September 9, 2010

Vehicle Service Contract Administrators:

As we conclude our VSC industry tour, we take a look at the financial strength ratings of the underwriters, the end user revenue of the administrators, and the myriad of links they have with each other, with auto dealers, and with the vehicle manufacturers.

Building a model of the vehicle service contract industry is a bit like putting together one of those plastic airplanes. You put all the pieces together, paste on the last few decals, and then what? You put it on a shelf and move on.

It's time to move on. Readers in industries besides automotive must be absolutely numb after months of nothing but vehicle service contract news. Well, this is it. After months of research, we found 109 administrators and 32 underwriters in the vehicle service contract business, and we estimate their 2010 U.S. revenue to be $11.175 billion at the contract sales level and $2.854 billion at the contract underwriting level.

Before we move on, however, let's finish drawing the picture of the links between the underwriters and the administrators in terms of their A.M. Best financial strength ratings. We've criticized A.M. Best in the past for being somewhat slow to downgrade companies that later collapsed. And we still can't understand how an insurance company that's majority-owned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury deserves only a B++ rating. But for the most part, A.M. Best gets it right over the long term.

Ranked by A.M. Best Rating

We're therefore somewhat relieved to discover that more than three-quarters of the vehicle service contracts sold in the U.S. are backed by underwriters rated A- or better. In Figure 1 below, we've chopped that $11.175 billion VSC industry pie into eight slices, based on the A.M. Best rating of their underwriters. And it's clear that the A and A- ratings dominate.

Figure 1
Vehicle Service Contract Industry, 2010
Grouped by Underwriter's A.M. Best Rating
(as a percentage of $11.175 billion)

Figure 1

Four of the slices are large enough to label. Thanks primarily to the recent upgrade of AmTrust's Wesco Insurance Company and the continued high financial strength rating of the American Bankers Insurance Company of Florida (both of whom, by the way, are owned by major sponsors of this newsletter), an estimated $4.5 billion or 40% of the paper in the VSC industry is backed by an A rated carrier.

Rated Excellent!

And then another $4.1 billion or 37% of the paper is backed by an A- rated carrier such as Virginia Surety Company Inc.; Lyndon Property Insurance Company; or First Colonial Insurance Company. Both A- and A, we should note, are tagged by A.M. Best as being "Excellent!"

But what you can barely see is the small dark blue $276 million slice rated A+, or the tiny royal purple $53 million slice rated A++. Both of those levels are tagged as "Superior" by A.M. Best, by the way. And there is no higher rating than A++.

We didn't even know there was such a thing as an A++ until we started researching the United States Warranty Corporation of Ohio, and discovered that its underwriter was owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. And then we found that the administrators selling A+ rated paper include Mercury Insurance Company; Old Republic Insured Automotive Services Inc.; Phoenix American Warranty Co. Inc.; and Safe-Guard Products International LLC.

At the other extreme, there's one administrator selling B- paper and another selling B+ paper. We'll spare them the embarrassment of reading about themselves in hopes that they change carriers by next year. We found none at a plain B level, and none with any of the C-level ratings. But we estimated the B+ and B- administrators to be on track to bring in $24 million and $15 million, respectively, this year. Those slices -- barely visible -- are colored orange and red in Figure 1.

The Detroit Three Get a B++

With the upgrade of Ford's American Road Insurance Company to a B++, the Big Three automakers dominate the $1.57 billion B++ slice. Toyota has an A- rating, and none of the other OEMs own a VSC underwriter. But there are six smaller administrators besides Ford, GMAC and Chrysler that also sell B++ paper.

And then there's some $607 million worth of VSCs that are backed by either unrated captive insurance companies, unrated risk retention groups, or by the dealer-obligors themselves. Those we've tagged as "NR," for Not Rated.

There's nothing wrong with contracts lacking an A.M. Best-rated underwriter, by the way. Sometimes, as with the Kornerstone Guaranty Insurance Corp. and the Landcar Casualty Company that back the contracts sold by the huge dealer groups Ken Garff Automotive and Larry H. Miller Automotive, respectively, there's no reason for them to go through all the trouble of securing an A.M. Best rating. Their only customer is the administrator their parent owns, and their parent probably has more cash on hand than most insurance companies.

Conversely, there's no guarantee that an A or an A- underwriter is going to outlive its contracts and pay claims in years to come. For instance, back in 2003 the National Warranty Insurance RRG went from an A- in March to being bankrupt in June (with three swift downgrades in between). So what good is looking at a current A.M. Best rating when you're buying a five-year contract?

However, there is an insistence on the part of some banks and credit unions that they won't finance a VSC without an A- or better. And we'd suggest this threshold could also become a defining level for VSC buyers. Ask the question: "Who is your underwriter and are they rated A- or better?" If not, why not?

