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Unfair and unregulated competition is hurting the Lebanese insurance sector’s growth prospects, representatives of local insurers told The Daily Star Monday.
“The presence of a big number of insurance companies in an unregulated business environment is hurting growth in the insurance sector,” Nabih Baaklini, chief operations officer at Arabia Insurance Company said on the sidelines of the opening of The Arab Forum Insurance Regulatory Commissions conference 2011.
Baaklini called on the government to draft a law for the regulation of the insurance sector and send it to the Parliament for ratification.
“This law would call for the merger of some of the small insurance companies operating in Lebanon,” he said. “Our market can only take 20 to 30 insurance companies but not more.”
There are over 50 small, medium and large insurance firms in Lebanon and many experts say that this number is too big for the country.
Only 10 of these firms control nearly 80 percent of the market share and the rest hardly make ends meet.
AFIRC was attended by a large number of CEOs, general managers, decision-makers and key figures of the insurance sector in the Arab world, as well as several representatives of European insurance companies, to discuss the future of the insurance sector.
Baaklini believes that insurance companies must not even wait for the government to formulate the necessary regulations.
“They should rather start with the implementation of international corporate governance standards which will assist them in properly specifying the role of the management and that of the board of directors,” he said.
Moreover, Baaklini complained that some insurance companies are unable to pay for the claims made by their clients due to their low liquidity as a result of cutting their prices to compete with each other.
Baaklini’s complaints were echoed by Walid Mamlouk, a Sales Executive at Medgulf, who said that the attempt of some insurance companies to cut their prices in order to attract more clients is weighing negatively on the sector.
“When companies cut their prices, their liquidity reserves drop which prevents them from paying the full claims of their clients and this is affecting the overall reputation of the sector,” he said.
Mamlouk added that insurance companies must focus on improving their sales departments for them to be better able to present their products to clients.
For his part, George Hanna, manager of the syndicates department at Medgulf, said that another factor that is taking a toll on the sector is the instability across the region, which he said is preventing investors from initiating huge projects.
“The insurance sector grew by 12 percent in 2010 and we are expecting the growth to reach 15 percent this year,” he said. “However, this is considered to be low compared to the growth registered in the region.”
Economy and Trade Minister Nicolas Nahhas noted the swift development of the region’s insurance sector during his speech: “During the past 10 years, the insurance sector in the Middle East premiums jumped by four-fold, increasing from $5 billion to $20 billion.”
However, Nahhas added that this growth constitutes only 0.5 percent of the international insurance market which is estimated at $4.3 trillion.
Nahhas said that the growth in the insurance sector depends heavily on the initiatives and support of the private sector while its regulation is a shared responsibility between the government and the private sector.
Speaking on behalf of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Nahhas said that insurance companies must improve their performance by providing their staff with training courses for them to be able to deliver packages that better meet their clients’ demands.
He also called upon insurance companies to work on increasing awareness about the importance of insurance.
Nahhas asked the government to support the creation of a regulatory body to supervise the sector. He also emphasized the importance of introducing obligatory insurance packages with social benefits.
“This should go in parallel with a regulatory authority that ensures its implementation,” he said.
The government has also been asked to adopt economic policies that facilitate the development of the sector, Nahhas added.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 18, 2011, on page 4.