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The Impact of External Environment and Political Risks on Zurich Insurance Group

Nyamweya is a Kenyan scholar who has done many years of research on a diversity of topics


1.0 Introduction

The United Kingdom offers a conducive environment for both insurance and reinsurance businesses. Various global insurance players are either based or have a representation in the UK. The UK insurance industry is regarded to be the largest in Europe and the fourth largest in the world. It is a critical aspect of the UK economy with investments of more than £1.8 trillion and paying approximately £12 to the government. The industry employs more than 300000 people a third of who are employed directly by insurance providers while the remainder work in auxiliary services such as broking (Association of British Insurers, 2019).

This report presents an analysis of Zurich Insurance Company’s response on regional geopolitical tensions that give rise to political risks and the threat to business profitability. The first part presents an assessment of the firm’s external environment using the PESTEL framework. The second part relates to a focus on how the regional geopolitical tensions have impacted Zurich Insurance Company and the UK Insurance market in general. This is followed by an evaluation on whether Zurich’s responses to geopolitical tensions were effective or ineffective after which the relevant recommendations are made accordingly.

2.0 Task 1: Analysis of the External Influences Affecting Zurich Insurance Company 2.1 PESTEL Framework

PESTEL is generally a framework that marketers employ in making assessments of a company’s macro (external) environmental factors that affect a firm’s performance and profitability (Gupta, 2013).

Figure 1: PESTEL Framework. Adapted from Rastogi, and Trivedi (2016)

2.1.1 Political Factors

In the UK, political forces have led to harmonisation of EU legislation to create a common ground in regulation of financial services. This is what led to creation of Solvency II (SII), which led to creation of a uniform and improved level of protection for policyholders across the region. However, the Solvency II turned out to be stricter for insurance companies, creating a burden that makes operations a complex undertaking. For instance, insurance companies now need more capital base to set up and run their businesses while also being required to pay more taxes (Schiro, 2018).

The United Kingdom is considered to be one of the most influential and prosperous nations globally while its role in the international arena being considered critical. In fact, UK is a member of the G8 and it is among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. In addition to these, UK is also a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. However, this nation has a conservative approach towards European integration, culminating into Brexit policies (Politico, 2019). When it comes into force, Brexit will have several implications for the UK businesses (Hardfield, 2019). This will not only see a loss of revenue for transferred policies for local insurance firms such as Zurich but also a significant loss of market base.

2.1.2 Economic factors

In November 2019, inflation in the UK remained at its lowest since 2016. The low inflation was precipitated by Brexit uncertainties which clouded the economic outlook. According to Staton (2019), prices were 1.7 per cent higher compared to the previous year. The consumer price index, which includes owner occupiers’ housing costs, dropped to its lowest since 2016. This leads to tough economic conditions for both citizens and companies (Staton, 2019). Adverse economic crises and inflation affect the wellbeing and sustainability of several industries (Supan, 2017). An analysis by the International Monetary Fund notes that UK has account deficit of 3.31% of GDP in 2018 while the forecast for 2020 dropped to 2.70%. Furthermore, the fiscal deficit continues ballooning, thus subjecting the UK’s prestigious AAA rating at risk (Angus 2016). The AAA refers to a highest possible rating which is issued by an issuer’s bonds by major credit rating agencies including Fitch rating, Standard& Poor (S&P), and Moodys. These agencies utilize the letters AAA in identifying bonds which harbour the highest quality of credit (Chen, 2019). BBC (2019) further contents that the UK’ prestigious AAA status has downgraded a notch lower and the economy continue keeping a negative outlook. If the UK economy will continue deteriorating, this thus will lower the customer’s purchasing power for Zurich and other insurance businesses, translating into higher operational costs, reduce market segments and reduced earnings.

Figure 1.1 UK inflation rate since 2015 to 2019

Currently, the minimum wage for those aged 25 and over is £8.21 per hour while those aged 21–24 are paid £7.70 per hour ((Supan, 2017). On the other hand, those aged 16-17 are paid £4.35. However, the Labor Party of UK has argued that these wage rates do not align with the current economic standing in the country. In this respect, they have advocated for the pushing of the minimum wage to £8 per hour in order to cushion citizens against inflation (www.gov.uk, 2020). The low wages means that people have low purchasing power. Nonetheless, unemployment rates have been increasing since 1970s to present. The high rate of unemployment led to changes in institutions whereby; the government came up with unemployment insurance which out rightly benefits insurance companies. However, high unemployment leads to many people investing their money in banks instead of buying insurance policies. This means that people will prefer investing their money elsewhere rather than taking out unemployment insurance. Furthermore, unemployment also leads to policyholders to consider downgrading their policies and probably switching to third party covers, degenerating into fraudulent claims (Shepherd, 2016).

