Finite Insurance: Beyond the Scandals

The troubles at AIG have thrust insurance that doesn't transfer risk into the spotlight. But used correctly, finite coverage can help finance executives to manage hard-to-quantify risks, clinch a merger deal, and even produce better-quality earnings.

Not very long ago, the use of finite insurance looked much better than it looks today.

For years before the current scandals at American International Group Inc., the arrangements were touted as a sleek way for a corporation to control its risk funding and shed liabilities from its balance sheet. During times like the post-9/11 period, when property and liability coverage was overly costly or hard to come by, finite risk seemed a legitimate, more predictable alternative to traditional insurance.

That’s not to say that critics haven’t long questioned one key aspect of the deals: They don’t tend to transfer much actual risk from insured to insurer. As the name implies, finite coverage sharply limits the amount of loss the insurer can suffer. Instead, what the carrier does cover is a timing risk — the chance that over a specified period a bunch of claims will have to be paid at an inopportune moment.

In its most common form, corporations plunk down a premium nearly big enough to cover all the expected losses into an account held with the insurer. If the cost of losses turns out to be less than the premium, the carrier gives back the difference to the insured; if the losses turn out to be greater, the insured pays an additional premium to the insurer. To accounting skeptics, finite insurance can look like a way for a corporation to retain risks without really retaining them and transfer risks without really transferring them.

To be sure, there’s little doubt that finite coverage can enable executives to spruce up their companies’ financials if they can record the arrangements as insurance rather than as deposits. Indeed, until recently such balance-sheet cleansing was a prime selling point of finite-insurance marketers. “The product was designed to improve financial statements,” recalls Andrew Barile, an insurance and reinsurance consultant in Rancho Santa Fe, California, who has worked on finite deals.

During the go-go late 1990s, the idea of using insurance to help companies hit net-income targets could be alluring to management, and regulators and auditors could be counted on to let the deals slip through without much scrutiny. But in the post-Sarbanes-Oxley era, the mere suggestion of “earnings management” gets enforcement officials riled.

How Many Brightpoints?

The 2003 Brightpoint case seems to have fueled a fair amount of the regulatory activity involving the use of finite coverage. Without admitting or denying guilt, AIG and Brightpoint agreed to pay $10 million and $450,000 in civil penalties, respectively, to settle fraud charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC had charged that AIG created an “insurance” product that enabled Brightpoint to shave $12 million in losses from its books and overstate its 1998 earnings by 61 percent.

Even though Brightpoint had merely deposited cash with AIG that the insurer refunded to the company, the insurer made it seem as if the wireless-device distributor paid premiums for the coverage, the commission charged.

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