Note on risk factors
General impact of adverse market conditions
The operations of Swiss Re Ltd (“Swiss Re”) and its subsidiaries (collectively, the “Group”) as well as its investment returns are subject to market volatility and macro-economic factors, which are outside of the Group’s control and are often inter-related.
Market sentiment is dominated in large part by concerns over the trends exemplified by the outcome of the US presidential election and the UK referendum on European Union (EU) membership. Growth forecasts among the principal global economies remain uneven and uncertain in an environment of elevated political uncertainty. Stable, but uneven growth, in the Eurozone could suffer as a result of the potential impact of populism and anti-globalisation sentiments on upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, and potentially Italy, during 2017. The planned withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU has created uncertainty not only for the United Kingdom but for the rest of the EU, and negotiations over withdrawal will likely continue to contribute to volatility and pose significant challenges for the EU, while also calling into question the ability of the EU to address significant ongoing structural challenges. The long-term effects of a withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU will depend in part on any agreements the United Kingdom makes to retain access to the single market within the European Economic Area (EEA) following such withdrawal, the scope and nature of which currently remain highly uncertain. As China’s economy undergoes structural changes, recent near-term growth stabilisation may be reversed. Growth in China remains heavily dependent on government stimulus and credit expansion; it continues to face significant capital outflows, reflecting concerns over foreign currency, and its banking sector could be adversely impacted by rising interest rates. The foregoing may be exacerbated by geopolitical tensions, fears over security and migration, and uncertainty created generally by the policy pronouncements that have been, and may in the coming months be, announced by the new US administration on a range of trade, security, foreign policy, environmental protection and other issues having global implications, as well as by the consequences of the implementation of such policy pronouncements.
With fewer options available to policymakers and concerns generally over the absence of realistic confidence-building measures, and with heightened risk that volatility or depressed conditions in one sector, one market, one country or one region could have far broader implications, volatility can be expected to continue. Further adverse developments or the continuation of adverse trends that, in turn, have a negative impact on financial markets and economic conditions could limit the Group’s ability to access the capital markets and bank funding markets, could adversely affect the ability of counterparties to meet their obligations to the Group and could adversely affect the confidence of the ultimate buyers of insurance and reinsurance.
Any of the foregoing factors, developments and trends could have an adverse effect on the Group’s investment results, which in the current low interest rate environment and soft insurance cycle could have a material adverse effect on the Group’s overall results, make it difficult to determine the value of certain assets in the Group’s portfolio, make it more difficult to acquire suitable investments to meet its risk and return criteria and otherwise have a material adverse effect on its business and operations.
Swiss Re and its subsidiaries operate in a highly regulated environment. The regulatory regimes to which members of the Group are subject have changed significantly in recent years and are expected to continue to evolve. During this period, there has been a noticeable trend to extend the scope of reforms and oversight, which initially targeted banks, beyond such institutions to cover insurance and reinsurance operations.
While some regulation is national in scope, the global nature of the Group’s business means that its operations are subject in effect to a patchwork of global, national and regional standards. Swiss Re and its subsidiaries are subject to group supervision and Swiss Re’s subsidiaries are also subject to applicable regulation in each of the jurisdictions in which they conduct business, particularly Switzerland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg and Germany. The Group is subject to the Swiss Solvency Test and, through its legal entities organised in the EEA, Solvency II.
While certain regulatory processes are designed in part to foster convergence and achieve recognition of group supervisory schemes, the Group continues to face risks of extra-territorial application of regulations, particularly as to group supervision and group solvency requirements. In addition, regulators in jurisdictions beyond those where the Group has core operations increasingly are playing a far greater oversight role, requiring more localised resources and, despite a predominantly local focus, also raise issues of a cross-border nature. Furthermore, evolving regulatory schemes and requirements may be inconsistent or may conflict with each other, thereby subjecting the Group, particularly in light of the increasing focus on legal entities in isolation, to higher compliance and legal costs, as well as the possibility of higher operational, capital and liquidity costs. The effect of these trends could be exacerbated to the extent that the current political environment results in a return to more bilateral, and less harmonised, cross-border regulatory efforts.