Since the financial crisis that commenced in 2008, interest rates have continued to be low for the purpose of supporting jobs and spending. This is also aimed at aiding the economy to recover from the global financial crisis (Bank of England, 2020). Due to harsh economic conditions precipitated by inflation/deflation, insurers are forced to take measures such as consolidation, cost cutting, restricting of balance sheet, derivatives, increasing prices and hedging to keep their companies sustainable in the long run (Kurt, Holzheu, and Laster, 2016). However, the low interest rates have been advantageous for Zurich and other insurance providers owing to more people who are now able and willing to spend on what is considered by many as “luxury” (Bank of England, 2020).

2.1.3: Socio-cultural Factors

In the UK, it was common for workers to stay with one employer for a better part of their working life and they seldom changed the employer. However, this trend has changed over time whereby; greater mobility in jobs is now realised. Accordingly, organisations are now relying on temporary and flexible job arrangements (Olwen, 2017). Today, it is common for a person to change jobs or work in several organisations at the particular time. This has been triggered by the need for more income, the need to expand ones experience and skills and to grow professionally (Higgs and Gilleard, 2015).

Consequently, the change in lifestyle has implications on people’s saving patterns especially in pensions in the UK by turning away from established benefit schemes to contribution schemes. In essence, the intent of defined benefit schemes were meant to benefit employees who were working full time with a particular employer. However, lately, there has been an introduction of industry-based pension schemes, compulsory preservation and higher vesting. This has been a response to the needs of mobile, unskilled and lower skilled workers who are now dominating companies (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019).

2.1.6: Legal Factors

The General Data Protection Regulation which replaced the Data Protection Act (DPA) offers a good example of laws that have an impact on insurers operations in the UK. This law outlines the safety of the data collected (Scoville et al, 2019). On the same note, the Insurance Act 2015 also poses a significant impact on insurance activities which include human resource operations and management, safety and health management (Scoville et al, 2019). What is more, the Equality Act 2010 poses a major impact to underwriting taking into concern that it disallows discrimination (OECD, 2018).

In general, the UK insurance industry is regulated by the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (FSMA).This act governs general non-life insurance and long term insurance. However, the UK government have endeavoured to create conducive legal environment for foreign businesses including insurance firms to operate in the country (Scoville et al, 2019). Consequently, Zurich’s UK operations have been smooth due to the less legal restrictions, subsequently leading to promotion of its activities.

2.1.7 Technological factors

Since 1960, the insurance industry has been using technology to provide and improve their services. However, the ever-changing technological context has placed many insurance firms in awkward position in aligning with the new technology trends (KMPG. 2014). Insurance firms have been required to employ technology in creating products which satisfy customer’s lifestyle and needs. Mobile technology is now being utilized as a distribution channel as well as a means of communicating to customers. It can greatly assist in attracting new clients as well as retaining extant one if their satisfaction is increased. Companies that are unable to adapt to technology will have a lesser competitive edge compared to those that are keen on this (Ernest and Young 2014). With this understanding, Zurich Insurance has exploited the benefits of technological innovations to its advantage. For instance, in 2015, the company established an inter-functional strategic project team in Silicon Valley which planned how to integrate innovations such as Internet of Things (IoT) and other new technologies for the purpose of increasing customer value. Furthermore, with partnerships with IBM Watson, LinkedIn, and Google, the company has been able to launch augmented reality (AR) applications and intelligence (AI) project for claims and risk engineers with positive outcomes (Brown, 2017).

2.1.8 Eco- Environmental Factors

In the UK, most customers have a concern on the environment and as such, they are actively involved on environmental matters. This has necessitated both insurers and customers to opt for electronic means of communication in sending documents for the purpose of reducing costs of stationery, time and in protecting the environment. In this respect, insurance players have been required to be environmentally conscious more than ever (Devine, 2018).

