With all aspects of the insurance market currently facing the twin challenges of reform and reputation, the sector should take advantage of the delays to Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) action to get ahead of future market intervention and launch transformational change.
Pre-covid, change was on the horizon
The FCA launched an investigation into general insurance pricing, focusing on home and motor insurance in October 2018. The investigation was launched following campaigning against practices in the general insurance market, culminating in Citizens Advice making a super-complaint about loyalty pricing to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Concerns about treatment of vulnerable customers, in addition to the transparency of insurance premiums and the ‘loyalty penalty’, where customers face higher charges for remaining with their provider over the long term, were cited by the CMA and FCA prior to the launch of the investigation. The final report was due to be published in Q1 2020 but has been delayed, along with the majority of its open investigations, to “beyond June 2020” due to coronavirus. With the FCA planning significant reforms, insurers should use the extra time to adapt their business models to minimise the impact of the measures when they are eventually introduced.
On 4 October 2019, the FCA published the interim report of its market study into the pricing of home and motor insurance. The report concluded that customers who do not switch insurers regularly pay more for cover, but that many firms have introduced significant barriers to switching, suppressing competition in the sector. Interventionist remedies are likely to be on the way, with the FCA currently considering a ban on auto-renewal of contracts, alongside a requirement to put all customers on the best value plan available to them. Another option currently under discussion is limiting or banning margin optimisation, or only allowing new business discounts where the discount is transparent and fully removed after one year.
Intervention in pricing practices could have significant consequences for the insurance industry. Auto-renew policies in particular, where insurers’ pricing practices mean premiums are raised year on year at the point of renewal, are likely to be targeted. The consequences for the industry are likely to be a decline in renewal rates and margins; a reduction in customer renewal tenures; a decline in new business discounting; and a disruption of the broker market.
For insurers that can pivot to a business model based on driving new business, rather than retaining existing clients through current structures, the transition will bring opportunities to increase market share at the expense of more slow-moving players. However, the impact of coronavirus has also brought fresh challenges to the sector that will have to be addressed.
Covid is likely to compound the need for reform in the insurance sector
The coronavirus pandemic has led to widespread criticism of the insurance sector across multiple specialisms. With the FCA already clear that the sector was not working well for consumers, issues around miscommunication of business interruption insurance and travel insurance coverage will only serve to drive home that perception. While there is no suggestion the insurance sector is running outside the boundaries of current regulatory standards, questions are arising over whether the sector should be more tightly regulated than first thought.
The FCA is currently taking a test case to the Supreme Court to provide legal clarity on business interruption insurance. The FCA previously wrote to insurers in April explaining that it believes most business interruption policies do not provide cover for losses related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Its decision to seek legal clarity is likely driven by the extensive public criticism of insurers during the pandemic, and the number of businesses currently taking their own legal action. While it is likely the FCA’s instincts on the legality of insurers behaviour will be proved right, this is unlikely to exempt the sector from significant reputational damage, particularly as businesses continue to struggle with the economic effects of the pandemic.
The insurance sector should be mindful of the reputational challenges it faces
With legal cases and negative news coverage piling up, insurers are going to need to do more than simply restate the terms of insurance policies if they wish to avoid longstanding reputational damage to the sector. The ongoing debate over the legalities of denying business interruption insurance payouts to businesses is ongoing, however, the growing perception of the sector is increasingly of one that is not focused on consumers.
Insurers are aware of the mounting challenges. Two-thirds of insurers surveyed in May 2020 by FWD Research believe that the industry has damaged its reputation through its coronavirus response. The question now is what the sector can do about it. Coronavirus has exposed a significant expectation gap between insurers and their customers, compounded by a traditionally hands-off approach to customer service and auto-renew policies that require minimal customer engagement.
Preparation is key to minimizing the impact of change
The FCA has made it clear that it is willing to enact transformational reforms on the insurance sector that will dramatically increase transparency and, for some insurers, fundamentally alter the way in which they do business. While the coronavirus pandemic may have delayed the publication of the FCA’s final rulings, insurers should not take this as an indication that the FCA has lost interest and instead begin preparing now for the likely changes that will be enacted.
The negative media coverage during the pandemic is likely to focus political and regulatory attention on the insurance industry once again. Insurers should prepare now for more scrutiny going forward and should consider developing a targeted communications plan to demonstrate that they have listened to the concerns raised over the past few months, and what they will do to help lead change in the industry going forward.