Background for analysis and conclusion:
Gjensidige's (OTC:GJNSF, OTCPK:GJNSY) main listing is in Oslo, Norway, with the ticker GJE. At the time of writing, the share price is 165 NOK. Throughout the article, I refer to the Norwegian listing as this is a highly liquid stock included in OBX, the main index that tracks the 25 most liquid stocks. Gjensidige is ninth in terms of market cap.
All numbers are in NOK unless otherwise stated. One USD equals 8.8 NOK.
My goal is compounding, and thus, my ideal investment horizon is at least a decade, preferably an investment that I can just hold and never sell, and the article is based upon that. Most investors are bad at selling, and this applies to me as well. I prefer companies that pay a growing dividend, and I stick to investments in beer-drinking countries.
The aim of this article is to present this rather unknown and unpronounceable company (at least outside the Nordic region) to other investors.
The Nordic region has since 1965 produced better stock market returns than the US. Being export driven, the region has developed a very competitive economy, despite a high cost base. Furthermore, investments in the Nordics add diversification to your portfolio, and Gjensidige is in addition a recession proof company.
The three biggest insurers dominate the market like an oligopoly. One of these is Gjensidige, the market leader in Norway. The cost and loss ratios are low, much lower than in Europe, and customer loyalty is very high. Gjensidige has some very strong competitive advantages, among them the unique ownership model, and we can expect growth in earnings from cost reduction and acquisitions. However, the strong performance is reflected in the valuation, which is now at the highest since the IPO in late 2010. I'm adding on pullbacks in this well managed company.
Why diversify into the Nordic region?
Before we start looking at Gjensidige and the Nordic insurance market, I would like to explain briefly why every investor should consider allocating a small part of their investment portfolio into the Nordic region. I define the Nordics as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.
Reason number 1: The Nordic stock markets have experienced higher total returns than the US since 1965:
Being such a tiny region with just 27 million people, it has a huge number of solid world-wide brands. My calculations indicate there are almost 1 000 listed/OTC companies in the region, and a wide range of interesting small-caps which have historically shown solid returns: MSCI Nordic small caps have grown 11.9% since 2000.
Reason number 2: The Nordics cluster at the top of league tables of everything from economic competitiveness to social health and happiness. The region has avoided both southern Europe’s economic misery and America’s inequality. My personal opinion, as a Norwegian, is that cultural reasons are the reason for this and not political reasons. The culture defines the politics, not the other way around, you can’t just export this model. In general, people are honest and trustworthy, care for each other, are organized, pull together if need to, strong rule of law, property rights are respected, low crime rates, long-term mindset and a protestant work ethic. Practically the whole population agrees on the main social issues.
Reason number 3: Despite all this, the Nordics are far from a “socialist” region as many believe. Quite the contrary, it's a relative business friendly region where productivity, the most important factor to create wealth, is ranked among the top. One reason for the high productivity is that capital income historically are taxed much lighter than income from work, which of course leads to accumulation of capital. Company tax rates are quite low (in Norway 22% and no taxes on dividends and capital gains inside the EU/EEA) and the ease of doing business is relatively high, despite state’s share of the GDP at around 50%. Due to small size and population most companies are “forced” to expand internationally. For example, Norsk Hydro (OTCQX:NHYDY) has 97% of its sales abroad! Exports and foreign trade are paramount: Sweden exports 45% of its GDP, Norway 35%, and Denmark 54%. For comparison, the US only exports 12% and UK 30% (source: CIA’s World Factbook). The negative effects are of course vulnerability to global business cycle fluctuations and the world economy. In order to compete on the world markets, the local economy has lots of incentives to stay competitive.
Reason number 4: The benefits of owning international stocks are empirically documented. Most investors have a home bias, but the US is “only” about 50% of the world’s market capitalization, and that means there are lot of opportunities elsewhere. Empirical evidence suggests investors can get both better return and less risk in the form of volatility by diversifying. Obviously the case for international diversification is better the smaller your home market is. We can argue you get a lot of diversification because US companies derive a lot of their income from abroad (among S&P 500 43% is international), but in reality local multinational companies offer less possibilities for diversifying risks than international stocks, according to the Central Bank of Norway (In Norwegian), the manager of the world’s biggest sovereign fund.
The Nordic insurance market
Now that the benefits of diversifying into the Nordics are established, let’s have a brief look at the highly profitable Nordic insurance market.
