Trade tensions sound like a great opportunity to underwriters of a little-known insurance product. U.S. President Donald Trump set off fears of a global trade war with tariffs on metals and an array of imports from China. As countries ratchet up the rhetoric and retaliation, insurers are weighing how companies will deal with the pressure. For some providers of trade credit insurance, the saber-rattling is the jingle of product placement.
“There have been lots of reasons to be excited recently,” said Doug Collins, regional director of the Americas at Atradius Trade Credit Insurance Inc. “It’s likely to increase demand for coverage.”
Trade credit insurance protects companies from the risk that buyers will be unable to pay. If governments implement more tariffs, it could increase the cost of production and ultimately put stress on retailers and distributors to either raise prices on consumers or shrink profits. If the stress is enough to put the buyer out of business, the supplier would activate its trade credit insurance to get reimbursed for defaulted payments.
Trade credit insurance has been relatively slow to catch on in the U.S. The global market is about $7 billion of premiums, mostly in Europe, according to the International Credit Insurance and Surety Association. Of that, about $1 billion is attributed to companies in the U.S.
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Protectionism could help boost American demand for the coverage, according to Evan Freely, a managing director in the political risk and trade credit group at Marsh, a unit of Marsh and McLennan Cos. That would be driven by companies that rely on products from tariff-affected countries like China, he said.
“We’re seeing on a broad level, an uptick in demand,” Freely said in a phone interview. “The tariff acts have been a catalyst to more applications coming in.”
Trade-war stress isn’t alone among issues monitored by insurers. Tariffs alone shouldn’t cause otherwise healthy retailers and distributors to go belly-up, according to Rob Nijhout, executive director at Amsterdam-based International Credit Insurance & Surety Association. Still, media attention around the measures can help attract customers for insurance.
“Brokers build on this and they are an important distribution channel for our product,” Nijhout said. “They will use every opportunity that presents itself in the media that makes customers aware of higher risk.”
Risks are not all in favor of the insurers. While fears related to trade wars could increase demand for coverage, it could also blunt trade and therefore the amount of coverage, according to Patrice Luscan, head of marketing and innovation at Coface SA, one of the top three providers of trade credit insurance worldwide.
“I don’t think protectionism is good for trade,” Luscan said in a phone interview. “And when it’s not good for trade it’s not good for us.”