear manner we usually think of.

The burgeoning world of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning is looking to change that. The key benefit of AI in insurance is that it can quickly process large data sets and identify significant trends that mere mortals are unable to do.

Dr. Marcus Schmalbach created the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) World Risk Index, a parametric index that uses machine-learning to gather data from a range of trusted and verifiable sources, many of which aren’t considered in traditional underwriting. That data is then rigorously analyzed alongside information the technology has gathered from previous experiences to look for patterns and links between events and determine the likelihood of a major event occurring. Among the areas his group has successfully modelled is business interruption loss in the event of a pandemic based on the data they crunched.

Climate change, natural disasters, political and trade conflicts, all could be better priced in the insurance world with new AI applications. AI can also reduce paperwork and the time taken to receive a quote or claim. Using parametrics, AI can also establish if an event has happened, thereby triggering payouts and avoiding any disputes.  Captives are well poised to take advantage of such innovation.

While nobody can predict the future with 100% accuracy, AI will allow insurers to detect anomalies that will help anticipate future events, like pandemics, and maybe better prepare us for the black swans. Perhaps roast black swan instead of turkey….

Thanks, as always, for your continued support in these trying times. I look forward to hearing from you!

Rich Smith
VCIA President

It’s an Election…. Now What Happens?

In case you may have missed it, we had a national election this week where the United States picked who will be our President for the next four years… well, almost. As of this filing, the winner has not been declared and there is talk of court cases and recounts. Such is the way of our world these days.

I have been asked several times (OK, once) how I think the captive industry might be impacted under a Biden administration if he were to win. The short answer, from my perspective, is probably not much. Certainly, there are macro issues that may change if Biden were to tack toward a more open border economy than Trump as seems likely. And he is probably going to tighten some of the regulations that Trump loosened in his four years. Perhaps those policies offset each other, but all the same, I don’t think it will have a huge impact on our industry. And I don’t see much of a change in the IRS’s attitude against 831(b)s!

The hardening of the traditional (re)insurance marketplace that ostensibly started last year looks like it will keep steaming ahead into the upcoming year. That will most likely have a greater impact on our industry than policy shifts under a new administration. Certainly, policies impacting the economy, world affairs, and the continuing pandemic will have an effect, but captives are very good about adapting to new risks and economic environments.

One policy change that might provide a little boost to captive formations is if Biden raises the corporate income tax that was lowered under Trump. The lowering of the corporate income tax decreased the federal tax benefit to captive owners, as the accelerated deduction for losses incurred but not recorded will be worth less at a 21 percent tax rate than at the previous rate.  I will be curious to see if a raise to the corporate income tax (if it happens) will have a perceptible effect in our current market.

So, my advice to you all is to strike “impact to captives” off the list of things you are worried about regardless of who ultimately wins. However, if you want to hear more about what may be coming our way in terms of policies, laws and regulations that will impact the captive industry, join VCIA’s annual members-only Captive State of the Union with Dave Provost, myself and other luminaries as we discuss the outlook as part of VCIA’s Annual General Meeting on November 18th. Click here for full information and how to register.

Thanks, as always, for your continued support in these trying times. I look forward to hearing from you!

Rich Smith
VCIA President

The Devil Gets His Due: 831(b)s

The Internal Revenue Service has pumped up the volume on their efforts to go after fraudulent 831(b) captives and their promoters. And although no industry likes the thought of being singled out by our nation’s tax collectors, it is hardly surprising.

Solomon Teague of Captive International recently reported that the IRS has scored some notable victories against abusive micro-captive insurance tax shelters in recent years, with settlement offers to some 200 captives last September. Flush with victory, the IRS has established 12 new examination teams to go after taxpayers using 831(b) captive insurance vehicles to avoid paying taxes, thereby significantly ramping up the pressure that has grown up around these shelters.  It will open additional examinations and use all available enforcement tools, including summonses, to obtain the necessary information, the IRS said in its statement.

The IRS has been concerned about abusive micro-captives for several years. It has named these transactions on its Dirty Dozen list of tax scams since 2014. In 2016, the Department of the Treasury and IRS issued Notice 2016-66, identifying certain micro-captive transactions as having the potential for tax avoidance and evasion.