Insurance is an incredibly competitive business, where many insurers operate at a loss just to get some income from the valuable float. The result is that the combined ratio hovers around 100. But the Nordic insurance market is in many ways a special market and considerably different from the rest of the European and the US'. It has very low cost and combined ratios for the industry as a whole, meaning that underwriting operations are profitable, and as such much less dependent on investment income from the float and equity. For example, the overall combined ratio in 2017 for the Nordic insurers was 90%, compared to 100% in the UK, 97% in Germany and 93% in Spain, just to pick randomly. The combined ratio for all insurers in Sweden and Norway has over the last 15 years been steady around 90-95%, which indicates far superior profitability than in for example the US.
The market is dominated by three players: Gjensidige of Norway, If of Finland (owned by Sampo (OTCPK:SAXPF, OTCPK:SAXPY)) and Tryg (OTC:TGVSF, OTC:TGVSY) of Denmark. The market resembles an oligopoly, and all companies are market leaders in their home country. The top 5 insurers have 75% market share in Norway, 62% in Denmark, 81% in Sweden, 93% in Finland and 80% in the Baltics.
However, over the last decade the market has become more fragmented and these three leaders have lost market share, but at the same time become much more profitable (more later). Growth is hard to come by and as a result all of them have expanded into each home turf. They have grown organically, but mainly through M&A. It is a result of the insurance businesses of Norwegian Storebrand and Swedish Skandia back in 1999. It is the biggest insurer in the Nordics with a high market share in all Nordic countries, except Denmark where market share is around 5%. Same goes for Tryg which is basically a result of Vesta, Baltica and Unibank. It was listed in Copenhagen as Trygvesta in 2005, but has since changed name to the simpler Tryg (which means “safe”).
The business of Gjensidige
Let’s return to the main topic of this article, Gjensidige (by the way, the first letter G is not pronounced).
Gjensidige is headquartered in Oslo, Norway, and is by far the biggest insurance company, tracing its roots back two centuries to rural fire insurers, the first of which was founded in 1816. The market share is 25% in Norway:
Their logo of the watchman is iconic, first introduced in 1932 as an advertisement figure, but was slightly altered before the IPO in December 2010:
In addition to its home market, it has activities in Denmark (7.6% market share), Sweden (only 2.1% market share) and the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – combined about 7 million people, 8.3% market share). Services offered are mainly general property & casualty (80% of revenue), and a small exposure to life insurance via the pension segment.
In 2018 Gjensidige’s business has been organized in the following segments with relative share of revenue:
- General Insurance Private (34%)
- General Insurance Commercial (29%)
- General Insurance Denmark (19%)
- General Insurance Sweden (6%)
- General Insurance Baltic (4%)
- Retail Bank (sold to Nordea during 2018, but this was a small part of their business)
- Pension (8%), including life insurance.
The proceeds from the sale of the banking business to Nordea is expected to come to good use for smaller acquisitions outside Norway to reach the goal of increased foreign profits to improve overall stability and dividend growth via diversification.
Gjensidige does not write reinsurance, it’s a buyer of reinsurance to minimize catastrophic losses. (I wrote about Munich Re some weeks ago, the world's biggest reinsurer.)
Stock price performance:
Gjensidige has so far produced excellent returns: CAGR of the share price since the IPO in 2010 is a solid 19%, but the strong performance after the IPO distorts to the upside. CAGR from 2015 until today is still a strong 11.5%.
To put Gjensidige’s performance in context, Sampo has a CAGR of 9.6% since year 2000 and 7.17% since 2011. Tryg’s numbers are 10.8% since the IPO in 2005 and 16.7 since 2011. Sampo is perhaps not relevant to compare as it has a huge position in Nordea, a Swedish bank, in addition to Topdanmark, another insurer.
Unfortunately, a lot of the gains in the share price of Gjensidige comes from multiple expansion, which we come back to under the topic called "valuation".
Compared to the Nordic Insurance index it has been more or less equal.
Low combined ratio:
The reason for the high CAGR is of course mainly explained by terrific operational numbers. Gjensidige's combined ratio is around 85:
Despite losing market share to a number of much smaller insurers, the combined ratio has gradually fallen and now seems established at around 85, just as its main competitors If and Tryg. The cost ratio, the costs associated with generating premiums and running the overall business, has been steady around 15% since the IPO. However, the combined ratio varies a lot within Gjensidige:
Clearly the home market of Norway is by far the most profitable. The Baltic has been a loss so far due to enormous operating costs, but managed to be profitable in 2018, just as management promised.
The culture and social values are a lot different in the Baltics than in Scandinavia, despite geographical proximity. As a resident of the Baltic region for many years, I expect Gjensidige to have more troubles getting the costs down compared to the other markets. The reason for this is insurance fraud, corruption, short-term thinking and the much higher risk for money-laundering. It’s also a very small market with 7 million people and three very different languages.
