This article highlights three items all risk managers and finance professionals should know about their self-insured program’s loss reserves.
An actuarial loss reserve analysis has the potential to affect an organization’s financial position. This potential is formally recognized by an organization when the liabilities on its balance sheet are adjusted to equal the actuarial reserve recommendations. The magnitude of the required balance sheet adjustment will depend, in part, on the type of accrual methodology in use. This article examines the financial implications that result from changes in actuarial loss reserve estimates for the most common accrual methods.
1. Loss Reserves Tend to Increase over Time
Perhaps you have noticed a tendency for your self-insured program’s loss reserves to increase over time. It may be some consolation to know that an upward trend is more the norm than the exception, especially for newer programs. More importantly, the tendency for estimates to increase over time can be modeled in advance. Your actuary can develop a multi-year forecast of loss reserve estimates that can be used to set expectations with your company’s finance leaders as well as inform asset investment strategies.
So why do loss reserves tend to increase over time? There are three main factors that put upward pressure on your program’s loss reserves: inflation, exposure growth, and payment pattern.
Inflation, the tendency for goods and services to increase over time, contributes to steadily higher claim costs for self-insured programs. Inflation drives loss reserve estimates upward since the expected loss experience of each new policy period tends to be higher than that of the preceding one.
As your company grows, so does its self-insured exposure. Higher payrolls contribute to increased workers compensation costs and a larger vehicle fleet contribute to higher commercial automobile costs. Growth is a key goal of most companies, and this tends to result in higher costs for the company’s self-insured program. Exposure growth can also result from other sources, such as an increase in the program’s self-insured retention.
For relatively new, or “immature” programs, loss reserves will tend to increase significantly with each policy period added to the self-insured portfolio. This phenomenon is particularly relevant for casualty coverages due to their “long-tailed” payment characteristics (i.e, it often requires several years for all claims to be completely paid).
In addition to the factors that put upward pressure on loss reserves, variability in actual loss experience is another source of volatility in reserve estimates. However, this type of volatility tends to be unbiased, that is, it is equally likely to result in increases or decreases to loss reserves. Variability in actual loss experience can be in the form of paid loss or case incurred loss (paid plus case reserves). The type of loss is important since either exert a unique influence on loss reserve estimates:
- Unusually high or low paid loss activity directly influence loss reserve estimates. Since reserve obligations are reduced as losses are paid, unusually high payment activity has a downward influence on loss reserves. The opposite is true of unusually low payments.
- Actual case incurred loss emergence that is significantly different than expected prompts the actuary to revise his or her previous estimates. Higher than expected case incurred loss emergence has an upward influence loss reserves. The opposite is true of lower than expected emergence.
The good news is that future loss reserve estimates can be modeled. Your actuary can develop a multi-year forecast of loss reserve estimates based on inflation, exposure growth, and payment pattern assumptions (see this article for a more detailed discussion). The analysis can also incorporate ranges to reflect the uncertainty inherent in future loss experience. A forecast such as this will provide a proper context from which to assess future actuarial loss reserve estimates.
2. A Change in Actuarial Loss Reserve Estimates is Not the Same as the Financial Effect
An actuarial loss reserve analysis has the potential to affect an organization’s financial position. This potential is formally recognized by an organization when the liabilities on its balance sheet are adjusted to equal the actuarial reserve recommendations. The magnitude of the required balance sheet adjustment will depend, in part, on the type of accrual methodology in use.
The financial effect of a loss reserve adjustment depends on changes in actuarial loss reserve estimates and changes in accrued loss reserves. The financial effect can be stated as follows:
In this formula, a value greater than zero reflects a favorable financial effect to the organization’s balance sheet (reduction in accrued liabilities), whereas a result less than zero reflects an adverse financial effect (increase in accrued liabilities). This formula demonstrates that the financial effect of a loss reserve adjustment cannot be determined by changes in actuarial loss reserve estimates alone. One exception to this rule applies to organizations that have no interim accrual process in place. These organizations rely exclusively on actuarial reports to determine loss reserve adjustments (the change in accrued loss reserves in the formula above equals zero).
Most organizations have a process in place whereby loss reserve accruals are periodically adjusted to reflect the cost of additional self-insured exposure as well as loss payment activity during the interim period. For these organizations, the change in actuarial loss reserve estimates is dependent on actual loss payment activity whereas the financial effect of a loss reserve adjustment is not. This means that unusually high or low loss payments in the interim period can have a significant effect on actuarial loss reserve estimates but not have a corresponding financial effect.
A common misconception is that an increase in actuarial loss reserves estimates translate to a corresponding adverse financial effect. As discussed above, the financial effect of a reserve adjustment generally cannot be determined based on actuarial loss reserve estimates alone – the accrued loss reserves are a critical component of the calculation.
A more detailed discussion of this topic can be found in this article.
3. Changes to Case Reserve Practices May Distort Actuarial Estimates
Case reserve levels for self-insured portfolios routinely fluctuate over time as payments are made, new claims are reported, and existing claims are reevaluated. When case reserves are established on a consistent basis, both in magnitude and timing, case reserve adequacy is likewise consistent. However, when changes are made that affect either the magnitude or timing of case reserves for otherwise identical claims, case reserve adequacy is also affected. Such changes often occur as the result of revisions to claim handling practices or changes in claims administrators.
A change in case reserve adequacy can produce dramatic distortions in standard actuarial reserving methods. It is important that intentional changes to case reserving practices are communicated to your actuary, preferably in advance of their implementation. With the benefit of this knowledge, actuaries can adjust their analysis to reflect any changes in case reserving practices.
In order to appreciate the potential distortion caused by changes in case reserving practices, consider the following example. Suppose that new claim guidelines are implemented that result in a significant increase in case reserves. Further, assume that this increase is exclusively the result of case reserving practices (i.e., there are no changes in the loss potential of the underlying claims). All else being equal, the total loss reserve estimate (case reserves plus IBNR) should be unchanged. However, if the actuary is unaware of the new case reserving practices, standard actuarial methods will tend to interpret the increases in case reserves as a sign of worsening loss experience. As a result, actuarial estimates of IBNR are likely to increase as well, creating a “double-whammy” effect of increased case reserves and increased IBNR.
This example is illustrated in the chart below using three scenarios:
Scenario 1 represents the total reserves (case reserves and IBNR) before any changes are made to claims practices.
Scenario 2 shows the sample composition of total reserves based on the assumption that total loss reserves are unaffected by the changes in claims practices.
Scenario 3 illustrates the potential distortion in actuarial reserve estimates as a result of uncommunicated changes in claims practices. Note that in this scenario, the case reserve values are equal to those of Scenario 2; however, the relationship between IBNR and case reserves is similar to that in Scenario 1 (in this example, the ratio is 1.5 to 1). If changes to claims practices are contemplated in the actuarial modeling process, the result will more closely resemble Scenario 2 than Scenario 3.
A more technical discussion of the implications of case reserve changes on actuarial methods is found in this article.
Disclaimer: Information presented in this article should not be relied upon as actuarial or accounting advice, which should be provided by a credentialed actuary or accountant familiar with the details of your organization’s risk management program.