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Mutual & Federal’s investment income shocker

10 February 2009 Gareth Stokes

Last Friday, 6 February 2009, FAnews Online attended Mutual & Federal’s (M&F) 2008 Financial Results Presentation. The company reported a full-year loss of R128m – and we weren’t surprised when M&F managing director, Keith Kennedy, chose to focus on an array of operational improvements. “Despite significant uncertainty in world financial markets, M&F enters 2009 with a revised and streamlined operating structure that will enhance future growth and profitability,” he said.

Kennedy offers the 2008 underwriting surplus in support of this observation. He notes that the R23m underwriting loss in the first half of the year – largely due to commercial fire claims and poor results from group schemes – is offset by the R322m underwriting profit in the second half. And he argues the R67m slide in underwriting surplus since 2007 (R366m) is due to the R98m reserves release included in that number. It’s a fair assessment; but insurance company results are about more than underwriting profits.

The R1bn investment roundabout

As much as they would have liked to, management couldn’t hide the R1bn swing in investment income between 2007 and 2008. In 2007 M&F was riding the crest of the commodity-driven bull market as the JSE All Share cruised to record highs. But like most listed financial services companies, M&F missed the early warning signs in October 2007, when banking and retail shares started to take strain. They were slow to react when commodity prices stalled midway through 2008. And they were still heavily invested in equities when the bottom fell out of world markets in October last year. The company admits to being as much as 80% in equities early last year; but has since reduced exposure to around 40%.

This market mayhem reversed the R850m investment income ‘profit’ reported for the year to 31 December 2007 to a loss of R146m in 2008. Kennedy was quick to remind shareholders that “a significant portion of the profits and losses in this category are unrealised.” The group’s annual statements have to ‘reflect’ the profits and losses due to share price fluctuations on its investment portfolio. Shareholders had to contend with another shock too. The profit statement for the year included non-recurring costs of R202m. Kennedy said this figure comprised R53m in retrenchment costs and R147m due to the closure of a “strategic project for alternative business channels.” The project – which was shelved due to the tightening domestic economic environment – would have given M&F a foothold in the ‘direct’ short-term insurance space.

Once the dust settled, shareholders faced the grim reality of a loss for the 2008 year. M&F turned its FY 2007 305c per share headline earnings into a 41c per share loss in FY 2008. Kennedy tried to soften the blow by reminding shareholders that “equities have assisted M & F in returning R7bn [to shareholders] in recent years.” But memories are short and shareholders will probably remember FY 2008 as the year in which M&F declared no final dividend.

Pressures on both sides of the equation

2009 will bring a fresh set of challenges. Kennedy expects pressure on premium growth on the income side of the equation to be exacerbated by rising claims and operating costs on the expense side. Short-term insurers will have to weather these industry-specific threats while dealing with the impact of inflation, consumer indebtedness and softer global demand on the domestic economy too. Each of these factors will place additional strain on the underwriting margin.

Kennedy was particularly concerned with escalating claims costs. There were 33 large commercial claims in excess of R17.3m in the 2008 year. And the average weather claim was up from R10 700 per incident in 2007 to R13 300 in the latest period. To make matters worse, the slight decline in the number of household claims (largely due to robbery and housebreaking) was wiped out by a surge in per incident damages, from R16 321 (2007) to R19 705. “We’ve seen a change in trend… there are more armed robberies at households,” said Kennedy, adding that thieves walked away with more loot if they committed the crime while the family was at home.

If we strip out the investment result (and that seems to be what M&F wants us to do) the overall performance is adequate. We believe the tough decisions taken by the group in 2008 – including the decision to lay off some 600 staff – will position M&F favourably for a difficult 2009. And provided the company stems any further decline in its personal lines portfolio (down 10% in 2008) we expect a robust turnaround in the coming 12-months.

Editor’s thoughts:
During the question and answer session that followed the results presentation, a shareholder asked Keith Kennedy whether executives would receive bonuses in light of the dismal performance. Kennedy said that bonuses would be paid – and that the executive team was measured on their operational performance – and not on investment decisions. Do you think it’s fair to exclude investment performance from bonus considerations? Add your comments below, or send them to gareth@fanews.co.za

Comments

Added by Stella, 10 Feb 2009
No, it's certainly not fair that investment performance is excluded from bonus consideration, as it affects the business as a whole.
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Added by Kevin, 10 Feb 2009
Agree with Stella. The business performance is what should be measured. Presume by his comments then that the 'lesser' employees will not be receiving bonuses?
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Added by Nicci, 10 Feb 2009
Yes, it is fair to exclude the investment performance from bonus considerations when calculating bonuses dependant on who the staff member is and their position in the company. A staff member is contracted to fulfill a role and is given individual targets for this role in the organisation. If he fulfills that role and exceeds his targets, he should be rated on that performance and not on factors beyond his personal control. However, the staff responsible for making the decisions resulting the dismal investment performance should not be rewarded at all. In fact, their lousy decisions have indirectly resulted in 600 retrenchments.
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Added by Pet , 10 Feb 2009
I agree with Nicci not only has lousy decisions indirectly cost 600 retrenchments but premiums are higher than other insurance companies and the man in the street would rather change his insurance to a more affodable insurance.
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Added by Sbu, 10 Feb 2009
I agree with Nicci only staff members who has a direct involvement or influence decision making should be affected, however since the investment performance is not entirely as a result of a wrong decision made by any particular person (remember almost everybody was catch out by sudden change in financial markets), but rather by general impact which is felt by the whole financial markets exposed in particular to equities, a partial bonus would be in order, they might not have reach expected results, but it could have been even worst. In all fairness it should be left up to the executive to make a moral decision as to whether they would accept the bonuses, considering in what state the whole company is/was and also remembering through what difficult times, in particular staff, have been going through.In solidarity with staff they should either give it up as a means for further investment or to be redistributed among those staff members who took the company through what seemed a tough time.
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Added by Geobin, 10 Feb 2009
Internationally investors have lost billions, so it is fair to exclude investment performance as a measurement tool, however considering that 600 people had to be laid off, I do believe that paying any bonus for this period would be immoral. Executives of companies should be acting in the best interest of the people who make the place function (their staff and clients), and lead by example. If the company has made a loss, how does it pay out bonuses regardless of whose fault if was for the loss? Surely the intention of a bonus is based on making a profit even after bonuses have been paid out. In addition to this, the writing is on the wall for increased premiums based on the results released, so in principal are their policy holders going to be funding bonuses?
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