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Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Takaful: A new and viable insurance business model or just a marketing opportunity?

Cultural and religious reasons are commonly cited for the underdevelopment of insurance markets in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region.
Takaful could be the key to increasing insurance awareness and delivering on customer expectations, capitalizing on the positive economic dynamics of the region.
The opportunities for increased uptake of takaful insurance in the GCC are positive. The considerable economic growth in the region, coupled with a sizable, underinsured population, means that there are substantial prospects for further development of personal lines cover. The ability of the industry to demonstrate the need for and benefits of insurance, as well as to successfully meet customer demands, remains unproven, however.
Over time, if the world average insurance premium of $550 per capita is achieved and applied to the Gulf states, the GCC insurance market has a potential size of $20 billion(currently $4.6 billion). Taking as an example Malaysia, where the takaful market is expected to contribute 20% to the overall market in the medium term, the GCC takaful market has the potential to reach $4 billion at the current level of development (currently $170 million). How much actual premium the takaful sector generates and how quickly it will do so remains to be seen, however, and will depend on the industry’s ability to deliver on policyholder expectations.
In terms of credit ratings for the takaful sector, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services will apply the same analytical process as for the traditional market, but will also take into account the sector’s positive growth dynamics and high execution risk.
GCC Insurance Markets
The insurance markets in the region are recognized as being underdeveloped, as is shown by the relatively low level of insurance penetration relative to Western or even Eastern Europe.
The economic boom in the GCC, driven by high oil prices, has led to substantial infrastructure investments across the region, with the corresponding need to insure these sizable risks. There are a number of established insurers in each of the GCC markets who are able capable of participating on the new risks arising. Certainly, the development of the non-life insurance market in the region is strong, with premium growth of about 10%-15% on average since 2004. The proportion of personal lines insurance cover, however, and in particular life insurance, remains low.
Opportunities For Takaful
Increasing insurance penetration, raising awareness
Takaful is not a new concept. The idea of cooperative risk sharing is the oldest form of insurance. The Grand Council of Islamic Scholars, Maja-al-Fiqh, only approved takaful as a Sharia-acceptable alternative to traditional insurance in 1985, however. The real opportunity for takaful in the longer term is substantial in our view, as it is able to reach the specific segments of the market that traditional insurance has been unable to attract.
Strong growth relative to traditional insurance market
The GCC takaful market is currently growing at about 40% per year, and gross contributions (equivalent to gross premiums written) amounted to nearly US$170 million in 2005.
This appears impressive relative to the expansion of the world markets, with average premium growth at 2.5% in 2005 (Swiss Re sigma No. 5/2006). It is, however, important to remember that this is a new segment of the market and growth at this level is not unexpected. At the same time, this growth is not purely driven by the personal lines market–one which we consider to be a natural market for takaful–but to a large extent also by general commercial lines. The main challenge for takaful still remains: to increase awareness of the benefits (social as well as individual) of insurance among retail customers. Still, the future success and sustainability of this pace of development will be dependent on a number of factors that, within personal lines, are just as relevant to the traditional as to the takaful regional markets.
The Success Factors
Product innovation and service quality
Although compulsory lines of business (motor and, in some cases, medical for expatriates) have driven much of the growth in the retail sector across the GCC, personal lines products are far from developed. This is as true of the traditional as of the takaful market. We view the recent announcements by international insurers that they will be entering the family takaful segment as positive, whether this is done as a joint venture with local companies, a greenfield operation, or through a branch.
The takaful market faces some unusual challenges. It has to match the service quality of the traditional insurance market and persuade an uninsured market to use the facilities of the takaful market. But across the Gulf region we are now seeing traditional insurers accept risks into new takaful divisions or subsidiaries of the mainstream company. Although the takaful division is operated as a wholly Sharia-compliant unit, it is fully complementary to the noncompliant business. If this model achieves the three key requirements of meeting Sharia council approval, being accepted by the Islamic community and policyholders, and passing regulatory requirements, the probable benefits of economies of scale to the traditional company will prove a real challenge to the nascent takaful sector. Each of the approaches has its own merits, but Standard & Poor’s is unable to comment on their relative Sharia compliance and acceptance in policyholders’ eyes.