As Solomon reported, the IRS’s position was bolstered by three US Tax Court decisions, each confirming that certain micro-captive arrangements are not eligible for federal tax benefits, along with settlement offer letters to “up to 200” micro-captives that it suspected were not engaged in legitimate insurance activities. According to the IRS, nearly 80 percent of taxpayers who received its settlement offer elected to accept it. “The IRS has collected huge sums of money in recent months from the settlements it has reached and has amassed quite a war chest. The more it goes after these captives the more money it makes, so it is only logical that it keeps up the pressure,” according to an expert in his article.

VCIA, and others in the industry, has been warning about the impact of these less-than-honest facilities for some time. What the IRS is doing only affects a very small portion of the captive insurance sector, being risk-pooled 831(b) captives. The IRS is not taking any actions against captive insurance companies generally. The IRS is not even pursuing all captive insurance companies that have made the 831(b) election. No Vermont captives have been under scrutiny.

It will be interesting to see how this is reflected in the captive numbers released by the states whose insurance departments made a big deal about mass-licensing so many captives, nearly all of which were 831(b) captives of the risk-pooled varietal. As we have seen before in the captive industry, new captive domiciles will sometimes loosen regulatory standards in order to drive new captive formations – and put out press releases attesting to the growth in their states.

As I said in the beginning, no industry likes the headlines about IRS scrutiny. But I am hopeful this will clean up a particularly bad set of apples in ours.

Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you!

Rich Smith
VCIA President

Taxing Talk

2019-tax-panelJoin us next week As VCIA presents its annual captive taxation update! On December 12th, a group of noted captive tax specialists will inform you of the latest 2019 tax developments impacting captive insurers. Our panel will provide details on specific tax authorities and court rulings released over the past year to provide further insight into the ever-shaping landscape of captive taxation. The panel will also explore the latest changes from the U.S. Tax Reform bill enacted a couple of years ago, its impact on captives, and how best to plan for year-end.

Our panelists will be Saren Goldner, Partner at Eversheds Sutherland, Kristen Hazel, Partner at McDermott Will & Emery, and Alicia Miller, Tax Senior at Crowe.  Each of these experts are considered respective authorities of captive taxation in their various capacities, and all are members of firms who have a strong presence in the captive industry and work tirelessly for the benefit of all.

This webinar offers a great opportunity for all stakeholders to keep up with the latest tax developments in efforts to make informed decisions at the highest level of corporate governance for your captive.  You will walk away learning about recent changes from the U.S. Tax Reform bill that will affect the status of captive insurers; Washington State’s recent approach toward taxing captive entities and some results of recent court cases;  the basics of Johnson & Johnson’s successful appeal in its $55 million NJ Self Procurement Tax Refund Case; recent developments involving insurance characterization, including risk pools and alternative premium characterization; and the IRS’s continued focus on smaller captive insurance companies and understand best practices learned from the cases in this area.

Click here for more information. I hope you will be able to join us!

Rich Smith
VCIA President

It’s a Hard Market

OK, time to fess up. In a blog in February 2018, I dismissed the rumor that a hardening insurance market was on its way. As a matter of fact, I stated “Next time I get asked by a reporter whether I think a hard market is coming our way, I will give them the same answer I gave at the end of last year: hard market, schmard market” – ouch!

Well, as we are all aware, the insurance market has certainly been hardening over the last year. Even though I still believe that the broader insurance market is more stable now, with better loss control, better data, more capital, and the maturation of the captive insurance industry, it is tightening. According to the second quarter 2019 Marsh Global Insurance Market Index, commercial property rates in the U.S. increased nearly 10% in the second quarter, which is twice the level of recent quarters.

And though the hardening market is impacting several different lines, I thought the explanation as reported in Business Insurance by Bret Ahnell, Executive Vice President of Staff Operations at FM Global, on property insurance (a large area in the captive marketplace) was instructive:

1.) The commercial property insurance industry has been losing money.  There have been declining rates industry-wide for more than a decade while carriers have offered broader coverages.  At the same time the industry has been contending with increased risk as a result of global economic expansion.  In fact, the property and casualty industry has been above a 100 combined ratio in 6 of the last 9 years. Only 2013-2015 were profitable, explained by extremely low losses from natural disasters.  Yet, when big natural catastrophe losses resulted from events, including hail, hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, and monsoons, the industry again posted losses in 2017 and 2018.