There is an evolving focus on classifying certain insurance companies as systemically important as well. The Group could be designated as a global systemically important financial institution (“SIFI”) under the framework for SIFIs developed by the Financial Stability Board, or as a systemically important non-bank financial company by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (“FSOC”) in the United States. Separately, the International Association of Insurance Supervisors, an international body that represents insurance regulators and supervisors, has published and since refined its methodology for identifying global systemically important insurers (“G-SIIs”) and also published a framework for supervision of internationally active insurance groups. If and when reinsurers are included in the list of G-SIIs, the Group could be so designated. Were the Group to be designated as a G-SII, it could be subject to one or both of the resulting regimes, once implemented, including capital standards under both regimes (the basic capital requirement for G-SIIs and the insurance capital standard for internationally active insurance groups), which would have various implications for the Group, including additional compliance costs and reporting obligations as well as heightened regulatory scrutiny in various jurisdictions. In addition, the Group ultimately will be subject to oversight of its Swiss regulator in respect of recovery and resolution planning.
The Group cannot predict which legislative and/or regulatory initiatives will be enacted or promulgated, what the scope and content of these initiatives ultimately will be, when they will be effective and what the implications will be for the industry, in general, and for the Group, in particular. The Group may be subject to changes in views of its regulators in respect of the models that the Group uses for capital and solvency purposes, and could be adversely affected if, for example, it is required to use standard models rather than internal models. Generally, legal and regulatory changes could have a material impact on the Group’s business. Uncertainty triggered by the outcome of the UK referendum on EU membership could also impact the legislative and/or regulatory regimes to which the Group is subject, both in the United Kingdom and in the European Union.
In addition, regulatory changes could occur in areas of broader application, such as competition policy and tax laws. Changes in tax laws, for example, could increase the taxes the Group pays, the attractiveness of products offered by the Group, the Group’s investment activities and the value of deferred tax assets. Any number of these changes could apply to the Group and its operations. These changes, or inconsistencies between the various regimes that apply to the Group, could increase the costs of doing business, reduce access to liquidity, limit the scope of current or future business or affect the competitive balance, or could make reinsurance less attractive to primary insurers.
Volatility and disruption in the global financial markets could expose the Group to significant financial and capital markets risk, including changes in interest rates, credit spreads, equity prices and foreign currency exchange rates, which may adversely impact the Group’s financial condition, results of operations, liquidity and capital position. The Group’s exposure to interest rate risk is primarily related to the market price and cash flow variability associated with changes in interest rates. In general, a low interest rate environment, such as the one experienced in recent years, poses significant challenges to the insurance and reinsurance industries, with earnings capacity under stress unless lower investment returns from fixed income assets can be offset by lower combined ratios or higher returns from other asset classes. Economic weakness, fiscal tightening and monetary policies are keeping government yields low, which impacts investment yields and affects the profitability of life savings products with interest rate guarantees. Exposure to credit spreads primarily relates to market price and cash flow variability associated with changes in credit spreads. When credit spreads widen, the net unrealised loss position of the Group’s investment portfolio can increase, as could other-than-temporary impairments.
The Group is exposed to changes in the level and volatility of equity prices, as they affect the value of equity securities themselves as well as the value of securities or instruments that derive their value from a particular equity security, a basket of equity securities or a stock index. The Group is also subject to equity price risk to the extent that the values of life-related benefits under certain products and life contracts, most notably variable annuity business, are tied to financial market values; to the extent market values fall, the financial exposure on guarantees related to these contracts would increase to the extent this exposure is not hedged. While the Group has an extensive hedging programme covering its existing variable annuity business that it believes is sufficient, certain risks cannot be hedged, including actuarial risks, basis risk and correlation risk. Exposure to foreign exchange risk arises from exposures to changes in spot prices and forward prices as well as to volatile movements in exchange rates.
