Corporate Insurance Strategy: The Case of British Petroleum

The authors provide a fundamental rethinking of how corporations should evaluate various kinds of risks and risk management solutions—a rethinking that leads to a major shift in British Petroleum’s approach to insuring property and casualty losses, product liability suits, and other insurable events. Conventional corporate practice—and until the early 1990s (when this article was written) the longstanding policy of BP and most large oil companies—was to insure against large losses while self-insuring against smaller ones. In this article, the authors explain why BP has chosen to go against the conventional wisdom and instead buy insurance for mainly smaller losses while self-insuring larger ones.

The BP decision came down to factors affecting the market supply of insurance as well as the corporate demand for it. On the demand side, the authors demonstrate that the primary source of demand for insurance by large public companies is not, as standard insurance textbooks assume, to transfer risk away from the corporation’s owners. Because corporate stockholders and bondholders effectively manage the effects of such risks by diversifying their own portfolios, the corporate demand for insurance in BP’s case stems from the insurers’ comparative advantage in evaluating and monitoring BP’s smaller risks and in processing claims.

On the supply side, the authors explain why the capacity of insurance companies and markets to underwrite very large or highly specialized exposures—when compared to the industry expertise and financial resources of companies like BP—is quite limited, and likely to remain so. Since premiums would be experience-rated and prior years’ losses simply rolled into the following years’ premiums, there would be no effective transfer of risk, and so no gain to BP from buying insurance.