Master’s voiceIRDA has, of course, exercised considerable caution and farsightedness while taking the reform measures ahead to the goal of achieving total liberalization of the industry by removing the tariff regime. It waited for six years after the liberalization to open the floodgates of the free market. It took sufficient time to study the reaction and behavior of all the stakeholders after each step and only when it was fully convinced that the market forces have gained the necessary experience and show enough maturity in their conduct of the affairs so that they can effectively deal with any situation that may develop, that it finally decided on de-tariffing the non-life insurance sector. The authorities have repeatedly reminded all concerned of the mantra “consistent growth, profitability, increased market penetration, and improved customer satisfaction”. The insurers had been given 15 months to study the market dynamics and formulate their pricing policy and risk underwriting standards with a view of achieving optimum customer satisfaction based on sound business practice. The authorities have reminded all the players that “de-tariffing” does not necessarily mean “price-cutting” which is an unsophisticated way of reacting to a situation of such serious consequence and that the opportunity should be utilized to realize the objective of developing own methodology for proper pricing and product innovation so that Indian insurance industry attains the real competitive edge in the global market. Unmindful of all the above cautioning by the IRDA, the insurers seem to have thoughtlessly embarked on a price-cutting spree in as much as some of them proudly declare that they offer across-the-board discounts to the extent of 60%. Anyway, the insurance market is found to grow bullish about discount offers. The main players, the insurers, seem to have pushed the issue of risk underwriting to the back burner and are engaged in the fierce competition in offering discounted prices for insurance covers without giving any consideration whatsoever for risk appraisal and risk management mechanism. The insuring public bewildered at the unexpected but pleasurable developments looks on with tongue in cheek. In this context, it is only relevant to recall that non-life insurers behaved in the same manner on an earlier occasion when marine cargo tariff was abolished. The players recklessly went about slashing rates at that time leaving the industry badly hurt causing huge revenue loss which was later assessed at Rs.300 crores approximately, and all this in a couple of months. The industry players showed the same irrational behavior when the hull insurance tariff was done away with. But this time, the cut can be sharper and the wound, deeper. The cost to the industry can be in the vicinity of Rs.2000 crores. We all know from the past that various markets in the international arena also have not reacted differently when existing tariffs were withdrawn. But that does not in any way justifies the present reaction of Indian insurers especially when IRDA has exercised extra caution while taking each step towards total removal tariff regime so that the players in the field have learned from history may act with restraint and show the high level of maturity in the conduct of their business in the tariff-free market.
Aftermath of De-tariffingDetariffing was a collective demand and surely justified the demand of all the stakeholders in the insurance field. It was therefore taken for granted that all were ready to face the consequences whatsoever of this important step. The situation, particularly for insurers, really demanded a paradigm shift in their risk underwriting ideology. But, the total conduct of insurers after de-tariffing smacks of their unpreparedness to face the occasion. Some circles even nurture a doubt that insurers’ trivialization of the issue to a simple case of price war is a cover-up for their panic reaction. Besides, their act of resorting to offering substantial discounts once the de-tariffing has taken place has created a wrong impression that earlier tariff rates were exorbitant and unjustified. The insurers, on the other hand, seem to think that they are left with only a Hobson’s choice of either writing the premium at the rate dictated by market forces or losing the business. The insured, though happy about the advantage of substantial savings in insurance cost, is now growing skeptical and fearful. He is afraid that the insurers having acquired the business at a much lower rate of the premium may not render services at the time of loss. The intermediaries are dismayed that after offering exorbitant discounts, some players make successful attempts to convince the insured to us the intermediary to save at least on procurement cost. Perhaps some people think that professional services can wait.
Prognosis & PremonitionIt was genuinely hoped by the authorities that de-tariffing which facilitates free pricing of products by the insurers will usher in an era of real competitiveness in the insurance market by way of product innovation and best customer service thereby achieving an optimum spread of insurance in the country. The authorities prognosticated that after liberalization, the important step of de-tariffing would pave the way for the introduction of cost-effective customized products and the effective implementation of risk management mechanisms, which will leverage the capability for proper risk rating. A correct risk underwriting based on risk analysis, risk retention capacity, procurement costs, and other relevant factors, together with customer-centric initiative will greatly help in the growth of the insurance industry in India. Nevertheless, the primary symptom that developed after de-tariffing indicates that there is a deficiency in the SWOT analysis of the Indian insurance industry by the authorities. Needless to say, the roller coaster of rate-cutting will before long make some of the industry layers seriously sick. Other comparatively strong players will attempt to sell gold from their family kitty to cover up the monetary loss for some time. The financial insecurity of the players will reflect on their commitment to customer service. This, in turn, will spell disaster for the industry.
ConclusionIt is time insurers conduct a reality check and at least ensures that the ongoing want on price-cutting does not affect their solvency ratio. They should muster the necessary courage to decide their terms and pricing mechanism and stick to it come what may. Whatever be the developments that are taking place in the industry the insurers cannot afford to ignore their real business of risk underwriting. The price of insurance products has little significance in insurance marketing. On the contrary, it has been found that considerably cheaper products Gramin Bima Policy, Raj-Rajeshwari Mahila Kalyan Yojana, Bhagyashri Child Welfare Policy, etc. have not found favor with the public. The de-tariffing will make the insurance market vibrant and competitive and will encourage the players to bring out customized products with a view of serving the purpose of different target groups or sections of society. Need-creation should be the main strategy in insurance marketing. The innovative, need-based insurance covers, an efficient, system of proper product pricing and management philosophy which is conducive to the development of a positive attitude for customer service will ensure robust growth of the insurance industry.
CEO & Director, Insutech Insurance Broking Services Pvt. Ltd.
Published in The Insurance Times, February 2008