April 12, 2007
"The Gathering Storm"
Every April, the most sophisticated professionals gather in New York for an offbeat insurance conference. These independent thinkers appreciate controversial analyses, uninhibited debate, thought-provoking commentary, and the pleasure of hobnobbing with their counterparts-the cognoscenti of the insurance business, including actuaries, analysts, money managers, attorneys, accountants, and investment bankers.
The annual Schiff's Insurance Conference isn't for everyone, however. You won't learn the "seven secrets" of success, receive continuing education credits, or hear the usual blather about the need for underwriting discipline. With any luck, some of our speakers will offend you. Our conference rules remain the same: no boring PowerPoint presentations, no sales pitches, and no motivational speakers. We're off-the-record, and the talks are candid, freewheeling, and damned entertaining. The odds are good that heated debates will erupt.
The speakers at our conferences have a long history of making prescient, important comments. If the past is an indicator, some of the ideas and opinions you'll hear will become headlines during the coming years.
Right now, the insurance industry is flush. The Consumer Federation of America-no friend of the industry-gripes that insurance is a "low-risk" business in which insurers are poised to "reap hefty profits for years." We're not so sanguine. Underwriting results have been great-too great. The last time the industry posted such a low combined ratio was 1949, when the Brooklyn Dodgers were in the World Series and long-term Treasurys yielded 2.7%. (All things being equal, when there's less investment income companies have to do better underwriting.) Unlike that long-ago era, investment income is now strong and capital abounds. Our view, therefore, is not simply that future results will revert to the mean. They will, in time, be much worse.
For this year's conference we have once again cajoled an extraordinary group big-shot savants to join us for some action. They will discuss-and make some sense of-the dirty work that is insurance.
David Schiff will tell you what he's riled up about these days. Throughout the conference he will, as always, interrogate the speakers and force them to answer brazen questions.
Hank Greenberg's long record at AIG speaks for itself. In 1969, the year he took the company public, it earned $13 million. By the time he left in 2005 it earned $9.6 billion. Hank, now chairman and CEO of C. V. Starr & Co., a global investment firm, will share his thoughts on . . . the world.
Charles Davis is CEO of Stone Point Capital, a global private equity firm that manages the Trident Funds, which have raised more than $3 billion to invest in insurance, employee benefits, and financial services. Before joining Stone Point's predecessor (MMC Capital) in 1998, Chuck spent twenty-three years at Goldman Sachs, where he was head of Investment Banking Services worldwide, a member of the International Executive Committee, and a partner. Chuck, who knows plenty, will tell us what's on his mind.
Intrepid investigative journalist David Marchant is the founder and editor of OffshoreAlert, which specializes in exposing financial crimes, frauds, and scams committed in offshore financial centers, including Bermuda. David was forced to leave that lovely haven when the government refused to allow him to live and work there after he published a series of exposés of the lax regulatory environment. He will take us on a rollicking journey into the world of offshore sleaze.
Gordon Stewart, who recently stepped down after seventeen years as president of the Insurance Information Institute, has an unusual background for a fellow in the insurance industry. He was the original director of the play "Elephant Man" and directed and conducted productions at the New York Shakespeare Festival, Lincoln Center and the Edinburgh Festival. He served in the White House as deputy chief speechwriter to President Carter, and was vice president for public affairs at the American Stock Exchange. He will tell all—about the insurance industry.
Lunch: Decent food and fine conversation.
Before he became CEO of Alleghany Corp., Weston Hicks was an Institutional Investor "All-America" analyst for many years. Ironically, not a single securities firm covers Alleghany these days, despite the fact shareholder returns have been around twenty percent over the long term and the company has a market cap of close to $3 billion. Weston will tell us what he's up to.
There's nothing quite like seeing an insurance-company executive and a broker go at it. Doug Libby, the savvy CEO of Seneca Insurance Company (a subsidiary of Fairfax) will face off against Walter Harris, CEO of Tanenbaum-Harber, a large, privately-held broker.
Joe Brandon, chairman and CEO of General Re, isn't interested in market share, rapid growth, or taking risk without commensurate reward. He's focused on underwriting discipline and profitability. Under his careful watch, General Re has done splendidly. Joe will tell us, in his inimitable style, some of the things that he's thinking about these days
David Schiff will have his say on the great insurance issues of the day, and discuss where he sees value and solvency (or the lack thereof).
Attendees will socialize with their fellow insurance mavens and observers, discussing the day's events and making deals over cocktails while taking in the view from the top of the New York Athletic Club.
There will be an additional reception and dinner for those who want more of a good thing. The venue is the Coffee House, a convivial and somewhat worn-at-the-edges private club devoted to "agreeable, civilized conversation." Attendance is limited to 36 people.
Conference participants are invited to join David Schiff for a private, informal dinner after the conference at The Coffee House, a small club at 20 West 44th Street. (A brief history of The Coffee House follows.) Cocktails at The Coffee House will begin at 6:00, followed by dinner at 7:30 p.m. To reserve a space at the dinner, please be sure to sign up when registering online or by phone. Seating at the dinner is limited, so please register or call soon. A non-refundable payment of $100 by check or credit card will be due by March 17.
The Coffee House
The Coffee House is a ninety-two year-old club devoted to agreeable, civilized conversation. It's modeled on the English idea of a tavern, and is quaint, convivial, and unpretentious. It's a bit threadbare, but filled with history-not unlike a well-worn tweed jacket one keeps his whole life.
The Coffee House was founded in 1915 by writers who were members of the Knickerbocker Club, and were fed up with overindulgence. The Coffee House was their "revolt against the marble palace idea. The club's founders, a Who's Who of arts and letters of the day, "had no sympathy with business or wealth or with such things that business and wealth implied," wrote Frank Crowninshield years later.
The Coffee House was intended to be "simple and cheap." The club's "rules" still invoke this ethos: "No officers, No charge accounts, No liveries, No tips, No set speeches, NO RULES."
The Coffee House was to be a repose for artists, authors, composers, illustrators, inventors, judges, musicians, playwrights, sculptors, statesmen, and others. It was a place to eat, drink (perhaps a good deal), talk, and engage in good cheer. The club was not for everyone: "brokers and bankers" were not allowed.
Early members included Robert Benchley, Winston Churchill, Douglas Fairbanks, Judge Learned Hand, Childe Hassam, Cole Porter, Charles Scribner, and P. G. Wodehouse. Later members included Buckminster Fuller, George Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein 2nd, Jerome Kern, Somerset Maughan, Edward R. Murrow, Ogden Nash, Richard Rodgers, and John Steinbeck, to mention some well-known names. But The Coffee House has never been about fame or status; it has been about conversation and thoughts.
The Coffee House still has a diverse roster of members, virtually all of whom delight in this throwback to an age when folks took their time over a communal lunch or dinner. And it is still a place where culture-not fashion or fads-tends to be the subject of discussion.
At an anniversary dinner some years back, Heywood Hale Broun, then the club's senior member, described The Coffee House: "You will, I am sure, remember those old fantasies about the weary traveler who, at twilight, takes a side road to a strangely antique inn and a lot of merriment among men in three-corned hats and women in mobcaps. The traveler has the time of his life but, later, can never find the road or the inn again. The good thing about our magic inn is that West 44th Street is easy to find, and, though the hats are ordinary, the timeless ease and good cheer match any fourth dimension refuge."
Those seeking glitz, fancy food, and swank surroundings will be disappointed by The Coffee House. But those who seek something different in a city that too often devours its past, may come to The Coffee House and spend an evening sharing ideas, good wine, and a pleasant meal.