Return on equity
Another important metric for insurers, return on equity (ROE), is very high as a result of the very profitable underwriting business. Gjensidige is aiming for at least 20% ROE:
For the first quarter of 2019 the annual ROE was a solid 21.6%. For comparison the average ROE for European insurers is around 10%.
There has not been much growth in the book value, but that is of course because of the high payout ratio of the dividends (more about that later).
The growth in EPS is low because of a very mature and competitive market:
Solid and well prepared for absorbing any losses
Also worth mentioning is Gjensidige’s strong capital position. The solvency ratio stands at 250% at the end of 2018, much higher than the European average of 190. S&P says their capital position is "abundant" and thus capital adequacy is extremely strong.
Historically, insurance stocks correlate less with the stock market than the majority of stocks, and many of them are quite defensive in a falling stock market, both highly attractive features. People/companies still buy insurance in recessions, and losses happen of course mostly uncorrelated to economic conditions. For example, the main reason behind the outperformance of low-volatility stocks is the simple fact that they fall less in a downturn, thus recovering from a higher level than volatile stocks. Because of the compounding effect, I always prefer stocks which are as less cyclical as possible, an attribute I think is very underrated among private investors. Gjensidige will most likely give you some cover if the stock market drops significantly, as average one year correlation on monthly prices is about 0.35 compared to S&P 500, below the average for S&P 500 members.
Unfortunately, Gjensidige was not listed during the GFC in 2008/09. But if we look at the operational performance, earned premiums increased and combined ratio fell in both 2008 and 2009.
As a proxy for Gjensidige, we can look at Tryg, which was trading at 70 DKK in July 2008, and fell to a low of 53 in September, a fall of 25%, much less than the market. When the markets fell in the fall of 2018, Gjensidige actually went up from September until Christmas. Thus, I think it’s safe to assume Gjensidige will give protection if things turn sour in the stock market.
Management and owners
Gjensidige has a very distinct feature compared to other insurers: The customers are the biggest owners because Gjensidige was established by the customers. The customer-governed Gjensidige Foundation owns about 62%, and passes dividends further as customer dividend to the insurance customers in Norway. All Norwegian customers of Gjensidige are automatically a part of the foundation. This is a unique model in the Nordic insurance market that gives an important competitive advantage (more later). On average this has resulted in 11-16% discount for the customers.
The foundation's board is elected among Gjensidige’s customers, and the annual meeting elects three representatives to serve the board of Gjensidige. Cooperatives have a strong foundation in the Nordics, as for example evidenced by the fact that 2/3 of the roads in Sweden is privately owned. It brings cooperation and loyalty.
Besides the very valuable ownership in Gjensidige, the foundation has about 2.5 billion USD in other assets where some of the return is given out as gifts/charity to elected projects. This tradition is deep rooted in the Gjensidige culture from when it developed as an insurer in the 1800s.
Helge Leiro Baastad has been the CEO of Gjensidige since 2005 and is 58 years old. Baastad joined the company in 1998 as a manager.
The remuneration of the CEO is based on overall wage rise in Norway, and the financial sector particularly, plus bonus based on return on equity, combined ratio and customer satisfaction. Compared to US and rest of Europe the salary is quite small: 5.2 million NOK (520k EUR). Non-managers in Gjensidige have an average salary of about 600 000 NOK (60 000 EUR). The wage gap between top and bottom is small, typical of the Nordic egalitarian culture. Employee loyalty is added by a share savings scheme up to 80 000 NOK annually where 20% is subsidized by Gjensidige. There are no dilutive options.
Baastad has 55 300 shares, worth about 900 000 EUR. In total management has shares worth 2.6 million EUR, while the board has a tiny 400k EUR worth of shares. However, my own anecdotal evidence is that this is a pretty normal amount for Norwegian listed companies. Overall I would say the interest between shareholders and management is aligned, and stewardship has been good thus far.
Overall, the management has delivered its promises.
The investment portfolio
Besides writing premiums, the investment portfolio is extremely important for overall profitability. Insurers can fund their assets by debt, equity or insurance liabilities/float, or most likely a combination. The insurers allocate their investments differently but typically have a low level of equity/stock investments.
There is nothing spectacular with the investment performance of Gjensidige, they are conservative investors. These are not great investors as Gayner in Markel (MKL) or Buffett in Berkshire (BRK.B), and they are not aspiring to be either. They aim for the safe and stable so they can reach their goal, which is return on equity.
