The very concept of insurance is based on risk. So it’s no surprise that important innovations in risk management and finance often come from the insurance industry. One such innovation that is growing in popularity is the so-called catastrophe bond, or “cat bond.”
Common sense as well as theory suggests that proper diversification of any risk involving a remote possibility of enormous loss (such as a natural or man-made catastrophe) makes such a risk more manageable. Traditionally, catastrophe, or “cat” risk was transferred and shared through the insurance and reinsurance markets. However, in spite of the dramatic growth in the magnitude of human and economic losses from natural and man-made catastrophes in recent years, it is surprising how little cat risk transfer actually occurs. Property owners fail to adequately insure catastrophe risk, and even when they purchase insurance, their insurers tend to retain most (as much as 70 percent) of this risk rather than distribute it more broadly through the reinsurance market. The reason why cat reinsurance is so limited is due to inadequate global capacity and correspondingly high reinsurance premiums.
Cat bonds came into existence due to this lack of capacity in the reinsurance market. Although they have been used primarily as an alternative to cat reinsurance, there are examples of corporations and other non-insurance entities issuing cat bonds. For example, during the summer of 1999, Tokyo Disneyland issued cat bonds because management found at the time that it was cheaper to have the capital markets insure its earthquake exposure than the insurance markets. More recently, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) issued a $260 million cat bond to protect itself against (a terrorism-related) cancellation of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Cat bonds represent a form of insurance securitization in which risk is transferred to investors rather than insurers or reinsurers. Typically, an insurer or reinsurer will issue a cat bond to investors such as life insurers, hedge funds and pension funds. The bonds are structured similarly to traditional bonds, with an important exception: if a pre-specified event such as a terrorist attack or hurricane occurs prior to the maturity of the bonds, then investors risk losing accrued interest and/or the principal value of the bonds.
Although the cat bond market is still relatively small compared with the traditional insurance and reinsurance markets, it is already having a particularly important effect on reinsurers. Since the cat bond market provides insureds with a credible alternative to traditional reinsurance, the cat bond market has forced reinsurers in particular to become more competitive in their pricing and underwriting practices. Furthermore, investors value cat bonds in part because returns on these securities tend not to be very highly correlated with returns on other asset classes such as stocks, conventional bonds, commodities and real estate.
Given the benefits that cat bonds offer both insureds and investors, the market for cat bonds is expected to continue to grow and exert an important check and balance upon pricing and underwriting practices in conventional insurance and reinsurance markets. Ironically, as documented by a recent Wall Street Journal article, the growth of the cat bond market is in turn fueling the growth prospects of the reinsurance industry, as a number of hedge funds that were early cat bond investors are now starting to launch their own reinsurance firms.