Posts Tagged ‘agents’

House of Cards- 831(b) Small Insurance Companies

April 5, 2010

Don’t get me wrong….I’m a big fan of 831(b) Small Insurance Company structures.  Under this unique IRS rule the underwriting income for certain small insurance companies is tax-free to the insurance company.  Provided the ceded premium to the company is under $1.2M annually and there is real insurance risk transfer and risk distribution happening,  the company would only pay taxes on its investment income.

The difficulty isn’t in the structure, its how its being used.

The ancestor of 831(b) was the 501(c)(15) insurance company.  Provided there was real risk transfer and distribution and the ceded premium was less than $600K per year this company paid no taxes on its underwriting or investment income.  A nice structure for legitimate insurance transactions.  The structure was abused be zealous financial planners who “stuffed” millions of dollars of capital into the insurance company to support a small amount risk premium.  It wasn’t about insurance at all, but a mechanism to defer taxes on investments.  At the end of the day the IRS nailed down the abuses in 501(c)(15) companies and they have faded in popularity as a result.  This same crowd sees an opportunity in 831(b) to defer income on the underwriting of business risk.  It has become the financial wealth management tool de jour, only there are some problems associated it.

Typically these programs are put together upside down.  What I mean by that is that they are created primarily for the purpose of deferring taxation and not for any legitimate risk management purpose.  In order to make this financial planning tool work the consultants that use them must overcome two hurdles.  How do I create a risk coverage that I honestly hope will never have a loss and how do I create a risk sharing mechanism so that my client’s program satisfies the letter of the law regarding real insurance?   The first question is answered by creating coverages like terrorism coverage for medical practices or pandemic coverage for a manufacturer or stubbed my toe on the first Thursday of the month coverage (I made that one up!).  See, the question isn’t whether or not it could ever happen and if it did would it represent a significant risk to the policy holder, but rather that there is a policy that has been issued that I can put premium into my captive for.  Remember, this isn’t about risk management, it’s about tax and wealth management.

The second question is answered by allowing all the 831(b) companies that I have put together to share risk with each other on these sham policies.  Here is where the dangerous upper levels of the house of cards is built.  Should just a couple  of the coverages in one of the programs be challenged it could literally take down every one of the captives that share that questionable coverage’s risk.

I know, it doesn’t really sound like I’m really a big fan of 831(b) structures at all does it!  Well, I am, under certain conditions.  831(b) is an insurance company.  It’s business should be conducted like an insurance company; assuming real risk in exchange for a reasonable premium and for a legitimate purpose.  The process should start with risk and insurance and if there is some tax deferral advantages as an aside, then all the better.  It has to be built right side up and not purely as a scheme to beat the tax man.  We saw how well that went for the owners of 501(c)(15) companies, and if we think that the IRS won’t be looking at abuses in 831(b) as a means to enhance revenue we are only fooling ourselves.  If 831(b) is going to stand up to IRS scrutiny it has to be built on a foundation that is rock solid, with legitimate insurance coverages that can be shared without worry with other similarly structured captive insurance entities.

If you are contemplating this kind of structure at least seek out the services of an insurance professional who can point you in the right direction from a risk management perspective.  831(b) is a powerful tool when used properly, but if will only yield frustration and heartache if it is abused.

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Blowing the Dust Off Your Captive’s Business Plan

September 30, 2009

In the new captive formation process the creation of the business plan uses the largest amount of time and intellectual resources.  That’s understandable because the document forms the foundation of the startup.  Front companies, reinsurance and claims administrators all use the statistical data and the narratives of the business plan to set their pricing and terms and conditions.  Domiciles use the information to judge the insurer’s acceptability and its potential to be successful within the location’s regulatory framework.   Once licensed, the business plan is used by auditors and regulators to make sure that the captive is operating according to its original approved plan.  Even years after a captive is licensed, regulatory bodies like the IRS take an interest in the business plan and how a captive is operating currently compared to its original business plan.

A business plan is required of virtually every captive.  The real question regarding a captive’s business plan is whether or not it is a static document or a dynamic document.  Once created and used as a part of the formation process can you just stuff it in a drawer and forget about?

The simple answer is no!  The captive business plan should be a dynamic document that is reviewed regularly.  Let me give you a couple of reasons why…

Stakeholders like the domicile’s insurance department, your audit firm, claimants, reinsurers, the  Internal Revenue Service and the shareholders of the captive’s parent in a publicly traded environment all rely on the accuracy of the business plan to portray the business of the captive.  Unless this document is regularly reviewed and updated it is doomed to be inaccurate and will likely contribute to a problem for the captive and its ownership.  At a recent captive insurance conference session dealing with IRS regulation of captives, the two attorneys conducting the session both emphatically agreed that an updated and accurate business plan was a powerful deterrent to IRS “fishing expeditions” into the taxation status of a captive.