These risks can have a significant effect on investment returns and market values of securities positions, which in turn may affect both the Group’s results of operations and financial condition. The Group continues to focus on asset-liability management for its investment portfolio, but pursuing even this strategy has its risks – including possible mismatch – that in turn can lead to reinvestment risk. The Group seeks to manage the risks inherent in its investment portfolio by repositioning the portfolio from time to time, as needed, and to reduce risk and fluctuations through the use of hedges and other risk management tools.
If the credit markets were again to deteriorate and further asset classes were to be impacted, the Group could experience losses. Changes in the market value of the underlying securities and other factors impacting their price could give rise to market value losses. If the credit markets were to deteriorate again, the Group could also face write-downs in other areas of its portfolio, including other structured instruments, and the Group and its counterparties could face difficulties in valuing credit-related instruments. Differences in opinion with respect to valuations of credit-related instruments could result in legal disputes among the Group and its counterparties as to their respective obligations, the outcomes of which are difficult to predict and could be material.
The Group is also subject to credit and other risks in its credit business, including reliance on banks that underwrite and monitor facilities in which the Group participates and potential default by borrowers under those facilities.
The Group’s business requires, and its clients expect, that it has sufficient capital and sufficient liquidity to meet its re/insurance obligations, and that this would continue to be the case following the occurrence of any foreseeable event or series of events, including extreme catastrophes, that would trigger insurance or reinsurance coverage obligations. The Group’s uses of funds include obligations arising in its insurance and reinsurance businesses (including claims and other payments as well as insurance provision repayments due to portfolio transfers, securitisations and commutations), which may include large and unpredictable claims (including catastrophe claims), funding of capital requirements and operating costs, payment of principal and interest on outstanding indebtedness and funding of acquisitions. The Group also has unfunded capital commitments in its private equity and hedge fund investments, which could result in funding obligations at a time when it is subject to liquidity constraints. In addition, the Group has potential collateral requirements in connection with a number of reinsurance arrangements, the amounts of which may be material and the meeting of which could require the Group to liquidate cash equivalents or other securities.
The Group manages liquidity and funding risks by focusing on the liquidity stress that is likely to result from extreme capital markets scenarios or from extreme loss events or combinations of the two. Generally, the ability to meet liquidity needs could be adversely impacted by factors that the Group cannot control, such as market dislocations or interruptions, adverse economic conditions, severe disruption in the financial and worldwide credit markets and the related increased constraints on the availability of credit; changes in interest rates, foreign exchange rates and credit spreads; or by perceptions among market participants of the extent of the Group’s liquidity needs.
Unexpected liquidity needs (including to meet collateral calls) could require the Group to incur indebtedness or liquidate investments or other assets. The Group may not be able to secure new sources of liquidity or funding, should projected or actual liquidity fall below levels it requires. The ability to meet liquidity needs through asset sales may be constrained by market conditions and the related stress on valuations, and through third-party funding may be limited by constraints on the general availability of credit and willingness of lenders to lend. In addition, the Group’s ability to meet liquidity needs may also be constrained by regulatory requirements that require regulated entities to maintain or increase regulatory capital, or that restrict intra-group transactions, the timing of dividend payments from subsidiaries or the fact that certain assets may be encumbered or otherwise non-tradable. Failure to meet covenants in lending arrangements could give rise to collateral-posting or defaults, and further constrain access to liquidity. Finally, any adverse ratings action could trigger a need for further liquidity (for example, by triggering termination provisions or collateral delivery requirements in contracts to which the Group is a party) at a time when the Group’s ability to obtain liquidity from external sources is limited by such ratings action.
The Group is exposed to the risk of defaults, or concerns about defaults, by its counterparties. Securities trading counterparties, counterparties under swaps and other derivative contracts, and financial intermediaries may default on their obligations due to bankruptcy, insolvency, lack of liquidity, adverse economic conditions, operational failure, fraud or other reasons, which could have a material adverse effect on the Group.
The Group could also be adversely affected by the insolvency of, or other credit constraints affecting, counterparties in its insurance and reinsurance operations. Moreover, the Group could be adversely affected by liquidity issues at ceding companies or at third parties to whom the Group has retroceded risk, and such risk could be exacerbated to the extent any such exposures are concentrated.
