Covid-19 may drive market corrections and insolvencies that could impact financial institutions’ balance sheets, increase exposures for directors and result in litigation.

However, financial institutions are also facing many other risks in the areas of cyber, climate, compliance and corporate culture, according to a report, Financial Services Risk Trends: An Insurer’s Perspective, from Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS).

An AGCS analysis of €870 million ($1 billion) of insurance industry claims in the financial sector shows cyber incidents, including crime, is the top cause of loss. Insurers see a rising number of losses from outages or privacy breaches with third-party service providers a potential weak link.

Compliance issues are already one of the biggest drivers of claims and the burden is growing – particularly around economic, social and governance (ESG ) factors and climate change, according to the report.

At the same time, the behavior and culture of financial institutions is under growing scrutiny from a wide range of stakeholders in areas such as sustainability, employment practices, diversity and inclusion and executive pay.

“The financial services sector faces a period of heightened risks. Covid-19 has caused one of the largest ever shocks to the global economy, triggering unprecedented economic and fiscal stimulus and record levels of government debt,” says Paul Schiavone, director of Global Industry Solutions in Financial Services at AGCS. “Despite an improved economic outlook, considerable uncertainty remains.”

While the threat of “economic and market volatility” still lies ahead, the sector is also having to focus on so-called “non-financial” risks such as cyber resilience, management of third parties and supply chains, as well as the impact of climate change and other Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) trends, according to Schiavone.

Covid-19 Impact

Financial institutions are concerned about the potential ramifications of government and central bank responses to the pandemic, such as low interest rates, rising government debt and the winding down of support and grants and loans to businesses. Large corrections or adjustments in markets – such as in equities, bonds or credit – could result in potential litigation from investors and shareholders, while an increase in insolvencies could also put some institutions’ own balance sheets under additional strain.

“Claims may be brought against directors and officers in the financial services industry where there has been a perceived failure to foresee, disclose or manage or prepare for Covid-19 related risks,” says Shanil Williams, global head of Financial Lines at AGCS.

Cyber Security Spend

Criminals are seeking to exploit the pandemic crisis that has led to a rapid and largely unplanned increase in remote working, electronic trading and an acceleration in digitalization. Despite significant cyber security spend, financial services companies are an attractive target and face a wide range of cyber threats including business email compromise attacks, ransomware campaigns, ATM “jackpotting” – where criminals take control of cash machines through network servers – or supply chain attacks, according to the report.

The recent SolarWinds incident targeted banks and regulatory agencies, demonstrating the potential vulnerabilities of the sector to outages via their reliance on third-party service providers. Most financial institutions are now making use of cloud services-run software which comes with a growing reliance on a relatively small number of providers. Institutions face sizable business interruption exposures, as well as third party liabilities, when things go wrong.

“Third-party service providers can be the weak link in the cyber security chain,” says Thomas Kang, head of Cyber, Tech and Media, North America, at AGCS, citing to a bank client that suffered a large data breach after a third-party vendor failed to delete personal information when decommissioning hardware.

“How financial institutions manage risks presented by the cloud will be critical going forward. They are effectively offloading a significant portion of cyber security responsibilities to a third-party,” Kang said, adding that by partnering with the right cloud service provider, companies can also leverage the cloud as a way to manage their overall cyber exposure.

Compliance: Cyber, Cryptocurrencies, Climate

Compliance is one of the biggest challenges for the financial services industry, with legislation and regulation around cyber, new technologies and climate change and ESG factors constantly evolving and increasing. Indeed, the report notes that there has been a “seismic shift in the regulatory view of privacy and cyber security in recent years” with firms facing a growing bank of requirements.

The consequences of data breaches can be far-reaching, with more aggressive enforcement, higher fines and regulatory costs, and growing third party liability, followed by litigation.

Regulators are increasingly focusing on business continuity, operational resilience and the management of third party risk following a number of major outages at banks and payment processing companies.

The report says that companies need to “operationalize their response to regulation and privacy rights, not just look at cyber security.”

New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), biometrics and virtual currencies will likely raise new risks and liabilities in future, in large part from compliance and regulation as well, the report continues.

Regarding AI, there are already regulatory investigations in the U.S. related to the use of unconscious bias in algorithms for credit scoring. There have also been a number of lawsuits related to the collection and use of biometric data.

The growing acceptance of digital or cryptocurrencies as an asset class will ultimately present operational and regulatory risks for financial institutions with uncertainty around potential asset bubbles and concerns about money laundering, ransomware attacks, the prospect of third-party liabilities and even ESG issues as “mining” or creating cryptocurrencies uses large amounts of energy.

Finally, the growth in stock market investment, guided by social media raises mis-selling concerns – already one of the top causes of insurance claims, the report notes.

ESG Center Stage

Financial institutions and capital markets are seen as an important facilitator of the change needed to tackle climate change and encourage sustainability. Again, regulation is setting the pace. There have been more than 170 ESG regulatory measures introduced globally since 2018, with Europe leading the way. The surge in regulation, in combination with inconsistent approaches across jurisdictions and a lack of data availability, could represent operational and compliance challenges for financial service providers.

“Financial services may be ahead of many other sectors when it comes to addressing ESG topics, but it will still be an important factor shaping risk for years to come,” says David Van den Berghe, global head of Financial Institutions at AGCS. “Social and environmental trends are increasingly sources of regulatory change and liability, while increased disclosure and reporting will make it much easier to hold companies and their boards to account.”

At the same time, activist shareholders or stakeholders increasingly focus on ESG topics. Climate change litigation, in particular, is beginning to include financial institutions. Cases have previously tended to focus on the nature of investments, although there has been a growing use of litigation seeking to drive behavioral shifts and force disclosure debate.

Besides climate change, broader social responsibilities are coming under scrutiny, with board remuneration and diversity being particular hot topics, and regulatory issues.

“Companies that commit to addressing climate change and diversity and inclusion will need to follow through. For those that do not, it will come back to haunt them,” says Van den Berghe.

AGCS said insurance is increasingly important to financial institutions and a growing number are partnering with insurers to manage risk and regulatory capital requirements or utilizing captive insurers to compensate for changes in the insurance markets or to finance more difficult-to-place risks.

*This story ran previously in our sister publication Insurance Journal.