Another reason for periodically dusting off the business plan is to make sure  that the captive is still supporting the parent’s strategic goals.  In my consulting practice I am regularly contacted by firms that own a captive and that have had personnel changes over the course of several years and they find themselves in the unusual position of not knowing why they even have a captive in the first place.  Either the new management is not schooled in the use of captive insurance as a part of a creative risk management regime or the company’s strategic goals have moved so far that the captive is no longer relevant.  A regular review of the captive’s business plan allows the captive to be re-aligned with the corporate goals and to make a powerful addition to accomplishing those goals.  Not only is this recalibration critical in keeping management informed of the captive’s capabilities, it can often contribute to new uses for the captive that keep it relevant and a contributor to overall success.

This review should be conducted every couple of years and should be the product of not only fact checking the captive’s operations against the existing business plan, but understanding the parent’s overall business goals and how  the captive might contribute to achieving them.  If you are interested in discussing how this process works send me an email at dennis.silvia@cedarconsulting.net and I would be happy to contact you to discuss it.

All Your Eggs in One Basket

September 4, 2009

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

Its easy to see how it happens.  Your insurance broker comes to you with a great idea about how to more efficiently finance and manage your insurance risk.  They bring in the brokerage’s experts to conduct feasibility studies and work with you to license a captive insurance company.  The have their reinsurance brokers place the reinsurance and have their captive manager take care of the regulatory and management operations.   Because of their fully integrated capabilities your broker has delivered a captive insurance solution entirely from within the broker’s organization.  That’s good, right?

One of the biggest decisions that face the owners of captive insurance companies is whether or not to consolidate all the insurance and captive management services in one basket.  There are some obvious advantages to doing this.  It is simpler, and may be less expensive initially to let your broker put your entire program together.  They may even be willing to do the feasibility work within the existing fee structures, only charging for the ongoing management and collecting the commissions on the reinsurance placements.  But what are the disadvantages?

  • When a captive insurance program is created entirely from within a single organization with no outside input then you get that organization’s cookie-cutter program.  They only do things a certain way and that is what you will get, whether its the best structure for you or not.
  • With no outside involvement there is no “gate keeper” making sure that the broker’s organization is doing everything it can to advantage the captive owner even if it means that it might disadvantage the broker’s organization.
  • Most broker organizations are limited in the number of domiciles that they can effectively do business in which means that they cannot be completely domicile neutral.  You may end up being steered to a domicile that suits their operational characteristics but may not be the best choice for your company.
  • Even in the best of brokerage organizations things slip through the cracks.  The broker is less likely to spend the same amount of time reviewing work done by an internal department then they might work from outside.  The checks and balances of having a diverse makeup in the captive’s support mechanisms are eliminated.
  • Pricing for captive services can often be overstated when billed all together as opposed to being presented on a line by line basis.
  • Brokerage organizations are typically polarizing in the industry.  Some companies get along well with other companies and frankly some don’t get along at all.  An independent manager can often involve service partners that a brokerage could not because of conflicts in corporate cultures.

In my consulting practice I have reviewed programs that have had the captive services completely integrated within one brokerage organization.   My reviews always turn up issues.  In one case a mismatch between the terms and conditions of the policies being written by the captive and the reinsurance treaty could have caused an enormous financial problem for the captive.  In an another case the overall charges for the program were much higher than average because they were being billed in a lump rather than being detailed line by line.

If you are considering a new captive program be sure to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of an integrated approach.  Try to involve at least one outside advisory component to the program in order to mitigate the potential problems.  If you already have an integrated program, hire a consultant to do a review of your captive and make suggestions on structure and operations as well as benchmark your costs.  Its never a good idea to have all your eggs in one basket.

Independent Captive Operational Reviews

May 9, 2008

I was recently interviewed by Michael Moody of Rough Notes Magazine regarding a consulting engagement that I did for Milestone Insurance Company, a Bermuda heterogeneous group captive.  Here is the link to the full article in the on-line version of Rough Notes: http://www.roughnotes.com/rnmagazine/2008/may08/05p072.htm

I am a firm believer that a captive should undergo a periodic review from an independent consultant in order to make sure that they are operating with maximum efficiency and taking advantage of every opportunity that a captive mechanism can provide.  In the case of Milestone, Catherine Duffin and the folks at Artex have done an excellent job in managing the costs of the program and providing a very stable insurance platform for the members of that group.

But what can a review do besides just provide a scorecard for the current service providers?