Total investments are 53 billion NOK, and Gjensidige has allocated 15% to equity and real estate:
Gjensidige’s market cap is around 83 billion NOK, and that means circa 10% of its value is invested in equity and real estate.
Because the investments need to be balanced to future claims, risk has to be somewhat low to be able to pay for the claims, which otherwise would need to be covered by shareholder’s equity. Some part of the investments are not directly related to potential future loss claims and can therefore bear higher risk. Thus, the investment portfolio consists of two parts: a match portfolio and a free portfolio (see returns and composition below). The match portfolio is intended to correspond to Gjensidige’s provisions and durations. It is invested in fixed-income instruments, and is mostly held until maturity.
The free portfolio consists of various assets. A large part of this is real estate (managed by a local company, Oslo Areal, partially owned by Gjensidige) mainly in and around Oslo, equity (including private equity and mutual funds) and higher yielding bonds, in total about 5.1 billion NOK. 5% of this is invested in small Norwegian dividend paying local saving banks and other listed stocks, but the majority is in mutual funds and private equity.
Real estate secures a reasonably reliable source of income, but in general it costs more to manage direct real estate investments than to manage a portfolio of stocks. For example, in February 2019, the Norwegian Sovereign Fund decided to stop direct real estate investments and instead buy shares of listed real estate companies. The reason was simple: It’s easier and cheaper to get diversification by the stock market than direct investments. The management cost of direct real estate investments was too big: three percent of the assets contributed to 25% of total management costs. I asked the IR of Gjensidige about this and they emphasize their know-how of the local market in and around Oslo and efficiencies of scale when operating through a bigger player.
All in all, a large part of the asset management is outsourced to external managers, and Gjensidige focuses on the strategic aspects of asset allocation and risk management.
This table shows the investment returns (all numbers in %):
Dividend and capital allocation
Capital allocation is simple: To pay out about 80% (or more) of the earnings as dividends, plus extra dividends when capital situation allows. This means you can expect a lower ordinary dividend from time to time:
Blue bar is ordinary dividend and red is additional dividend, paid in 2013 and 2015. Since the IPO in 2011 it’s paid out 34 billion NOK in dividends, 41% of the current market cap and 100% of the market cap during most of 2011. However, the growth in the ordinary dividend is not spectacular at 5%, but to be expected from a mature and slow growing business.
Current dividend yield is 4.3%.
The dividend is paid yearly, and international investors must accept a withholding tax, for most 15% but based upon your residency, but recently the Norwegian Tax Administration made some new rules which I have not studied yet.
Buybacks are just in small amounts as part of the share saving scheme for employees.
Because Gjensidige pays out most of its earnings as dividends, the dividend yield is a good measure of valuation:
The yield has steadily gone down since the IPO and is now currently trading at historical low levels after the recent spike in share price.
The most widely used valuation metric for insurers is P/B and ROE. The logic is simple: the higher the ROE, the bigger the premium to P/B. 10 and 5-year average ROE is 16 and 18%, well above the cost of capital which often is valued at around 8-10%. As a result of this, the premium to P/B is steep:
The chart clearly shows that valuation expansion is a major cause behind the total returns since the IPO. Today Gjensidige is trading at 165, but would only be trading at about 100 if P/B was 2, as it did in 2013. About 20% of the assets consist of goodwill and intangibles.
That valuation might look scary for many. However, a regression between ROE and price/book value for major insurers indicate it's just slightly overvalued:
The chart includes the 15 biggest insurers in Europe and indicates no margin of safety at current valuation. As we can see, Tryg is priced higher and seems overpriced.
Because of the valuation, I will not add until it drops to a yield of at least 5.5%, which happened in the spring and summer of 2018.
Finally, the current P/E (TTM) is at 20.
What about growth? The organic growth opportunities in terms of premium amount and numbers of customers is rather limited. Premium growth is likely to be in line with GDP growth, or about 2% to 3%. Additional growth must come from acquisitions. We can expect higher growth in the Baltic region as the size of the insurance sector is very low measured against GDP, Latvia and Lithuania are ranked among the five lowest. The goal is 750 million in total underwriting result outside Norway by 2022, where improved combined ratios are achieved via the best practices already in place in Norway. The digitalization is lower outside Norway, and cost improvements are very likely because of this.
Management has a cost reduction plan in place for 2022. Among them is more automation in setting premiums, higher speed in setting premiums (from months to days), more effective sales, faster and more efficient claims settlement and to reduce annual claims cost by 500 million.
Since 2005, Gjensidige has bought a number of smaller insurance companies to increase their presence outside Norway. The sale of the retail banking division to Nordea will be used for further acquisitions and this creates a modest growth.
