Insurance and cartels through wars and depressions : Swedish Marine insurance and reinsurance between the World Wars
Abstract: The aim of this thesis is to enhance our understanding of Swedish marine insurers' choices of business strategies under the potentially difficult business circumstances of the interwar period 1918-1939. Little previous research exists on marine insurance during the interwar period. This is remarkable in the Swedish context since the Swedish economy has traditionally depended on its exports. The focus on Sweden is justified since the Swedish insurance market saw regulatory stability during the interwar period. It was also characterised by the coexistence of stock and mutual insurers, allowing this thesis to contribute with insights on potentially problematic insurance cartelisaton. This thesis employs a mixed methods design, including qualitative methods and regression analysis. To interpret results, this thesis employs insurance risk theory, cartel theory, theories on reinsurance and risk diversification, and agency theory. By employing this combination of theories, it is possible to explain choices and outcomes of adopted strategies both with reference to particularities of marine insurance and with reference to particularities of the two different organisational forms. The results show that the insurers conceived several new characteristics of their business environment as challenges and implemented both cartel strategies and company-specific strategies of risk diversification. Among the challenges were rapid inflation, rapidly decreasing prices and business volumes in shipping and trade, the introduction of motor ships, and the existence of naval mines on many trade routes. Also, exchange-rate fluctuations were considered to cause losses on established marine insurance contracts and rendered business results uncertain. Swedish insurers adopted cartel strategies from 1918 through The Swedish Association of Marine Underwriters (Sjöassuradörernas Förening) since they had anticipated a post-war crisis. Market division agreements were adopted for the most attractive market segments, but eventually price agreements became the primary cartel strategy, supported by prohibitions of competition. The work on price agreements sometimes increased the market efficiency since it reduced uncertainty, for instance in insurance of cargo with motor ships. Few price agreements were however adopted for the insurance of shipping since that market segment was dominated by mutual insurers, highlighting the difficulties of cartelisation in insurance markets inhabited by both stock and mutual insurers. The cartel further adopted reinsurance agreements to create barriers to entry in the Swedish marine insurance market. It however experienced prominent difficulties to implement the cartel strategies. One prominent difficulty of implementation was cheating. Also international competition created difficulties. The cartel companies therefore engaged in international cartelisation through The International Union of Marine Insurance (Internationaler Tranport-Versicherungs-Verband) from the late 1920s. This international cartel sought to reduce international competition by agreements not to compete in foreign markets. It also sought to manage the exchange-rate fluctuations of the early 1920s and the early 1930s by agreements among marine insurers, but it failed to obtain sufficient support. In spite of cartelisation, the returns on marine insurance were pushed down by the recognized challenges during the early 1920s, inflicting losses. The business however recovered and remained profitable throughout the 1930s, showing that the great depression was not as great as the deflation crisis in marine insurance. Exchange-rate fluctuations affected the international competitive strength of both stock and mutual insurers and additionally influenced the stock insurers' returns on established marine insurance contracts. The insurers were however compensated for the poor marine business results of the early 1920s by greater reliance than previously on reinsurers and by diversification among insurance lines, which rendered profits less negative than the returns on marine insurance. The business ceded to reinsurers on average inflicted losses during each of the first seven years of the 1920s. These losses were indirectly caused by World War I since that war had caused the establishment of new reinsurers in different countries, not the least in Scandinavia, and in turn caused over capacity during the 1920s. New contractual formulations evolved internationally to the benefit of ceding insurers, indicating information asymmetries. Exits became frequent among reinsurers. In effect, into the 1930s, ceding insurers internationally found it difficult to obtain obligatory reinsurance treaties. During the early 1920s, the Swedish stock marine insurers also increasingly diversified their insurance businesses among insurance lines. This process had been catalysed by World War I, was accelerated during the 1920s, and continued into the 1930s.
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