By Carolyn Cohn
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's impending departure from the European Union is creating expansion opportunities for specialist general insurers who buy up and manage policies closed to new customers.
Whether Britain leaves the European Union without a deal or under a so-called hard Brexit, British insurers selling policies into the EU will need a local subsidiary, and vice versa.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday that Britain and the EU had agreed a new Brexit deal, but he still faces resistance from other parties in parliament.
If a Brexit deal is finally agreed it will give insurers more time to set up EU subsidiaries, but domestic-focused and smaller firms are reluctant to do this because of the cost.
Another option for those insurers is to end their overseas operations and sell books of legacy business to a specialist insurer.
European insurer Darag - which specializes in buying closed books - has set up in Britain this year, and expects Brexit-related deals. The firm, which now has seven UK employees, has already had enquiries, its chief executive Tom Booth told Reuters.
Chris Fagan, CEO of insurer Catalina, another closed-book specialist, also told Reuters that Brexit could have a positive impact for his firm.
"Brexit is causing EU insurers to look at their structures and this brings non-core lines into focus, leading to opportunities for the acquirers," said Andrew Ward, a director for insurance deals at PwC.
Fortitude Re, a vehicle set up by U.S. insurance group AIG with investment from private equity firm Carlyle to house AIG's closed books, is also planning to buy or reinsure other closed books and expand into Europe, four sources told Reuters. AIG declined to comment.
There are nearly $800 billion in closed books of non-life insurance globally, including $300 billion in Europe, according to PwC. Around $9 billion changed hands across 34 publicly announced deals globally in 2018, the consultants said in its first annual deals report.
Closed book specialists take over old policies or reinsure them, reducing risk for the insurers.
The specialists say they can use economies of scale to manage them more efficiently. Some also invest more of the policies in alternative asset classes to increase returns.
"There is a reasonable margin to be made in this area of insurance," Stephen Roberts, chairman of the Insurance & Reinsurance Legacy Association, said.
Outside the life insurance sector, insurers are usually keenest to offload books of business where claims may still be have to be paid years after an event.
The sector started off with asbestos-related business, but books of business sold these days include motor, medical malpractice and also employers' liability, taken out by companies to cover compensation for work-related accidents or illness.
Zurich Insurance, for example, transferred UK employers' liability policies totaling $2 billion to specialist insurer Catalina in Dec 2018.
Lloyd's of London's decision last year to tell its members to ditch the worst-performing 10% of their business has led to a number of closed book deals, including in poorly-performing insurance classes such as marine.
They include specialist insurer Riverstone's takeover of policies from Lloyd's syndicate Advent Underwriting in January 2019.
The market for closed life insurance books is also a large one in Europe, with deals such as Italian insurer Generali's sale of some of its German closed life business to private equity firm Viridium last year.
Life insurance is less likely to be impacted by Brexit, industry sources say, as the business is often more domestic, and larger life insurers have generally set up the relevant EU or UK subsidiaries.
But for overseas insurers with small UK life insurance business, Brexit could be a catalyst that "may cause people to look again" at their business, Simon True, group corporate development director at closed life insurance specialist Phoenix, said.
(Additional reporting by Suzanne Barlyn in New York. Editing by Jane Merriman)