2.2 Porter’s Five Forces Model

Porter Five Forces refers to a strategic management framework which is utilized in analyzing five competitive forces impact profitability in an industry (Tanwar, 2013), as illustrated below;

Figure 2: Porters Five Forces Model source: (Porter 2008)

2.2.1Threat of New Entrants

In the UK, the threat of new entrants in insurance is high. This owes to flexible regulation, conducive business environment, and low initial capital requirement for new businesses. Some of the new entrants in the UK include but not limited to Admiral, Age Co, Alliance, Aviva, Churchill, Co-Op, Endsleigh, Esure, Go girl, Ingenie, LV, and Lifesure (Finder.com 2020). Additionally, these new entrants bring new ways of doing things and innovation, forcing Zurich to consider cutting costs of operation, consider a lower price strategy, and to provide new value propositions to clients. Accordingly, insurance companies including Zurich have been required to address these challenges alongside building effective barriers to maintain their sustainability and competitive edge (OECD, 2018).

2.2.2 Bargaining Power of Suppliers

The bargaining power of suppliers in the UK insurance sector is low. This is because most of the insurance companies in UK source their raw materials from a diversity of suppliers (Tanwar, 2013). Suppliers who are placed in dominant positions have a probability of decreasing the margins insurance companies can earn from the market. In the financial sector, powerful suppliers utilise their negotiating power in demanding or setting higher prices from insurance companies. In general, the effect of higher bargaining power of suppliers is a decrease of the earnings in insurance. However, this effect on the UK insurance sector is low owing to the many and diverse suppliers.

2.2.3 Industry rivalry

Industry rivalry in the UK insurance sector is high. This owes to the high level of competitors and competitor diversity. Furthermore, different companies employ different pricing models, subsequently leading to a lower market pricing levels. This owes to the fact that the brokers and even individual customers see out the cheapest market levels. Consequently, Zurich and other insurance companies are forced to maintain a lower pricing model so as to retain and attract customers (OECD, 2018).

2.2.4 Buyer’s Bargaining Power

In the insurance sector, the bargaining power of buyers is high. Buyers are always demanding and as such they want to purchase the best offering available and pay as much lesser price as possible. This has put pressure on the profitability of insurance companies such as Zurich Plc considering the high competition in the industry. Apparently, most insurance firms have smaller and powerful customer base, which gives them higher bargaining power and the ability to seek increasing offers and discounts (Kumar, Russignan, and Crawford, 2018).

2.2.5: Threats of Substitutes

The threat of substitute is high in the UK insurance sector. This is also owed to high competition where the variety of insurance companies has the ability to provide similar or unique customer insurance needs in a divergence of ways. In addition, this rate is also precipitated by the high number of entrants who are able to provide value prepositions which is uniquely different to what is already offered at the market. The high threat of substitute impairs industry profitability (Kumar, Russignan and Crawford, 2018).

3.0 Task 2: The influence of regional geopolitics on Zurich Insurance Group

3.1 Relevance of regional geopolitics on Zurich Insurance Group

The United Kingdom’s politics in 2019 towards the future will be mainly based on Brexit negotiations and the ensuing transition moment from the EU. Upon realization and actualization of Brexit, it is not clear which European laws related to business operations will be retained in the UK and which EU legislations will be reviewed by the UK. However, potential legislative changes such as Gender Directive and Solvency II Directive will certainly have an impact on reservations and pricing for insurance policies and services in the UK (Oliver, 2016). This is because the directive will standardize and harmonize insurance prices across the industry(Oliver, 2016).

There is also the issue of currency risk. Taking into account that there are many UK domiciled companies including Zurich which are global, there is a possibility of their share price falling considering the decline of investors for both shares and sterling especially in large cap global UK companies. This owes to the perceived risk of a chaotic and hard Brexit in recent perspective. Consequently, many businesses, insurance included have to re-strategize on pricing of its share price to investors. Another risk is economically related whereby; there are those who believe that the UK will be subjected to recession and economic hardships precipitated by Brexit. If this occurs, consumer products companies, financial institutions and insurance firms operating in the UK will be vulnerable to such risks (AllianceBernstein, 2019). Recession will lead to inflation and deflation with consumers purchasing power dwindling.

