Anthony Hilton: A torrid time as we pay the price of globalisation

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The Independent Online

In Liverpool during the first half of the week for the annual conference of Airmic, who are the people in our largest businesses who buy their company's insurance.

They have had a torrid time. Last year was a spectacular one for natural disasters, some of which barely figured in the UK media.

The Japanese tsunami and nuclear accident we knew about, and the New Zealand earthquakes. But how many of us realised half of Thailand was flooded for months on end? They certainly did at Tesco, which is one of the largest supermarket operators in that country.

Total losses from all these catastrophes came to hundreds of billions of pounds.

In addition, we are now paying a hitherto unforeseen cost of globalisation. When disaster struck on the other side of the world, UK car companies discovered they could not produce without supplies of components from Japan; but much less obviously, they found a supplier in France failed because it was in turn dependent on a firm in Thailand.

Companies found out the hard way that they were relying on firms they barely knew existed – until the supply suddenly stopped.

That's when the insurance industry started getting business interruption claims from companies in Canada who failed to get parts from South Africa because their supplier there had been let down by a Thai firm, and so on.

It would be unfair to say all this has soured relationships between companies and those who provide insurance because they were never that good, but it is certainly changing the relationship.

The customers say insurers drag their feet much more in handling claims, get lawyers involved to find reasons why they might not have to pay. Insurers, for their part, say it is the shareholders' money so they have a duty not to pay out when they are not obliged to.

Perhaps both have been almost overwhelmed by the complexity of business in the modern world.