Life insurance industry is ready to shift gears in 2015
The life insurance industry has seen several phases since the entry of private players into the sector at the turn of the millennium. Hence, before we talk about 2015, it is worthwhile spending sometime on the years that have preceded it.
Broadly, these can be classified under three phases. The first phase was one where private players started to establish themselves in the marketplace. The second phase coincided with the growth in the equity market where new business premiums grew on the back of investment-linked product selling. This was a phase when insurers, regulators and customers believed nothing could go wrong. More insurers and distributors entered the industry, increasing the reach of insurance products multi-fold.
In hindsight, a major proportion of the growth trajectory was based on ‘riding the wave’ and left several customers dissatisfied once the global financial crisis hit home. So it was not surprising that just as the party had got going, the regulator stepped in to take away the punch bowl. This in effect laid the stage for phase three, which has lasted longer than most industry watchers would have expected.
Regulatory intervention is now taken as a fait accompli post the tectonic shift in regulations since 2010. Margins of Indian life insurance companies are amongst the lowest in the world. Several agents exited the industry in its aftermath as their earnings ability declined. An industry that prided itself on bringing protection to individuals and households saw a long phase of stagnation in new business premium collections. But as they say, one tends to learn more from one crisis than from multiple successes.
Phase three also helped segregate the men from the boys. You could clearly see the large private players breaking out of the pack as market share started to polarise in their favour. These are players who today are in a position to innovate and offer a balanced product mix to consumers. New segments such as term plans, annuities, health plans, low-cost Ulips have started to reignite growth for them. These players have the ability and financial muscle to invest in improving processes, next generation technology and digitisation. They players have the wherewithal to reach out to customers and manage high persistency levels and drive growth through renewal premiums.
Large private players now have well known brands which can compete in most markets with the market leader as a new set of consumers enter the insurable population. These players are also well integrated with bancassurance partners besides having a diversified channel mix. We have already seen the market share of this segment grow in the current financial year and this should pick up more steam in 2015.
As the cost of regulation becomes even more onerous through further caps on expense management, insurers will need to fine-tune their business models further. As we exited 2014, an ordinance of insurance laws (amendment) was issued by the government. Beyond the headline on increasing foreign investments to 49%, the ordinance offers more teeth and flexibility to the regulator to frame guidelines around commissions and expenses, customer experience management and citizen charters, claims settlement, and so on. This would require insurers to be nimble enough to adjust their business processes.
As the industry starts to attract more foreign capital and if a few insurers decide to go in for a public listing, there will be a need for the players to disclose more financial and non-financial data than what is required currently. This will increase the levels of transparency and the understanding of how an insurance industry operates amongst analysts and the media.
I believe the industry should be able to sustain a smooth upward growth curve growing at 12-15% CAGR over the next five to six years on the back of relatively stable economic policy and industry regulations. 2015 could potentially be that year when we see a distinct shift to the next phase of the life insurance industry.