IT IS a niche market, but a big one, and it is increasingly dominated by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. On January 20th its reinsurance subsidiary, National Indemnity Company (NICO), agreed with American International Group (AIG), a big insurer, to acquire excess losses on old insurance policies. In one of the largest such “retroactive reinsurance” deals ever announced, NICO will be on the hook for four-fifths of all losses above $25bn, up to $20bn, in exchange for a payment of $9.8bn now. The deal comes just a few weeks after a similar deal giving up to $1.5bn of coverage to Hartford, another American insurance giant.

For much of the 15 years since the term retroactive reinsurance came into use, Berkshire, through NICO, has been at the forefront. The structure allows insurers to rid themselves of so-called “long-tail” exposures, ie, claims that may come in years or decades after policies were written. Often, they cover long-term environmental risks like pollution, or asbestos-related disease, where workers may fall ill many years after exposure. In the largest previous deal in 2006 NICO provided reinsurance coverage worth $7bn for…Continue reading