For many years, the Northern parts of Ireland, as well as the borders surrounding the republic of Ireland have been the heart of conflicts between Protestant Loyalists who want to remain in the UK and the Catholic Republicans who are advocating for re-unification of Ireland (Rios, and Ball, 2019). The withdrawal agreement initiated by the EU between Ireland and the mainstream UK has not been taken positively by the UK which has continued to oppose this resolution since it means separating the Island from Britain economically and constitutionally, with implications on these aspects(Morgenroth, 2015). In addition, Ireland is also opposed to UKs decision to leave the EU (Brexit) thus creating political tensions between the two states (Rios, and Ball, 2019). This scenario has implications on the insurance sector since unemployment and low wage rates limits individuals insurance purchasing power, meaning that the insurance market will dwindle.

3.2 Policies and decision-making responses within Zurich Insurance Group

Zurich Company has been working closely with policy makers and regulators to prepare for the outcome through complying with the new legal conditions. For example, Zurich UK has ceased entering into new contracts with clients from other EU countries. The aim is to limit the implication of the political legislative changes to the business and services. Additionally, Zurich UK has applied for a UK licence from the UK Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA). This will enable them conduct business in the UK with minimal disruptions to customers and distributors. Despite Zurich’s life businesses being registered in the UK, the company has customers who live outside the UK. However, the company has endeavoured to support their customers as needed with the Brexit eventualities (zurich.com, 2019). Furthermore, in line with the expanded requirement in the Solvency 11 Directive, Zurich UK has accordingly increased its capitalization to undertake the (re)insurance business portfolio in the country. As per the Solvency 11 Directive, Zurich UK has put in place minimum and sufficient capital and resources needed to cover the potential risks (zurich.com, 2019).

In terms of currency risk fluctuations, Zurich Company has made investments in a diversity of nations. The firm has also diversified its products portfolios in different segments, for the purpose of ensuring sustainability in the event one industry faces a crisis. The company believes that should any eventuality a rise in the UK market, then the other businesses in its portfolio will be able to cover it up against the potential loss. The decision by Zurich UK to invest in other countries is aimed at safeguarding it against inflation risks in a specific country. For instance, in case of currency risks in the UK, the company’s investment in low debt GDP will ensure that it continues being profitable. Additionally, being a multinational company, Zurich has extensively invested in hedged foreign bonds that are issued in dollars other than the pounds (Zurich UK.com 2019). This is to safeguard the company against the effects of currency fluctuations.

The uncertainty of the Brexit deal has certainly unsettled the financial and insurance markets. However, being a worldwide company, Zurich’s financial position will ensure that it continues to meet its expectations to customers. Furthermore, in light of this uncertainty, Zurich UK has introduced a diverse range of investment options to suit individual and organisational plans. The different range of funds enables clients to choose where and how their money will be invested. While some funds have been invested in property as a way of safeguarding the company from uncertainties in the insurance sector, others can be in shares and other forms of assets, each of which can be affected differently by Brexit (zurich.co.uk, 2019).

In dealing with the uncertainties associated with the UK-Ireland political tensions, Zurich has introduced valid and similar insurance certificates for Irish and UK clients. These insurance certificates are valid whether in Ireland or the UK. Furthermore, the policies and regulations ensure that citizens from these two states are treated equally without many conditions. This works to ensure that a client will still use the services whether he or she goes to UK or Ireland (Zurich Life Assurance plc, 2020).