The role of foreign insurers is also important, as they bring pockets of expertise in designing, for example, life products suited to local customers. This is gradually improving product choice, but the success of the takaful business model will depend on its ability to offer the same choice, range of products, level of cover, cost effectiveness, and, ultimately, quality of policyholder security, as traditional insurers. The challenge for takaful operators in developing family takaful will be to structure the products in such a way as to meet any religious and cultural obligations and still offer comprehensive cover.
In our opinion, it will also be crucial for takaful operators to demonstrate their ability to offer a comparable, if not better, level and quality of service than the traditional market when dealing with retail policyholders. The use of improved technology in automating processes (ease of buying a policy, speed of claims handling) to directly benefit the consumer will also benefit the takaful operators’ long-term competitive standing and prospects in the market.
Promotion and distribution capabilities
Even with the best products and service, future development will be constrained without the creation of demand and an increased awareness of the need for insurance. The onus still remains on the takaful operators to emphasize the broad appeal of Islamic insurance. In fact, takaful can be marketed as the ‘ethical’ alternative to insurance contracts due to its rigorous screening of investments. Additionally, in our view, expansion of independent financial adviser networks in all the Gulf states is essential. At the same time, some form of regulation is necessary to ensure adequate training of advisers and quality of advice to protect policyholders. The growth of Islamic finance, and in particular retail Islamic banking solutions including Islamic mortgages and credit cards, is certainly encouraging.
We also see bancassurance as providing the right additional distribution mechanism to reach the right retail customer. In the more established Malaysian takaful market, contributions from bancassurance constitute slightly more than 20% of all takaful contributions, second only to direct marketing (about 45%). In comparison, this distribution channel remains underutilized in the GCC, and generally contributes only a small amount to the overall contributions generated, as there are few bank-owned takaful operators.
Policyholder security, enterprise risk management, and profitability
Many family takaful contracts, and some general takaful contracts, will be more long-term in nature than the policies currently prevailing in the market (such as term life assurance or mortgage protection products). Therefore, the ability of a relatively new takaful operator to service claims and ensure policyholder security over the next 10-20 years is crucial. This is where a strong regulatory environment
comes into its own–to protect the policyholder and encourage healthy development of the industry, for both the traditional and the takaful segments. Specifically for takaful, the role of the Sharia board in overseeing the proper management of policyholder funds should help to increase transparency and improve corporate governance. Participants can increasingly benefit from the scrutiny of takaful operators by rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s.
Generally, capitalization is strong given the underwriting risk base, and is expected to remain so for the medium term for both traditional and takaful insurance providers. Few insurers, however, have developed a more comprehensive, holistic approach to capital and risk management, and many appear to face high investment risk in their portfolios. Although traditional insurers currently have more investment opportunities open to them, they don’t always take them. In fact, a lot of the regional companies have a high percentage of equities in their investment portfolio. In the recent market corrections, companies have faced substantial volatility in earnings and shareholders’ funds, and have experienced reduced investment liquidity. There has been a high level of liquidity for policyholders’ funds, however, as cash deposits typically generously cover technical reserves. For takaful providers, as Islamic financial markets are developing rapidly, we expect that investment concentration risk, subject to management asset allocation choice, will be diversifiable in the medium term. Nevertheless, quantification of the risks undertaken throughout all operations, whether investments or underwriting, still requires development to ensure controlled earnings over time.
To date, takaful has not necessarily been the more profitable approach, as the general concept of mutualization of risks is applied. Average combined ratios have been higher than for traditional, regional peers.
Although the essence of takaful is cooperative risk sharing and community well being, rather than profit optimization, continued underwriting profitability will be important in order to invest in future growth. At the same time, takaful operators are currently suffering from a lack of economies of scale and an inability to more effectively diversify their risks. Hence, the management fees and contributions charged appear high in light of the true costs incurred by the operator. Although it is up to the individual Sharia boards to look more closely at this, we expect fees to decline and premiums charged to be more reflective of the level of cover provided as competition and scale in the takaful segment increase. The key benefit for policyholders over time, however, will be the distributable surplus more closely reflecting actual performance.
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