Space Insurance So Far Immune to Financial Market Woes

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  Space News Business

Space Insurance So Far Immune to Financial Market Woes

By PETER B. de SELDING
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 23 April 2009
11:57 am ET





VENICE, Italy — Space insurance is not getting any more expensive or harder to obtain despite the well-publicized financial problems of some large underwriters and the fact that the decline in global stock markets has forced insurers to lean on premium income as a revenue source, insurers said.

Instead, insuring satellites and launch vehicles appears, at least for now, to be an island of calm in a sea of tumult, underwriters and brokers said here April 2-3 during the 15th International Space Insurance Conference, organized by Pagnanelli Risk Solutions.

As is to be expected, brokers said this is good news. Underwriters warned that new entrants into the space insurance market are forcing premium rates downward to a degree that risks a repeat of the late 1990s, when losses forced some players out of the market and resulted in a sharp increase in insurance rates.

In 2008, space insurance underwriters booked premium income of about $930 million and paid out claims totaling some $320 million – a very good year for insurers.

Those positive results have encouraged other underwriters to enter the market, resulting in a slight increase in available insurance in 2009, to $560 million from $530 million in 2008, according to figures provided by Jeffrey Poliseno, chief executive of International Space Brokers/Aon.

These figures refer to the maximum amount that is theoretically available to cover any given launch. In practice, underwriters said, assembling a package of more than $400 million remains difficult.

“None of the underwriters have pulled out of the market,” Poliseno said. Several brokers and underwriters noted that insurers typically earn their money by investing premium income into the stock market, where it earns dividends or increases in value while it waits to be paid out in insurance claims.

With the collapse of world stock markets in the past year, insurers’ financial results have suffered even in companies that were not heavily exposed to the subprime mortgage market in the United States. That means an underwriter has had to rely on premiums to earn a profit.

Officials said this would tend to result in an increase in space insurance premiums, especially since space insurance is a small business for most insurers. But this has not happened, at least not yet.

A satellite operator typically will purchase insurance covering the launch and the satellite’s first year of operation in orbit. Premiums for this coverage have trended down in the last two years and now average around 13 percent. Over the last 15 years, the average has been between 14 percent and 15 percent.

Larger satellite fleet operators often decline to insure a satellite after its first year in orbit, or purchase insurance for a group of satellites after agreeing to a deductible – say, $50 million per satellite – in exchange for a lower premium. A larger fleet means an operator can move a healthy satellite to replace a failed spacecraft, reducing the impact of any given in-orbit failure.

Perhaps because of the hesitation of larger operators to seek full insurance for their fleets, the rates for annual in-orbit insurance have tumbled in recent years, to less than 2 percent currently from around 2.5 percent.

David Wade of Atrium Space Insurance Consortium said space insurance stands out for its resistance, up to now, to global economic upheaval.

“Practically every other class of insurance has responded to the economic crisis with rising premiums,” Wade said. “We haven’t seen that in space.”

“The space insurance market has been profitable for seven of the last eight years,” said Philippe Montpert, managing director of Willis Inspace of Paris, which along with Marsh Ltd. and International Space Brokers/Aon is one of the three principal global space insurance brokerages. “We see very little difference in capacity available now. In fact it has slightly increased, while premiums have slightly decreased. We see no evidence of space coverage not being available.”

Neil Stevens, vice president of Marsh, said total space insurance capacity in 2009 has increased by about 10 percent over 2008, “which should, in theory, lead to lower prices.”

Jan Schmidt, head of the space department at Swiss Reinsurance Co. Ltd., said he is worried that satellite builders and their subcontractors might cut corners to cope with the financial crisis, leading to higher failure rates and higher premiums.