Risks relating to credit rating downgrades
Ratings are an important factor in establishing the competitive position of reinsurance companies. Third-party rating agencies assess and rate the financial strength of reinsurers and insurers. These ratings are intended to measure a company’s ability to repay its obligations and are based upon criteria established by the rating agencies. Ratings may be revised downward or revoked at the sole discretion of the rating agencies.
The Group’s ratings reflect the current opinion of the relevant rating agencies. One or more of its ratings could be downgraded or withdrawn in the future, and market conditions could increase the risk of downgrade. Rating agencies may increase the frequency and scope of ratings reviews, revise their criteria or take other actions that may negatively impact the Group’s ratings. In addition, changes to the process or methodology of issuing ratings, or the occurrence of events or developments affecting the Group, could make it more difficult for the Group to achieve improved ratings which it would otherwise have expected.
As claims paying and financial strength ratings are key factors in establishing the competitive position of reinsurers, a decline in ratings alone could make reinsurance provided by the Group less attractive to clients relative to reinsurance from competitors with similar or stronger ratings. A decline in ratings could also cause the loss of clients who are required by policy or regulation to purchase reinsurance only from reinsurers with certain ratings. Certain larger reinsurance contracts contain terms that would allow the ceding companies to cancel the contract if the Group’s ratings or those of its subsidiaries are downgraded beyond a certain threshold. Moreover, a decline in ratings could impact the availability and terms of unsecured financing and obligate the Group to provide collateral or other guarantees in the course of its business or trigger early termination of funding arrangements, potentially resulting in a need for additional liquidity. As a ratings decline could also have a material adverse impact on the Group’s costs of borrowing or ability to access the capital markets, the adverse implications of a downgrade could be more severe. These same factors could also impact the Group’s insurance business.
Legal and regulatory risks
In the ordinary course of business, the Group is involved in lawsuits, arbitrations and other formal and informal dispute resolution procedures, the outcomes of which determine rights and obligations under insurance, reinsurance and other contractual agreements. From time to time, the Group may institute, or be named as a defendant in, legal proceedings, and the Group may be a claimant or respondent in arbitration proceedings. These proceedings could involve coverage or other disputes with ceding companies, disputes with parties to which the Group transfers risk under reinsurance arrangements, disputes with other counterparties or other matters. The Group cannot predict the outcome of any of the foregoing, which could be material for the Group.
The Group is also involved, from time to time, in investigations and regulatory proceedings, which could result in adverse judgements, settlements, fines and other outcomes. The number of these investigations and proceedings involving the financial services industry has increased in recent years, and the potential scope of these investigations and proceedings has also increased, not only in respect of matters covered by the Group’s direct regulators, but also in respect of compliance with broader business conduct rules, including those in respect of market abuse, bribery, money laundering, trade sanctions and data protection and privacy. The Group also is subject to audits and challenges from time to time by tax authorities, which could result in increases in tax costs, changes to internal structures and interest and penalties. Tax authorities may also actively pursue additional taxes based on retroactive changes to tax laws. The Group could be subject to risks arising from alleged, or actual, violations of any of the foregoing, and could also be subject to risks arising from potential employee misconduct, including non-compliance with internal policies and procedures and malfeasance, such as undertaking or facilitating cyber attacks on internal systems. Substantial legal liability could materially adversely affect the Group’s business, financial condition or results of operations or could cause significant reputational harm, which could seriously affect its business.