3.3 Critical evaluation of the effectiveness of Zurich Insurance Group response/decisions

3.3.1 Effective responses/decisions

Zurich Insurance Plc’s response to geopolitical tensions precipitated by Brexit negotiations can generally be considered as effective. The company’s partnership with country regulators and authorities has ensured that it meets the required standards and requirements to operate legally in the nation. Furthermore, this strong partnership and positive relationship with local authorities and compliance with state requirements have raised the reputation and trust of this company among stakeholders as a legal compliant company that can be trusted. Moreover, this positive relationship makes it possible for this company to acquire the necessary certification and licensing as well as other elements that facilitates its smooth operation in the country (Scoville, Swirski and Lyon, 2019). In the meantime, the company has been able to create a positive image which has been essential in attracting and retaining customers. Furthermore, the diverse investment options that have limited financial risks has not only helped in attracting more customers but also sustained the company and also improving its competitive edge. The decision by Zurich UK to invest in other countries has worked in safeguarding it against inflation risks in a given country thus, enhancing its sustainability. Zurich’s investment in hedged foreign bonds that are issued in dollars other than the pounds has safeguarded it against the effects of currency fluctuations (Association of British Insurers (2019). Furthermore, the harmonious insurance certificates have made insurance products accessible for clients in Ireland or UK without unnecessary complications. This may explain why Zurich UK has a significant number of market-share against many of its competitors. For example, Aviva which is the top insurance company in UK enjoyed gross written premiums of £11.2bn in the financial year 2018 alongside a 48% market share, which is the largest in the country (Littlejohns, 2019). On the contrary, Zurick UK recorded a revenue of $4.67bn (£3.57bn) in the same year (2018) and a 10% market share which is significantly lower than Aviva (Littlejohns, 2019).

3.3.2 Ineffective response/decisions

Despite its endeavour to support its customers who are in other European jurisdictions, Zurich Plc has not put in place clear strategies on how such customers will be supported. With the current political uncertainty of Brexit, customers who feel that they will be affected directly with Brexit implementation wish to know the plans the company has put in place to ensure that they continue receiving the services and that the relationship is not duly affected. Furthermore, Zurich UK has not spelled out mitigation plans for regional trade, societal economic and political uncertainties and their implications on pricing, operation, returns and costs. Furthermore, Zurich’s investment in property as a risk measure maybe ill advised since it needs to focus on a specific venture: insurance specialization. Other insurance companies such as Aviva have achieved a competitive edge because of this specialization. This lack of clear focus and awareness programs by Zurich has seen Zurich’s competitors to continue topping the industry in terms of customers and revenue.

3.3.3 Some areas for improvement in the responses/decisions of Zurich Insurance Group

Despite its effectiveness in dealing with geopolitical risks precipitated by Brexit, it is important for Zurich to spell out to its existing and potential customers the possible implication of Brexit on billions of euros in cross border policies. Customers need to be made aware and in the right time the impact of its measures for the existing and the new contracts that will be concluded prior to formal withdrawal date. Similarly, extensive marketing and promotion programs are required by Zurick UK to attract potential customer and hence; increase its market share. Despite the British government showing willingness to extent authorisation of foreign companies operating in the country beyond Brexit, so far, there is no sign that the EU will reciprocate this move. Therefore, insurers and Zurich in particular need to take action by instituting clear strategies for continuity and more so engage the stakeholders accordingly including customers.

4.0 Conclusion

The analysis of the external environment indicates that there are a number of threats and opportunities for Zurich Insurance Plc. The politics of Brexit has created uncertainties for businesses and consumers. Specifically, Zurich will be forced to transfer policies to its EU clients, culminating into loss of capital and market base. Similarly, the economic downtown and looming recession is likely going to hamper customer’s purchasing power, increase the cost of operation, and reduce market base and earning for Zurich Insurance Plc. On social and cultural spheres, the change in lifestyle has implications on people’s saving patterns especially in pensions in the UK by turning away from established benefit schemes to contribution schemes. Consequently, insurance companies are forced to response to the needs of mobile, unskilled and lower skilled workers who are now dominating companies. In other words, they are supposed to tailor and modify their product offerings to meet the needs of the dynamic society and lifestyle changes. However, Zurich has endeavoured to exploit the benefits of technology and information system. This portfolio has been able to propel it to the higher competitive advantage through efficient operations, wider customer reach, product improvement and responsive service. Nonetheless, in order to come top of the industry, Zurick UK needs to create more awareness and promotional endeavours to improve its image among customers. In other words, more need to be done by Zurick UK so as to increase the market share and returns.

On its part, Porter’s five forces analysis shows that there is high competition, high threat of entrants, high rivalry and high bargaining power for buyers alongside the threat of substitutes. However, the bargaining power of suppliers is low. Nonetheless, through analyzing its external environment and the five competitive forces, the management of Zurich Insurance Plc will be able to acquire a competitive picture of what affects its earnings, market base and competitive edge in the industry. They will be able to recognize game changing trends and make use of the emerging opportunities for their gain. In other words, the strategies will be able to shape strengths and leverage their weaknesses.


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Silas Nyamweya (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on December 25, 2020:

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