2.) Bonds markets have remained lackluster.  While investment yields in the stock market have been favorable during this time, the returns in the bond markets — which most insurers primarily rely upon for investment income — have remained lackluster.  The result is the industry hasn’t been able to use their investments to offset bad underwriting results. Carriers have had to adjust rates and coverages as needed to better ensure an underwriting profit.

3.) Regulators are gaining more sway in underwriting behavior.  The role of regulators is having an impact on underwriting behavior and discipline.  More than ever the insurance industry needs to be able to demonstrate sustainable business models and profitability across each line of business.

4.) New U.S. tax laws have increased tax liability while driving down profitability. Where previously carriers could write off 35% of a loss, today, it is only 21%, which ultimately means more selectivity when placing capacity.

It all adds up to a commercial property market that requires underwriting discipline and a continued correction over time. And, in this market, those clients who understand and commit to property loss prevention and risk engineering will do better than those who don’t.  That means captive owners will most likely be adding more to their risk portfolios.

On that cheery note, I hope you all have a wonderful and safe Thanksgiving!

Rich Smith
VCIA President

CNN_SOTU_logoJoin me on November 20th for an informative and timely update on VCIA legislative activities on behalf of our members and the industry. The session is free, for VCIA Members only, and is not to be missed!

I will be joined by David Provost, Deputy Commissioner for Captive Insurance at the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, and Jim McIntyre, VCIA’s representative in Washington DC for an overview of new and pending regulations in the state and in Washington D.C. and the NAIC.  Between these two guys, they hold enough knowledge on captive insurance to fill an old UNIVAC 1107 mainframe computer (OK, admittedly an iPhone holds tons more data, but we old mainframes have to stick together)!

Learn about VCIA’s activities on your behalf, and the status of important current issues like:

  • What’s happening in Washington, DC
  • TRIA Reauthorization
  • Cannabis Safe Harbor Act
  • IRS Letters to 831(b) Captives
  • Update to the Liability and Risk Retention Act (LRRA)
  • Activities and updates from the NAIC, including the RRG Task Force
  • Non-domiciliary state actions: Washington State, Johnson & Johnson decision
  • Vermont’s captive 2019 bill and what’s ahead for Vermont’s 2020 captive bill
  • DFR legislation creating an insurance “sandbox” to test innovative technology or insurance models.
  • Vermont Department of Financial Regulation updates

I hope you will be able to attend this Members Only event.  If you aren’t already a VCIA Member, this would be a great time to join! Click here for more information and to register.

Thank you very much, I look forward to hearing from you.

Rich Smith
VCIA President

VCIA Spring Fling – Thank you Johnson Lambert!

 

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It was a beautiful evening in Burlington, Vermont for the VCIA Spring Mixer! From left to right: Christine Brown and Sandy Bigglestone from the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, VCIA Board Chair Jan Klodowski and Dawne Ware from Marcum LLP

One of my favorite VCIA events of the year is our annual Spring Mixer in Burlington, where 100 or so of our members join us for a little education, a little networking and a lot of fun! This year’s event on May 16 was no exception.

At the VCIA Board of Directors open meeting, an overview of the upcoming VCIA Annual Conference was presented to members. The conference, taking place August 7 – 9, is our 33rd annual conference and the theme is “VCIA: Where the Captive World Comes to Meet!” This is an apt description of our annual event, which highlights the power of collaboration among people from all sectors of the captive industry.  This year, special focus has been placed on professional development as well, with sessions such as Presenting to Board/Management, Building Better Relationships and a new young professionals forum.

Ian Davis, Director of Financial Services for the State of Vermont, then gave an update on the State’s captive insurance activities, including the fact that Vermont has already licensed 11 new captives in 2018 with more in the pipeline. Dave Provost, Sandy Bigglestone and Christine Brown from Vermont’s Department of Financial Regulation (DFR) gave a report on their ever attentive zeal on making the regulatory process for captives in Vermont efficient and cost effective.  Dave also announced the Governor signing the DFR bill this week, which includes a change to the captive statute that will offer an onshore affiliated reinsurance alternative to insurance companies affected by the recent imposition of the Base Erosion Anti-Abuse Tax on reinsurance ceded to offshore affiliates. An affiliated reinsurance company is an insurance or reinsurance company that reinsures risks only from its parent or affiliates, and is subject to a financial solvency regulatory system separate from that generally applicable to traditional insurers and/or reinsurers in the ceding entity’s domestic jurisdiction.

