Matthew Reed predicts a rise in professional indemnity insurance costs in 2006 and reveals what a professional with your risk profile should expect to cough up

Although you may not feel you’ve had a great deal with your professional indemnity insurance, it’s fair to say that most construction professionals had it good last year. Rates across the board have fallen by an average of 25%, and for lower risk professions such as quantity surveyors or interior design architects, the falls have been as great as 40%. At the other end of the scale the likes of geotechnical and environmental engineers have seen their rates remain stable or fall moderately, but they are unlikely to have seen any rate hikes. The result is that rates are at their lowest for five years.

It was a different picture a few years back. In 2003, when rates were at their height, some professions saw PI costs rocket 400%. But what goes up must come down. The insurance market is cyclical and driven by the rule of supply and demand – when more insurers have an appetite for your business, rates fall; when there’s less, they rise.

After a period of low premiums in 2005 we are approaching the bottom of the market cycle, and there’s much speculation as to when the tide will turn and rates begin to climb again, and by how much. So if you’re a construction professional don’t assume your PI costs will remain the same; you need to prepare for price rises and budget appropriately. But how much will you need to set aside for PI next year? Will we see a return to the crippling costs of 2003?

Tougher times ahead

Back in 2002, it would have been correct to say that the market for professional indemnity insurance was severely limited. Since then we’ve seen a steady increase of PI insurers coming into the Lloyd’s market to chase the profitable premium. On the whole these insurers have targeted architects and surveyors, sectors that underwriters feel more comfortable with and view as less specialised, and therefore easier to understand. As a result, premiums for many professions dropped and competitive prices became readily available.

More recently, however, there’s been evidence of “capacity shrinkage” in the PI insurance market, largely for two reasons:

  • The Lloyd’s insurance market has taken a decision to manage its syndicates differently in a bid to bring cyclical price swings under control; syndicates applying to enter the market now have to support their applications with tight business plans to justify their market entry, and as a result it’s becoming increasingly difficult for new insurers to enter.
  • Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters last year have had repercussions on the market. The total losses suffered still haven’t been finalised, but property premiums in North America have gone by as much as 400%. The fact is that the core of the insurance market is driven by property rates, and the liability sector, which includes PI cover, is very much a fringe area; it is quite possible that many insurers and Lloyd’s syndicates will look to reallocate their available capital away from the fringe of the market to the core. If they do shift capital we will definitely see a hardening of rates in the liability sector. What’s more, a further impact of the hurricanes will be in reinsurance rates – if these rise insurers will be likely to pass the costs on to clients.
A continual cycle

Shrinking capacity means it will become more difficult for your broker to secure you PI cover, and certainly at this year’s rates. With more brokers chasing fewer insurers, rates will go up and stimulate the swing to higher premiums.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Although it’s almost inevitable that your PI costs will rise over time, there’s every indication that this won’t be as dramatic as the swing in 2003. It’s far more likely to be a gradual process and there’s evidence to suggest that for some classes the cycle has some way to fall yet – we predict rates will go down a further 10% across the board before they start to rise.

There is other evidence to support the view that premiums will rise gradually:

Although it’s almost inevitable that your PI costs will rise in time, there’s every indication that this won’t be as dramatic as the swing in 2003. We predict rates will go down a further 10% across the board on average before they start to rise

  • Since the introduction of fast-track alternative dispute resolution methods the number of large claims has declined and the number of smaller settlements has increased. Although it is harder to estimate PI reserves and rates because claims are generally submitted a long time after the work has been done, improvements have given insurers the confidence to set rates and estimate reserves earlier.
  • Insurers now have a better understanding of the needs of the construction sector. Prior to 2002 some insurers were guilty of having underwritten risks at unprofitable levels, largely because of difficult market conditions, but partly owing to a misunderstanding of the needs of the construction sector. In 2003 rates needed to be adjusted to compensate for the shortfall. Insurers are now more aware of the issues, complexities and risks associated with the professions in construction, and the need to maintain disciplined underwriting practices.
  • Changing attitudes to risk management procedures. Insurers and brokers are advising clients on good risk management, which is also being promoted by the Financial Services Authority and construction associations. The challenge is that not all can afford to invest in risk management. Firms tend to fall into two camps: those that earn more than £500,000 in fees and can afford it, and those who don’t and can’t.
How to get a good deal

So what are insurers looking for and how can you ensure you get a favourable premium? From our experience the surest way to get the right cover at the right price is to make sure your house is in order and that you can demonstrate good internal practices, sound risk assessment and a strong overriding ethos of risk management. Risk management should be your first line of defence, and PI the safety net.

Underwriters also appreciate some loyalty and continuity, switching deals and shopping around for cover too often damages your credibility in their eyes and they’re less likely to reward you or be too understanding of past claims. Often it’s worth paying a little more in a favourable market to secure a better deal when times get tougher. Underwriters are also increasingly keen to see that you are aware of the “quality” of the policy rather than simply concerning yourself with cost; PI should be viewed as a tool to protect your balance sheet. So make yourself aware of what your policy does and doesn’t cover.

But the best advice we can offer is to seek out a specialist PI broker – the guy who sorts out your commercial insurance is unlikely to have the contacts in the marketplace to be able to hunt out those underwriters who still have an appetite for your business.

We’ve seen a number of so called “special deals” being offered to engineers in particular over recent months including a two-year fixed rate. By the time your two-year fixed rate is up premiums are sure to have increased, so be careful when considering deals like these. If rates do fall then you could be saddling yourself with a higher PI bill than is necessary and be unable to take advantage of lower rates on offer.

The table below gives an idea of the sorts of rates you can be expecting to pay next year, and by using a specialist PI broker – especially one who specialises in your area of construction – you could secure an even better price than shown here. The table illustrates types of high, medium and low risk work and what percentage of fees each should expect to be paying for PI in 2006.

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