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Fitch analysts see slow private exchange adoption

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Rating analysts at Fitch Ratings think the big players in the U.S. insurance brokerage market are doing fine, but they’re not sure about the brokers’ private exchange programs.

Gretchen Roetzer and colleagues mention private exchange programs briefly in a commentary on the companies’ 2016 outlook.

Fitch rates Aon PLC (NYSE:AON), Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc. (NYSE:MMC) and Willis Group Holdings PLC (NYSE:WSH). Fitch does not rate Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. (NYSE:AJG) or Brown & Brown Inc. (NYSE:BRO), but the analysts thought about them too, when they wrote the commentary.

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Median revenue at the five brokers was flat during the first three quarters. The median operating profit margin fell 19 percent, from 21 percent in 2014.

A soft reinsurance market and soft commercial insurance premiums could hurt the brokers’ revenue growth in the coming year, the Fitch analysts say.

“However, global brokers’ revenues from diverse product and geographic platforms, including health care and benefits consulting, should help offset these headwinds,” the analysts say. “Strong retention and insured exposure growth from a slowly improving economic environment will also promote revenue expansion.”

The analysts included a section with the heading “Health Insurance Exchange Business Below Expectations.”

The section refers mainly to the brokers’ U.S. private exchange operations, a representative said in an email.

Private exchange revenue-generating opportunities “have been slower to materialize than most expected due to the complex nature of the recent health industry changes, and both employers’ and employees’ behavior,” the analysts write. 

But “brokers with expertise to help clients navigate through the complexity of health care reform and new health care exchanges may still develop opportunities for increased benefit-related revenues and profits,” the analysts say.

The Fitch analysts did not cite any specific numbers or companies when they suggested that private exchange growth has been slower than some had thought. Towers Watson has said its exchange now serves 1.2 million plan enrollees, and that its exchange program earned $22 million in the third quarter on $118 million in revenue, or about $100 in revenue and $18 in operating profits per covered life.

See also: Exchange maker: Demand is strong