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Bersani's lawInitiatives like the 2006 ‘Bersani law' have gone a long way to liberalise the market and increase competitiveness. Riccardo Moretto, spokesman for Zurich Italy, explains: "The introduction of a new law within the Italian insurance market (known as the Bersani law) has brought about the existence of a new multi-tied agency model. Agents are now allowed to distribute and work for more than one insurer. This has increased competition between insurance companies." He adds that Zurich's agency network consists of both single and multi-tied agencies.However, Maurizio Ferrario, country manager for Italy at Ace Europe, puts forward the view that the distribution structure in Italy today is only partly more open as a result of the Bersani legislation. He explains: "The decree has, no doubt, encouraged competition by guaranteeing a wider offering of products, corresponding to the real needs of the customer." But he adds that the market continues to behighly characterised by an agent distribution structure and points to a continuing high level of tiedagents.Competition issuesThere is certainly some consensus that independent brokers still have a long way to go in competing with the agency channel. Maurizio Castelli, country manager for XL Insurance in Italy, explains: "With some 65 % of the non-life business still placed with agents, the distribution structure in Italy is clearly still dominated by this channel." He adds: "The number of independent insurance brokers did not grow significantly in the past years, since the appearance of a few new players has been offset by operations which closed down or were acquired by existing bigger brokers."Mr Castelli observes, however, that there have been significant changes to the market, mainly as the result of the introduction of the New Insurance Code in 2005 and the Bersani law the following year. He expands: "Without going into too many technical details, the first one disciplined the distribution system trying to make it more flexible and competitive; among other things, it eliminated the exclusivity in the relationship among one insurance company and its agents. This means that now all agents are, at least in theory, multi-brand. The Bersani law further extended these provisions and additionally it prohibited the practice of non-cancellable 10 years contracts. These have been, in my opinion, important steps in the right direction."Slowly but steadyMany believe that independent brokers will go from strength to strength in the future and certainly international brokers including Aon, Marsh and Willis have a notable presence. According to Mr Ferrario the share of the brokerage market is "gradually and steadily increasing". While Mr Castelli believes that a combination of multi-brand agents, brokers, online direct sales and bancassurance will gradually replace the tied agents.Furthermore, the fact that the independent broker sector is still developing could be viewed as an opportunity for broker-friendly insurers. Mr Bertagna believes that from the Lloyd's perspective, the current profile of distribution in Italy is indeed an opportunity rather than an obstacle. He attributes much of Lloyd's success in Italy to the fact that it is a broker market. "We offer creativity; we offer brand; we offer capacity and we are broker-friendly so that is why Italian brokers generally speaking like Lloyd's so much."Lloyd's affinityHugh Champion, managing director of wholesale and direct for RFIB, also points to a great affinity between Italian brokers and Lloyd's. "The Italian market has always been a keen user of Lloyd's," he asserts. He believes this, in part, stems from the fact that Italian brokers have been welcomed in the London market and that many trained in the UK before returning to Italy to establish themselves as independent brokers.Mr Bertagna adds that Lloyd's has been proactive in engaging brokers and helping them to do business with the market: "It's been a win win situation because we have been able to help them and they have brought business to us."Direct to marketAnother distribution route that is under-developed compared to other European countries is direct sales. Marco Prada, general manager of the Assurant Solutions operation in Italy, observes: "The Italian market is still too far away from other European countries in offering insurance products via direct channels."Direct insurance is mainly related to the offering of motor insurance. The majority of traditional insurance companies have ad hoc entities specialized in motor direct insurance."Momentum movementHowever, bancassurance, which has long been a strong contender in life insurance, is now gaining momentum in personal lines insurance. For many, the banks continue to be an important distribution arm - and insurers are keen to establish joint ventures. Among the more recent announcements has been the extension in Italy of Axa's bancassurance agreement with Banca Monte dei Paschi, the third Italian banking group. In February this year, it revealed the extension of its agreement in Italy to the 1000 branches of the former Banca Antonveneta, now part of MPS Group, topping in total 3000 branches and 6.3 million potential clients. Axa and Banca Monte originally entered into a strategic partnership in 2007, creating what they claimed to be one of Italy's leading bancassurance providers for life, non life and pensions.The joint venture has some ambitious plans for the future. CEO Frédéric de Courtois says Axa MPS is "redefining bancassurance" in Italy. He explains: "We want to go beyond the traditional concept of product factory to be a 360° services platform, tailored to specific customers' needs and concentrating on the concept of protection at the various stages of customers' lives. Excellence in terms of innovation and quality of service are key pillars of the company strategy."Key expertiseAnother insurer looking to develop its bancassurance presence is Ageas. Last September Ageas and BNP Paribas Assurance entered into a strategic partnership in non-life bancassurance with UBI Banca in Italy. For Ageas, this was an opportunity to use its insurance expertise to sell insurance products