ZURICH/LONDON (Reuters) - Rocked by a shakeup in the Western political order, companies are buying more insurance to protect themselves against the threat of rising protectionism and upheaval to their operations in emerging markets.
Insurers say demand is being driven by uncertainty over the consequences of a string of events in the developed world - from Donald Trump’s election in the United States and Britain’s vote to quit the European Union last year to the presidential election process now underway in France.
Multinationals - ranging from oil and gas firms to mining groups, industrial manufacturers and banks - are concerned that unforeseen changes in government policies could lead to business disruption, flouted deals and unrest in their growth markets.
The kind of cover they want is not a large contributor to most insurers’ business but is considered higher margin and is growing, market players say.
Zurich Insurance said new business at its political risk and trade credit unit was up 14 percent in 2016, driven by demand for cover against the risk of a government or state-owned entity defaulting on its obligations. Growth continued with an 11 percent increase in the first quarter of 2017.
Zurich gave no overall figures but said political risk was an important part of its specialty risk insurance business, which totals $2 billion in gross written premiums a year.
“As we see dramatic changes in U.S. foreign policy and European policy and the integrity of the European Union itself, that affects the global environment,” Zurich’s head of credit and political risk David Anderson said.
“It affects what emerging markets do, and it affects how countries perceive the rule of law.”
Since becoming president in January, Trump has ordered a missile strike on Syria, reversing his predecessor Barack Obama’s decision against attacking Damascus government targets, and pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Asian countries.
On top of that is uncertainty over future U.S. policy on issues such as relations with China and Russia, the nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran, and renegotiation of a North American free trade deal that could hit Mexico badly.
Likewise, the consequences of Brexit remain a major risk along with campaign promises by Marine Le Pen, who will contest the French presidential run-off on May 7, to reshape the country’s EU membership radically, reject trade treaties, pull out of NATO’s integrated military command and curb immigration.
In an example of policies already used, Zurich paid $31 million to a client who had to evacuate staff from Yemen under a claim made in 2015 - the year a Saudi-led coalition supported by the United States began air strikes on the country.
Three types of cover help companies to protect against geopolitical risks: trade credit - which covers the risk that suppliers are not paid punctually - political risk such as government expropriation of assets and political violence including terror attacks.
The policies are not for everyone. Some major companies say they still prefer to bear the risk themselves. Oil major BP and miner BHP Billiton have policies to keep external cover to a minimum, with BHP citing in its annual report “concerns about the value of external insurance in the natural resource sector”.
Nevertheless, 61 percent of respondents surveyed jointly by leading trade credit groups Berne Union and International Credit Insurance & Surety Association said they saw increasing volumes of new business last year.
The world’s leading specialty insurance market Lloyd’s of London also said it has seen rising demand for political risk and violence insurance.
“Brexit made people understand sometimes the unthinkable happens,” said Evan Freely, who heads broker and risk manager Marsh’s global practice for political risk and trade credit.
European, U.S. and Asian clients with a strong foothold in emerging markets are particularly concerned, Freely said, as they look to protect themselves against the potential impact of new regimes on trade relationships.
Risks of disruption to business from political upheaval have risen globally since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and insurers see unrest spreading, especially in Africa.
“The shine of globalisation has come off. Maybe there will be less trade and less benefits coming from trade to many of the emerging markets,” broker Aon’s director of crisis management and political risk John Minor said.
A firm looking to protect itself against the likes of terror attacks or asset expropriation in Mexico, for example, would typically pay around $500,000 for $100 million of cover, according to James Esdaile, managing director at broker BPL Global.
Expropriation is not government policy in Mexico, but before Trump was even elected an opposition senator proposed the idea of such retaliatory action, should the United States inflict economic losses on his country to make it pay for a border wall.
Aon’s Minor said that for $750,000, a commodities trader with operations in 25 emerging and 25 developed markets could purchase up to $100 million in cover against expropriation, political violence and currency inconvertibility risks across those 50 countries.
Legislative risks - such as Turkey’s referendum this month granting President Tayyip Erdogan sweeping powers or “mixed signals” on the possible renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement - are a particular concern.
These ranked fourth in companies’ list of concerns after cyber crime, terrorism and political violence, said Clements Worldwide, which provides insurance to expatriates and international companies.
Commodities trader and miner Glencore said in its annual report that its exposure to geopolitical uncertainties and those related to laws, enforcement, permits and licences increased in 2016. It is taking out insurance, particularly credit insurance, to mitigate the impact.
Companies that traditionally took out political violence insurance were expanding their cover to buy broader political risk cover on a global basis, Aon’s Minor said.
Germany’s Allianz introduced political violence policies two years ago. “There are companies that are buying $1 billion, $2 billion or sometimes $3 billion of coverage for terrorism or political violence, which includes war on land,” Christof Bentele, head of crisis management at Allianz’s global corporate and specialty business, said.
Allianz, however, will cover only up to 100 million euros in political violence claims, and clients have to fill their additional needs elsewhere, often via Lloyd‘s.
editing by David Stamp