Moat and competitive advantage
To summarize, Gjensidige has managed to obtain some competitive advantages in a market that is commoditized, easy to copy and very hard to differentiate.
Competitive advantage number 1: The Nordic market is dominated by very few insurers which all are highly profitable. Because of the very low cost base for these insurers, it’s hard for “foreigners” to compete as it creates a barrier to entry:
One reason for this is a strong focus on digitalization. 72% of customers are digital, and the target is over 80% before 2022.
Competitive advantage number 2: Size and scale are becoming increasingly important. Compliance increases, and this creates barrier to entry for smaller players. Furthermore, a well-diversified insurer will always be better suited to absorb losses due to diversification. Smaller insurance companies are more likely to feel margin pressure, which provides Gjensidige incentives to acquire. The biggest players are far superior when it comes to profitability: The four dominant players have a combined ratio of 85% while the “others” have a high 95%. The market is more fragmented now than 20 years ago, but this trend appears to have halted, with smaller insurers only increasing their share by 2% over the past three years.
Competitive advantage number 3: Gjensidige has a well known brand with an iconic logo. Research and surveys by Norstat, a Norwegian brand tracker, indicates a rising preference and reputation for Gjensidige. Retention rate is also higher among the most profitable customers.
Competitive advantage number 4: Customer loyalty is very high, and so is the retention rate. The Gjensidige Foundation is a great competitive advantage as it creates incentives to stick to Gjensidige. I, for example, have been a customer of Gjensidige for 30 years.
Competitive advantage number 5: Gjensidige is well capitalized to both absorb losses and pay out extra dividends. This makes it easier to cope with the prevailing low yields and a steady burden of regulatory requirements. Gjensidige is abundantly capitalized and can secure low funding costs if needed.
Because the Nordic insurance market is so extremely profitable, it obviously gains attraction from other players. But the low cost base and high customer loyalty creates a barrier for entry, and thus this risk is in my opinion small.
Because of the Gjensidige Foundation, it seems less likely that Gjensidige will be acquired by a big foreign insurer. But the Foundation has recently indicated it is open to strategic change if there is a clear long-term value in it.
Insurance is a very old business and has not changed much over the centuries and decades. It’s a numbers game. As such, the threat coming from accumulators of big data, like Apple, Google, Facebook, etc., is for real. Both Apple and Google have enormous information about customers’ driving patterns, for example. Furthermore, they are not afraid to enter completely new fields previously unknown to them. As such they can gain an edge by acting as an insurer or selling their information. This might put pressure on insurance premiums. Gjensidige is aware of this and has recently said they want to become a disruptor themselves instead of being disrupted: they have established an internal think-tank to try to be on the forefront.
Because Gjensidige is mostly a PC insurer, the risks for catastrophic events are quite small. The combined ratio has been positive for decades.
An often overlooked risk is inflation. If inflation suddenly picks up, Gjensidige might have to replace insured assets at a higher price than the premiums received. Because insurance usually involves paying out claims many years after writing the insurance, inflation needs to be addressed. Any sudden increase could be detrimental as indicated in the notes:
Source: Notes of the annual report 2018.
Also overlooked often are tax policies. Gjensidige has a big investment base and thus unrealized capital gains. If tax rates increase, Gjensidige gets less capital to reinvest.
The housing markets are important due to 8% allocation. The Norwegian housing market has been going up non-stop since 1992, fueled by low interest rates, low unemployment, favorable taxation compared to other assets, high population growth, credit growth which has been higher than wage growth and increased purchasing power. If one or more of these factors suddenly change, the risk for a real estate drop is significant.
Gjensidige is an excellent insurer with some compelling competitive advantages.
If you buy today, you receive 4.3% from the ordinary dividend (plus additional dividends at irregular intervals) and you can expect the dividend to grow at inflation rate plus 1-2%, the same growth as EPS. Using John Bogle's simple formula, we can expect a total return of 8-11% (current dividend yield plus growth). But if valuation drops, that will be a drag on returns.
However, there is more to portfolio selection than just total returns: Gjensidige should just as well be considered for inclusion in your portfolio because it delivers diversification (low correlation) and downside protection.
But because it seems a bit overvalued today, I personally would wait for a drop. I'm adding Gjensidige on 10-20% pullbacks, the last time in May 2018 at a valuation around 2.7 to P/B.
Disclosure: I am/we are long GJNSF, GJNSY. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Additional disclosure: I am not a financial advisor. Please do your own due diligence and investment research or consult a financial professional. All articles are my opinion - they are not suggestions to buy or sell any securities.