Insurance, operational and other risks
As part of the Group’s ordinary course operations, the Group is subject to a variety of risks, including risks that reserves may not adequately cover future claims and benefits; risks that catastrophic events (including hurricanes, windstorms, floods, earthquakes, acts of terrorism, man-made disasters such as industrial accidents, explosions, and fires, and pandemics) may expose the Group to unexpected large losses (and related uncertainties in estimating future claims in respect of such events); changes in the insurance industry that affect ceding companies, particularly those that further increase their sensitivity to counterparty risk; competitive conditions (including as a result of consolidation and the availability of significant levels of alternative capacity); cyclicality of the industry; risks related to emerging claims and coverage issues (including, for example, trends to establish stricter building standards (which can lead to higher industry losses for earthquake cover based on higher replacement values) and the UK Ministry of Justice’s decision on whether to change the personal injury discount rate (based on the so-called Ogden tables) in the United Kingdom (which could have a significant impact on claims payouts and reserving)); macro developments giving rise to emerging risks, such as climate change and technological developments (including greater exposure to cyber risks, which could have a range of consequences from operational disruption, to loss of proprietary or customer data, to greater regulatory burdens and potential liability); risks arising from the Group’s dependence on policies, procedures and expertise of ceding companies; risks related to investments in emerging markets; and risks related to the failure of, or attacks directed at, the Group’s operational systems and infrastructure. Any of the foregoing, as well as the occurrence of future risks that the Group’s risk management procedures fail to identify or anticipate, could have a material adverse effect on the Group, and could also give rise to reputational risk.
Use of models; accounting matters
The Group is subject to risks relating to the preparation of estimates and assumptions that management uses, for example, as part of its risk models as well as those that affect the reported amounts of assets, liabilities, revenues and expenses in the Group’s financial statements, including assumed and ceded business. For example, the Group estimates premiums pending receipt of actual data from ceding companies, which actual data could deviate from the estimates. In addition, particularly with respect to large natural catastrophes, it may be difficult to estimate losses, and preliminary estimates may be subject to a high degree of uncertainty and change as new information becomes available. Deterioration in market conditions could have an adverse impact on assumptions used for financial reporting purposes, which could affect possible impairment of present value of future profits, fair value of assets and liabilities, deferred acquisition costs or goodwill. Moreover, regulators could require the use of standard models instead of permitting the use of internal models. To the extent that management’s estimates or assumptions prove to be incorrect, it could have a material impact on underwriting results (in the case of risk models) or on reported financial condition or results of operations, and such impact could be material.
The Group’s results may be impacted by changes in accounting standards, or changes in the interpretation of accounting standards. Changes in accounting standards could impact future reported results or require restatement of past reported results. The Group’s results may also be impacted if regulatory authorities take issue with any conclusions the Group may reach in respect of accounting matters.
The Group uses non-GAAP financial measures in its external financial reporting, including in this report. These measures are not prepared in accordance with US GAAP or any other comprehensive set of accounting rules or principles, and should not be viewed as substitutes for measures prepared in accordance with US GAAP. Moreover, these may be different from, or otherwise inconsistent with, non-GAAP financial measures used by other companies. These measures have inherent limitations, are not required to be uniformly applied and are not audited.
The Group also publishes, on an annual basis, a report of its results, including financial statements and an accompanying independent assurance report, prepared in accordance with the Group’s proprietary economic value management (“EVM”) principles (“EVM report”). Financial information included in the EVM report contains non-GAAP financial measures. The EVM principles differ significantly from US GAAP and, accordingly, the Group’s results prepared in accordance with US GAAP will differ from its EVM results, and those differences could be material. The Group’s annual EVM results can be more volatile than the US GAAP results because, among other things, assets and liabilities are measured on a market-consistent basis, profit recognition on new contracts is recognised at inception rather than over the lifetime of the contract, and life and health actuarial assumptions are on a best estimate basis as opposed to generally being locked-in. The Groupʼs EVM financial statements should not be viewed as a substitute for the Group’s US GAAP financial statements.
Risks related to the Swiss Re corporate structure
Swiss Re is a holding company, a legal entity separate and distinct from its subsidiaries, including Swiss Reinsurance Company Ltd. As a holding company with no operations of its own, Swiss Re is dependent upon dividends and other payments from Swiss Reinsurance Company Ltd and its other principal operating subsidiaries. The Group expects that, over time, its structure will continue to evolve, and while to date all of the Group’s principal operations remain wholly owned, in the future it may elect to partner with minority investors in or within one or more of the Group’s Business Units or sub-groups within its Business Units, which could alter historical approaches taken in respect of capital, liquidity, funding and/or dividends, as well as other governance matters, including strategy for such Business Unit or sub-group.