Josephine V. Yam

What are the advantages and disadvantages of catastrophe bonds?

Advantages

  • Catastrophe bonds have less credit risk because the total amount of funds which can be called by the (re)insurer if a catastrophe occurs are placed in trust. In contrast, reinsurers do not hold funds equal to their maximum exposure, and thus reinsurers have insolvency risk.
  • Catastrophe bonds also reduce agency costs relative to equity capital, because the funds raised from the bond issue are placed in trust and cannot be used by managers unless a specified catastrophe occurs.
  • Catastrophe bonds involve lower tax costs than equity capital, just as debt financing in general has a tax advantage relative to equity financing.
  • The catastrophe bond structure reduces financial distress costs relative to traditional subordinated debt, because the contingent payments are based on readily observable variables (the occurrence of a catastrophe) and the payments are agreed upon ex ante. Additional debt financing generally involves greater financial distress costs.
  • Catastrophe bonds have a moderating effect on reinsurance prices and prevent reinsurance prices from increasing any faster than they did. By presenting an alternative to traditional reinsurance, the development of cat bonds has forced reinsurers to become more competitive with pricing.
  • Investing in catastrophe bonds could be recommended since they have presumably low or zero correlation with other currently traded assets and are therefore a promising instrument for portfolio enhancement. Also, cat bonds have attractive risk/return characteristics, especially for those large, sophisticated investors they are designed for, such as mutual funds/investment advisors, proprietary/hedge funds, and (re)insurers.
  • Returns on catastrophe bonds are proven to be less volatile than either stocks or bonds.

Disadvantages

  • The use of catastrophe bonds is hindered by regulatory constraints that generally require that the bonds be issued by an offshore special purpose vehicle. As a result, catastrophe bonds can involve substantial transactions costs. Transaction costs indeed represent approximately 2 percent of the total coverage provided by a catastrophe bond (for example, $2 million for a security providing $100 million in coverage). These costs include: underwriting fees charged by investment banks, fees charged by modelling firms to develop models to predict the frequency and severity of the event that is covered by the security, fees charged by the rating agencies to assign a rating to the securities, and legal fees associated with preparing the provisions of the security and preparing disclosures for investors. The price of a reinsurance contract would not typically include such additional fees.
  • Others institutions avoid purchasing catastrophe bonds altogether because it would not be cost-effective for them to develop the technical capacity to analyze the risks of securities so different from the securities in which they currently invested.
  • Catastrophe bonds are available only to institutional investors.
  • The market in cat bonds generally suffers from lower levels of liquidity relative to mainstream bonds.
  • The dramatic recent growth in the catastrophe bond market has in turn spurred the launch of some new insurance related businesses which could potentially undermine the long term growth prospects of the cat bond market.

Written: 2011 October
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