Lets look at some potential results from a captive program review:

  • When there are changes in risk management personnel the folks who championed and understood the captive may be the ones leaving the organization.  The corporate owner of the captive could be faced with owning a sophisticated insurance mechanism that could solve numerous and ongoing strategic risk financing problems but no one that understands it well enough to really use it to its potential.  Sort of like having a Maserati in the garage and no one with a driver’s license.
  • Things change in the business and regulatory environment.  Employee benefits in a captive may not have even been available as an option when the captive was formed.  Certainly things have changed in the business world including possible ownership changes, global initiatives and new products.  A review can help to identify what new opportunities might exist for the captive that could support the owner from both a risk financing perspective and as an overall growth strategy.
  • Third Party liability options in a single parent captive are often the holy grail of reaching favorable tax treatment for the parent’s premiums in the program.  The problem with third party liabilities is just that, they represent someone else’s risk and if you aren’t careful about it you can get burned.  Captive reviews often turn up third party risk assumption potentials in upstream and downstream stakeholders.  Vendors and clients who share common industry characteristics often have the same risk management issues and you’ve already learned how to do with them in your captive.  It is a natural related, albeit third party, risk.
  • Sometimes a captive has just outlived its usefulness and it needs to be shut down.   This is particularly true when the primary motivation for starting the captive was a short term premium savings or some type of tax play.

If you a captive owner or a broker that is responsible for a captive for your client I think there is a lot of value in performing a review of the captive’s operation and its potentials in the current market environment.   If you are interested in discussing this more please email me at dennis.silvia@cedarconsulting.net or call me at 440.264.9992.

 

Riding the Roller Coaster

March 27, 2008

So, how is insurance like a roller coaster?

Coming back to the office from a visit with a client today I drove by Geauga Lake Amusement Park.  Living and working in close proximity of a noisy venue like this one has had its ups and downs (no pun intended).  The park is full of history.  In 1887 it was a popular picnic and fishing spot accessible by trolley from Cleveland.  The old rail station stood on Depot Road around the corner from the office until just a few years ago when it was demolished.  In 1925 the park boasted the largest wooden roller coaster in the world.  In 1927 Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) broke the 220 yd world freestyle swimming record in the newly opened Olympic swimming pool.  In the 30’s a dance hall was added where big bands like Guy Lombardo regularly entertained pre-war crowds.  The park closed at the end of last summer and the rides are being sold off and the grounds and the lake are on the auction block.  Not a very glamorous end for an historic landmark.

So what does all this have to do with captives?  The traditional insurance market is subject to pricing cycles.  We are currently experiencing the bottom of the soft market, but any insurance professional who has been around longer than 10 years knows that the hard market is coming.  Insurance buyers might say that the soft markets are good and hard markets are bad, but I would like to suggest that any deviation from the average makes for a difficult environment to plan strategically and manage a business.

Market pricing swings are like the roller coasters at amusement parks (I told you I would make a connection!).  Exciting for some, bearable for others, and if you’re like me they are enough to lose your lunch over.  Who needs that kind of excitement when it comes to running a business?

Traditional insurance cycles are deep because for the most part insurance companies don’t learn from the past.  They chase market prices down hoping to accumulate market share efficiencies and offset undewriting loss with investment income.  The investment market goes south and all of a sudden they are bleeding cash.  These conditions are sometimes compounded by some type of catastrophic loss scenario that really catches them by surprise.  (911, Katrina/Rita/Wilma)  The reaction is to knee jerk prices and we start the upward trend of hard market pricing.

Why is a captive a different situation?  The largest single component for insurance pricing, about 60% of the total depending on retention, is the loss funding element.  The loss funding is determined by considering the account’s specific loss history for the past five years or so and applying standard trending and development factors.  The remaining costs are for administrative services and there is little variability in them other than for wage inflation.  Notice that we haven’t said anything about competitive market pressures yet!  If you read yesterday’s post you know that above average risks are best suited for a captive mechanism.  Their loss history already affords a “discount” price so without compromising loss funding we have a competitive product that is prepared to pay losses at the historic levels.  Thus we end up with a very stable pricing platform that may have dips and curves but more like the ones in kiddy land than the ones on the Big Dipper.  If the account happens to have a bad year it’s impact is mitigated by the other 4 years in the loss analysis.

Wait a minute you say!  Doesn’t a captive have to buy reinsurance, and isn’t reinsurance subject to the wild gyrations of the rest of the insurance market?  Well, yes.  But lets look at the math.  Let’s assume a $1M liability limit and the captive retains the first $250K per occurrence.  Depending on the line of business the reinsurance cost for $750 XS $250 might be 15% of premium.  A 50% increase in a 15% line item only changes the overall pricing by a factor of 7.5%.   Even a 50% increase is pretty unrealistic since this is a reinsurer that you have a longstanding relationship with and who has probably done very well on your risk.

While the market lows may not be as low as the traditional market, the highs won’t be either.  The pricing swings are modulated and through a captive you can offer your clients a much more predictable environment to run their business in.