Faking It

The only outright fabrication of an insurance company that we found was by Genuine Warranty Solutions Inc., a genuinely small Las Vegas-based administrator that claims to be underwritten by an insurance company that lives in "Suite 3" of a genuinely small post office box in London.

And then Great Lakes Warranty Corp., a VSC administrator from Pittsburgh that went out of business in July, didn't exactly make anything up. But in our opinion, the wording of its contracts invited the careless reader to make incorrect conclusions about insurance, based on the placement and typesetting of a single sentence.

The company's service contracts, which we rescued from the trash, plainly note that they are neither warranty policies nor insurance policies. There's not an untrue statement in them. And there is no mention of the existence of an insurance underwriter nor of a service contract reimbursement policy that could pay claims in the event the company could not.

In other words, the company sold self-insured vehicle service contracts in states that don't require underwriting. You're buying a promise based on the full faith and credit of the issuer, but nothing more. And now we see what happens when companies like that go out of business: Claims aren't paid. That's perfectly permissible in many states, as long as the dealers who sell those contracts and the consumers who buy those contracts understand the risks.

But what caught our attention was this sentence in the cancellation section of the contract: "Great Lakes Warranty Corporation is bonded by Travelers Casualty & Surety Company of America." And the Travelers name was in both a bold and underlined font, like we did here.

Getting bonded is a process that VSC administrators can use in certain states that require sellers to demonstrate some measure of financial stability. They're given a few choices: get a reimbursement insurance policy, qualify on the basis of their parent company's net worth, set aside some cash, or buy a bond instead, for a few hundred or a thousand dollars. And that's what Great Lakes Warranty did: It bought a bond from Travelers to avoid having to post the full amount required in its own cash.

The question is, could a reasonable person read that single underlined sentence and mistakenly jump to the conclusion that the highly respected and A+ (Superior) rated Travelers Indemnity Company was going to pay claims if Great Lakes couldn't? We're not lawyers, but maybe that's the proof: it fooled us.

Double-Secret Underwriter?

Elsewhere, what we found was less in the way of sleight-of-hand and more in the way of concealment. A spokesperson for Accelerated Service International said the company cannot reveal the underwriter for its Ownershield vehicle service contracts because it has signed a confidentiality agreement with the insurance company. It was, however, free to announce to us that the undisclosed underwriter had received an A financial strength rating from A.M. Best.

We note, however, that the company also markets The Choice, an additive product with a limited warranty that poses as a service contract in states that have not yet banned them. So perhaps it would be best to leave them off the list completely?

Meanwhile, a company called Administration Marketing Services, part of the Oak Group, claims on a web page that its VSCs are backed by a company with an A.M. Best rating of A++. We assumed it must be National Indemnity Company, since no other insurance company involved in the VSC space has such a lofty rating.

We asked them anyhow, just to be sure. But then the company backtracked, saying it was in the process of revamping its web site, and said that new information would be forthcoming. And they said it was actually just an A rated carrier, not an A++. But still no name. And the web site still says A++ as we go to press with this newsletter.

First, Second, and Third Parties

Another way to look at the VSC market is by the affiliation of the administrator. We found three-and-a-half different types of administrators:

  • First are the vehicle manufacturers -- the OEMs that put their names on the back of the cars, trucks, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, and recreational vehicles that they sell. Their dealers are selling a branded service contract whose invocation of the OEM's name and logos elicits peace of mind in and of itself.

  • Second are the insurance companies, or more properly the vertically-integrated companies that own both VSC underwriters and VSC administrators. We're calling them underwriters with captive administrators, though some would more properly be called administrators with captive insurance companies.

  • Third are the independent administrators that are neither vehicle manufacturers nor insurance companies. Most work with insurance companies, and they all compete with the vertically-integrated companies that can offer dealers both administration and underwriting services, frequently with training and other ancillary services as well. Some have set up their own risk retention groups, but have not subjected them to an A.M. Best rating.

The half comes from the overlap between the first and second groups. Major auto manufacturers such as Toyota and Ford own both their vehicle production facilities and their VSC operations. And they control both the administration and the underwriting. All they don't own are the dealers, although they're bound together by franchising contracts.

We should note that for our purposes today, we're considering General Motors' remaining 6.7% stake in GMAC to be a legacy of the once-strong ties between the OEM and the VSC administrator/underwriter, and we're considering GMAC/Ally Financial to be a captive OEM company. We're also counting JM Family Enterprises Inc. in the OEM column, though they're a dealer rather than a manufacturer.

In the chart below, there's a bit of overlap between the yellow and blue slices. The shares of the first-, second- and third-party groups actually add up to 117%, because of that 17% overlap between the OEMs and the insurance companies. We tried our best to depict the overlap using different colors; graphic artists with a better suggestion are welcome to send in their ideas.

