It’s A Small World After All

It was in 1964 that Walt Disney first told us in song that “it’s a small world, after all.” As we apply the concept to insurance in 2010, it is clear that Walt was well ahead of his time. The opportunities and challenges for today’s insurers around the globe seem to transcend time zone and cultural differences. I recently spent a week in Tokyo, in part for the Celent Insurance Roundtable. (No, I did not go to Tokyo Disney.) To be successful, a trip like this has to include some very fresh sushi, and a flurry of fresh perspectives. Thankfully, I found both. In our roundtable discussion and in my conversations with Japanese clients I was struck by how similar Japanese insurer concerns are compared to those of North American insurers. Common themes included finding the right levers to drive company-level growth despite flat industry-level demand, concerns over outdated IT approaches, and the challenges associated with optimizing short- and long-term strategies simultaneously. Comparing Tokyo consumers to their counterparts in North American cities of similar size is also interesting. Looking around a Tokyo Starbucks, I saw that same curious mix of eccentric 20-somethings and 40-something professionals that I see in New York. Most were on laptops or smart phones, enjoying high speed connectivity to stay in touch with friends or to crank out emails from their virtual offices. The Japanese may still have more affection for their keitai (cell phones) than do North Americans, but the gap is clearly closing. Another symptom of our rapidly shrinking planet (where is Al Gore when you need him?) is that global competition is no longer limited to the manufacturing sector. Looking at the names on Tokyo buildings tells the story. IT services firms are aggressively building out their presence in new geos. Insurers are buying companies halfway around the world. Software vendors that got their start in one country are now reaching critical mass in others. While I typically preach focus for any firm that haven’t mastered its “home” domain, I think that expanding the vision to new countries is essential for successful firms that have high growth ambitions. Good ideas, powerful tools, and game-changing strategies are welcome visitors to just about any country. As a futurist and as an entrepreneur, Walt Disney dreamed big dreams. We may not be commuting to work by personal jet pack (yet), but otherwise Walt had it about right. It’s a small world, indeed.

Distribution strategy in China’s diverse market conditions

I talked with a reporter recently about Asia distribution channels. She asked me question about in emerging markets like China, what the challenges are, and issues facing by insurers to build up a cost effective distribution channel, and what being important for a successful distribution strategy in China’s diverse market conditions. China is a big and diverse market. Most places in China are emerging markets. It is not common for people to initiate the purchase of insurance products. This is due to the limited knowledge they have of life insurance. Insurance is mainly sold in a face-to-face setting with an individual agent of an insurance firm, where the agent would provide a detailed introduction of the product; hard selling may be involved as well. Hence, the main sales channel for life insurance in these emerging markets is individual agents. But in many big cities in China, insurance markets are maturing. People are more aware of insurance product; they’ll purchase insurance through banks, car dealers, travel agencies, telephone, and internet. Individual agents are still an important distribution channel in these big cities, but in the face of stiff competition with other distribution channels, as well as the increase in diversity of financial products, some insurance companies are investing in more training to equip agents to become financial advisers, and establishing online and mobile support system. The biggest challenge by insurers to build up a cost effective distribution channel in China is the market diversification. Multi-channel distribution is very important. Any single distribution channel, any single distribution strategy can’t meet all market conditions. The important thing for a successful distribution strategy in China’s diverse market conditions is the alignment of product and distribution channel. Design of product should be aligned with target customer and designated distribution channels.

SEBI succeeds in curbing ULIP threat to Mutual Funds

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), India’s capital market regulator has succeeded in achieving its underlying objective in the recent row with the insurance regulator, Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA). The removal of the front-load commissions for mutual funds by SEBI in mid-2009 had led to an environment in which the mutual funds were at a disadvantage against the insurance companies’ unit linked insurance plans (ULIPs), which had a large investment component. For ULIPs, the commissions for the agents continued to be high, at times more than 40% for the initial installments. As a result, there was mis-selling (over-selling and resorting to unfair practices) on part of the insurance agents. By raising the issue of its role in the regulation of the investment component of the ULIPs, SEBI ensured that the IRDA was forced to take action to prevent SEBI from encroaching into its domain of insurance regulation. In the end, IRDA had to increase the insurance component of ULIPs and also to create disincentives for people who were investing in ULIPs for a period of less than five years. Also, the commission structure of ULIPs had to become more transparent to prevent mis-selling. The two main beneficiaries of this action have been the mutual funds that have regained their pre-eminence as a tool for investment, and the consumers who are enjoying more transparency in ULIPs than earlier, albeit at the cost of fewer choices, as the ULIPs are no longer directly competing with mutual funds. There are some important issues that have been raised by this entire episode. The main one is that there needs to be a redressal mechanism through which the regulators can solve problems with each other. The ULIP episode has been a highly long-drawn public affair that caused a lot of confusion for the investors and companies alike. The insurance companies’ revenues due to ULIPs will also suffer as there would be less investment in them now. Furthermore, the episode does not reflect well on the reputations of the regulators or the Ministry of Finance. There were contradictory signals coming from the ministry as the Finance Minister referred the matter to the courts, but the his Minister for State supported the IRDA’s case in a written reply to the Upper House. The early stage of development of financial regulation in India means that there will be more turf wars. The government is possibly trying to create the infrastructure for their quick resolution through the creation of the Financial Stability and Development Council (FSDC). Whether it is through the FSDC or some other means, it is important to lay down clear guidelines to be followed. Otherwise the Indian financial markets would more and more resemble the Wild West, entertaining for sure, but too chaotic to make sense of. This issue has been dealt with in greater detail in a recent Celent report: Capital Market Regulation in India: Turf Wars Inevitable?

Welcome to Celent’s Asia Blog

Celent is continually looking for ways to better connect and interact with the financial and technology communities. Continuing in the tradition of Celent’s industry-specific banking and insurance blogs, we are now launching a blog focused on issues in business and technology strategy in the Asian financial services. Welcome to Celent’s new Asia blog. From the beginning, a differentiator at Celent has been our coverage of financial and technology issues from a global perspective. As part of this commitment, over the past few years, we have been ramping up our research on Asia and India. We have now built up quite a substantial library of research on these regions, which we think is pretty unique. Building on this, we have recently also launched two new research services, one focused on India, the other focused on the rest of Asia. These services essentially bundle reports from our banking, securities & investments, and insurance services into regionally-focused services aimed at firms seeking cross-vertical competitive information on Asia and India specifically. And now the Asia blog. We have a baker’s dozen of analysts ready to lob commentary on what we see developing in the region, as well as on Celent’s activities. We think you will find our essays informative and stimulating. And we encourage you our readers to participate in the feedback loop by sending us your comments and questions. The goal is to create an active dialogue on the evolving financial services and technology markets in India and Asia.