Lloyd's stalked by cash crisis

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The Independent Online
A smartly dressed woman wept in the Coroner's Court at Eastbourne last week as she described how her husband had become depressed about the prospect of enormous losses from his involvement in Lloyd's of London, and had taken his own life.

Richard Burgoyne, who shot himself last month, had become the latest tragedy in the growing drama at Britain's beleaguered insurance market.

In January, Lloyd's underwriting member Roy Bromley shot himself after he had become progressively more depressed about a syndicate he once ran. The losses on the operation, where he had been relieved of his duties by his board of directors, had climbed from pounds 14m to pounds 54m. Now managers of the syndicate, 475, estimate they could be as high as pounds 220m.

The anger among the market's 20,000 members at the pounds 2bn worth of losses announced by the market in the summer of 1992 turned to numb horror in December as it became clear that the record deficit reported last year is likely to be repeated. Some fear the overall loss could be even higher.

The personal tragedy is spread among investors at Lloyd's and professionals who work in the market. Thousands of jobs have been lost in the companies that operate at Lloyd's. Up to 20,000 more are expected to go over the next year or so.

At the height of Lloyd's success there were more than 400 insurance syndicates and 34,218 members, whose wealth provides the financial backing for the market. But many members now face financial ruin after a staggering reversal of fortune. Profits of pounds 650m in 1986 became a loss of pounds 509m in 1988 and pounds 2bn in 1989. Another pounds 2bn is anticipated in 1990 and pounds 1bn in 1991 (Lloyd's accounts are struck three years in arrears).

Following this shock, the number of members supporting the market has fallen to 20,000. The number of insurance syndicates has dropped to 230. More important still, the money backing Lloyd's to allow it to accept insurance business has fallen from more than pounds 11bn in 1990 to pounds 8.75bn now.

That means the market is getting smaller. In Lloyd's today, whole sections of the Lime Street building, with its controversial extruded-pipe design, are unoccupied.

But while many Lloyd's workers have been forced to leave, the prospect of yet more large losses has propelled many underwriting members into open rebellion. An estimated 28 action groups have been formed among the members hit by the heaviest of the losses to win some kind of financial redress. Another 14 action groups are said to be in formation. One of the most vigorous campaigns - on behalf of syndicate 745, where 1,750 members are facing losses of pounds 129m - is led by a professional insurance broker, Edward Benfield of the Lowndes Lambert group.

Against this background, Lloyd's, once managed like a traditional exclusive City club, is attempting to become more businesslike. In the autumn of last year, Peter Middleton - a former monk, diplomat and chief executive of the Thomas Cook travel agency - took over as chief executive. The chairman of Lloyd's is David Rowland, former chairman of Sedgwick Group, the insurance broker.

Mr Middleton talks like a company executive when, in fact, he is dealing with a market made up of hundreds of businesses over which he has no control. The underwriting members, who provide the capital, should be treated with the same respect as shareholders in conventional companies. He recognises that they have been treated rather shabbily in the past by those who look after their affairs, and he is determined to assert the 'primacy' of their interests.

His attitude has raised expectations among the people facing financial ruin. So far, he has ordered a 'ceasefire' among the Lloyd's authorities and stopped them suing members until the end of next month for any failure to meet their financial obligations. On the other hand, Mr Rowland is not so sure that a solution can be found that provides financial help to members to prevent them going bankrupt.

'I cannot invent money. I cannot rub a magic lamp for money to appear from it. I try to explain what the situation is,' he said recently.

Even Mr Middleton, who this weekend completes a round-the-world tour designed to restore confidence among Lloyd's many overseas members, has changed his 'can do, will do' tone to something that is, say observers, altogether more bland.

Both he and Mr Rowland are relying on the suggestions that are being drawn up in the first business plan for the market in its 305-year history. Lloyd's intends to publish details next month. The omens for a solution are not good. Early last year, Lloyd's published a report largely drafted by McKinsey, the international management consultants, on plans for the next five years. The report cost pounds 2m, but within weeks the underwriting community had concluded it was irrelevant in the wake of the huge unexpected losses that flooded into the market as a result of a series of natural disasters.

Even if solutions are proposed, those facing losses already do not want to participate in any scheme to help other members of the market. They fear that the cost might add to their own financial burden.

Meanwhile, Lloyd's may run up against a cash crisis. It needs to find substantial quantities of new capital. That might be achieved by allowing insurance companies to invest in the market, a long-term aim of Lloyd's but one that will not deal with immediate cash needs if the members refuse or are unable to pay their insurance claims.

'There are a hell of a lot of ideas which will be explored before the business plan is complete,' said Peter Hill, head of external affairs at Lloyd's.

By the time it is, however, it may prove too little, too late.

(Photograph omitted)