And finally, the part of the day we all wait for (and deserve!): the cocktail mixer under beautiful blue skies on the patio of the Hotel Vermont/Marriott Courtyard. Our thanks to our great friends at Johnson Lambert for sponsoring this wonderful event!  Not only do our Vermont members show up en masse, but friends from New York, Connecticut and even South Carolina joined us for a great evening of friendship and comraderie.

We look forward to seeing you in Vermont in August. Thank you all very much!

Rich Smith
VCIA President

Thank you and Congratulations!

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ICCIE-award-squareAs I wrote about in last week’s blog, VCIA hosted our annual Member’s Legislative Day in Vermont’s state capital, Montpelier, yesterday and it was a big success!

Our members, including many who came in from afar, got to hear from Vermont’s Lt. Governor, David Zuckerman, as well as Commerce Secretary Mike Schirling at our luncheon, and then later in the day from the Speaker of the House, Mitzi Johnson, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Tim Ashe, and finally from House Minority Leader Don Turner. Even though they represent different parties under the Gold Dome, what they do have in common is their unwavering support of the captive insurance industry in Vermont.

At lunch the Vermont State Economist provided a view of the State and national economy for members. VCIA and ICCIE board member presented the second ICCIE Fellow designation to Vermont’s own Kate Boucher from Premier Insurance Management Services. Congratulations, Kate, much deserved!

VCIA testified before House Commerce and Senate Finance on the captive bill that was introduced this week and to provide an overview of VCIA and the captive industry. Joining me was Ian Davis, Director of Financial Services for the State of Vermont, VCIA’s board vice chair, and Jan Klodowski, vice president for Agri-Services Agency, LLC, a subsidiary of Dairy Farmers of America.  As usual, Ian and Jan did a great job!

And finally, under the sure hands of Dave Provost, the House Commerce committee passed out this year’s captive bill with an 11 – 0 vote.
For a copy of the captive bill, please click here

Thank you all very much, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Rich Smith
VCIA President

Viva Las Ve-rmont!

Sure, it seems easy – especially when you are the largest and most sophisticated captive domicile in the US. But the work that Ian Davis, Dave Provost, Sandy Bigglestone and the rest of the State of Vermont team put into attracting so many new captives to license in the state should not be overlooked.Captive-Licenses-2017

What I am talking about here is the recent report that 2017 proved to be another highly successful year for Vermont’s captive insurance industry.  Vermont added 24 new captive licenses, bringing its total to 1,112 with 566 active captive insurance companies. This is almost exactly the average number of new captives licensed yearly in Vermont (roughly 25) regardless of the marketplace. There are now more than 40 states with captive laws on the book and with the current uncertainty of state self-procurement taxes that put a thumb on the scales in favor of “home states”, Vermont still excels.

The new captives were made up of 11 pure captives, 5 sponsored captives, 3 Risk Retention Groups (RRGs), 3 special purpose financial insurers, 1 branch captive and 1 industrial insured captive – as usual, a healthy mix of sizes, types and industries.  Risk Retention Groups account for three of the new licenses, bringing the active total to 90.  Vermont continues to hold a dominant market share with over 60% of all RRG premium volume being written by Vermont companies.  As David Provost, Vermont’s Deputy Commissioner of Captive Insurance, always says Vermont’s focus will always be licensing quality companies, not chasing numbers.

Don’t forget that January 24 this year is VCIA’s annual Legislative Day in Montpelier, Vermont’s capital. It’s a full day of meeting and hearing from Vermont’s political leaders on the captive industry and issues facing the State broadly. Go to www.vcia.com and register today!

Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you.

Rich Smith
VCIA President

Happy Holidays and See You in 2018

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I just wanted to wish all of you Happy Holidays as we head out of 2017 and into 2018. It’s been another busy years in captives, that included a horrific hurricane season, the decision of the Avrahami case on 831(b)s, the specter of continued cyber security issues with the hacking of Equifax (among others), and the soon-to-be-passed Tax Reform bill – all of which impact our industry.

That being said, captive insurance is growing and remains a robust part of the world’s risk management sector. Vermont broke through the 1000 captive license mark and looks to add around 25 new captives before year’s end. With challenges and opportunities that lie ahead such as healthcare, drones, (more) cyber risk, and AI (artificial intelligence – get used to it), captives will show how entrepreneurial and innovative our industry can be!

Thank you all for another great year and Happy New Year!

Rich Smith
VCIA President