to banking customers and to enhance its product mix.While the various distribution channels in Italy continue to develop, there is there is also room for the insurance market to grow as a whole. In a culture where Italians have traditionally been more reluctant than other parts of Europe to purchase insurance, there is low penetration in some sectors and, therefore, much untapped potential. As Mr Moretto comments: "Apart from motor, the number of insurance policies purchased per capita, such as property, private liability or accident and health is still low."Danilo Saitta, country manager in Italy for CNA Europe, explains: "The insurance market in Italy is not all that mature. The biggest sector is motor insurance."rowth gainsThe question is, apart from the compulsory motor insurance, which sectors are likely to emerge as growth areas? Mr Saitta points in particular to professional indemnity insurance where, he observes there is an increasing number of mandatory covers for professions like insurance agents and brokers as well as financial and mortgage advisors.According to Mr Ferrario: "Overall, Italy is a generalist insurance market, highly characterised by the life and motor segments, whose products are sold mainly through agents."Hidden growth potentialHe asserts: "There are very few specialist companies. But the Italian market has great hidden growth potential. We need to focus on specialisation, so that we can have specialist companies better able to understand the needs of customers and, therefore, propose insurance solutions that meet the real requirements of their targets as well as being able to meet emerging needs."Piero Asso, general manger of QBE's Italian operation, also identifies opportunities for specialist insurers, seeing growth potential in the SME space in particular. "SMEs representing 85% of the total number of companies are a sizeable opportunity to grow the book for insurance companies," he asserts.Protection concernsWhile Mr Prada points out that as a consequence of the underinsurance in Italy: "Families and small to middle-sized entities are far less protected from an insurance stand point than the European experience. It is an overall weakness of the Italian economy." He observes that international insurers are aware of the situation and that: "They may leverage the experience gained in more advanced markets in terms of either more innovative products or brand new distribution capabilities, such as telemarketing."The emerging message is that there is room for insurers to grow in Italy but they need to play to their strengths in the region. Mr Bertagna says for Lloyd's it is a question of identifying areas where it can add value and provide capacity and creativity.Corporate gainsFor QBE, the focus is on corporate clients, as Mr Asso explains: "In Italy, QBE aims to become a leading provider of insurance and reinsurance solutions for corporate clients, which represent our main business focus. To reach this goal, we are increasing our efforts in distribution - which is provided via a selected network of skilled and specialised brokers - as well as our product range, creating innovative solutions in a growing number of classes. This approach combines our knowledge of the local market with the insurance strength and expertise of our group."Many believe there is room for innovation in both life and general insurance. Antonio Solari, market executive for Swiss Re Italy, observes that life insurance companies are still very much focused on investment and saving products, while property and casualty companies mainly focus on motor business. He explains: "On the life side, the majority of insurance premium is dedicated to saving or investment products (about 80-85%), and only a small portion is used for protection cover." He believes the industry must increase awareness around the protection gap and adds that: "Opportunities for innovative as well as for new basic solutions definitely exist."Cost concernsOne area where demand is particularly high is in the compulsory motor insurance market. However, this is not without its problems. Motor has historically been a challenging sector, with rising premiums and high claims costs. According to Paul Ogni, Crawford and Company's country manager in Italy, claims costs remain a major issue for motor insurers. He observes that: "Government campaigns to improve road safety have proved effective in reducing fatalities but their effect overall regarding road safety remains to be seen."Mr Ferrario suggests that the high number of claims and fraud issues has strongly affected the sector's loss ratio, forcing insurance companies to put up their prices. Fraud remains a problem for the wider market too. Mr Ogni says fraud is recognised to be a serious problem in the Italian insurance market although he observes data remains inconclusive in this regard, and adds that the propensity to involve lawyers quickly in the claims process makes counter-fraud measures more difficult. He adds that the compensation culture has grown significantly in recent years: "The public is more aware of its rights and claimants are more litigious. This latter point is accentuated by a high proportion of lawyers per capita and by claimants' willingness to involve lawyers in the early stages of a claim."Innovation optionsAsked about innovations in claims handling in Italy, Mr Ogni points to his firms on-line database for claims handling, known as Crawford Eclaims: This is a popular web-based claims tracking system for property/casualty claims and is used extensively in claims management programmes across the region."There is a sense that it is up to insurers to raise awareness about the need for insurance in order to tap into the significant potential for growth. Mr de Courtois explains: "The insurance culture in Italy is underdeveloped and there is also a negative cultural heritage in considering insurance as motor third-part liability only, therefore, as a sort of mandatory tax burden."He believes the challenge lies in being perceived as social partners and concludes: "We also have to take responsibility in increasing the level of awareness of emerging risks, in risk prevention and in educating future generations."