Figure 2
Vehicle Service Contract Industry, 2010
Grouped by Type of Administrator
(as a percentage of $11.175 billion)

Figure 1

We're estimating that the OEM-branded service contract administrators have 26.9% of the $11.175 billion market -- 9.7% through administrators that work with unaffiliated insurance companies and 17.2% that work with insurance companies that they own and operate.

And we're estimating that the vertically-integrated administrator-underwriter companies have 54% of the market -- 36.8% through what we'll call financial companies and 17.2% through the OEMs. So another way of slicing the market is to say that 54% of the contracts come from joint administrator/underwriter companies, while 46% come from companies where the administrator and underwriter are separate.

The non-OEM and non-insurance-owned independent third-party administrators have the remaining 36.4% of the industry. And theirs is a very long list of companies that run the gamut from very large dealership groups that sell VSCs along with cars to very small companies that do nothing but administer VSCs for their dealer-clients.

One of the biggest challenges we faced in our months of research was separating the sales agents and brokers from the actual administrators and obligors of the contracts. We started in January with a list of 815 company names and aliases, and ended in September with a list of 97 entities that own one or more companies which administer vehicle service contracts.

Notice the lawyer-like choice of words there. Some of the vertically-integrated underwriters own two, three, or even as many as six entities that administer VSCs. Some split the task geographically, with special entities created for states such as Texas or Florida. Others split the task by customer type or by customer size. And some are still working on the integration of entities they've recently acquired, or they've decided to keep separate.

And then there are the independent administrators who for one reason or another choose to use different company names in different situations. For instance, in order to comply with state laws, they may use a separate administrator and obligor. They might use different administrator names to work with different underwriters. Or they might have changed names. Or we might be confusing the parent with the subsidiary. Or they might have one brand name focused on new car dealers and another for the direct-to-consumer market, for instance.

In Dublin's Fair City

As we were whittling the list down, we noticed an unusual concentration of VSC companies in Dublin, Ohio, a lovely suburb of the city of Columbus. We suspected they were related, and possibly were siblings of the same parent company. And there's nothing wrong with that. We just didn't want to have double or triple entries on our list of administrators.

So we called each company and asked to speak with the owner. Man, you never heard such excuses for why they couldn't come to the phone. One said that only the operator could answer such a question, and the operator was out to lunch. And their voicemail must be out of order too, because no one has yet called us back.

So we had to resort to postal records, online maps and corporate registration databases. Administration Plus USA LLC is located at 5131 Post Rd., Suite 260, in the northeastern quadrant formed by the intersection of Route 33 and Interstate 270. Protection Plus USA Inc., its obligor, is reported to be located at 5200 Upper Metro Place, Suite 350, which is about a thousand feet south, across Route 33, in the southeastern quadrant of the same intersection.

Down the block from the Protection Plus office is the Autoguard Advantage Corporation and Dimension Service Corporation, which are both located at 400 Metro Place North, Suite 300, while the National Administrative Solutions Corporation is in Suite 360 of the same building.

Corporation Wiki reports that Dimension Service Corp. and National Administrative Solutions Corp. share Haytham ElZayn as a co-founder. Autoguard Advantage Corp. shares two co-founders with Dimension, named Alan Weiner and Bradley Hunter, according to the database.

An Autoguard Advantage annual report lists Craig Andrew as president, Michael Murphy as treasurer, and Paul Miles as secretary. A Dimension Service annual report lists Haytham ElZayn as CEO, Paul Miles as vice president, Michael Murphy as treasurer, and Craig Andrew as secretary. The National Administrative Service Company web site lists Haytham ElZayn as president and Paul Miles as its actuary.

People might jump to conclusions, but not us. We learned our lesson with Great Lakes Warranty. So until we get some kind of confirmation from the companies, we're going to assume that they're all different and not connected, and so we'll consider all their market share estimates separately.

Autoguard Advantage Corp. uses First Colonial and American Bankers as its underwriters. Dimension uses just First Colonial. NASC uses just American Bankers. If we could confirm that they were part of the same single company, that one company would have a 2.4% market share, and would be the second-largest independent administrator, based on a $269 million joint revenue estimate. But alas, in the charts below we have Dimension listed at 1.1%; NASC at 0.9%; and Autoguard Advantage at 0.4%.

We had similar questions about the links between American Auto Shield LLC, formerly known as Warranty America LLC, and WA Administrative Services, United Car Care Inc., and Automotive Professionals. So we called the company, but were told by a customer service representative that they only speak to reporters through email. So while we're waiting for a reply to our written query to make its way back to us through the Internets, we'll bring you the rest of this newsletter.

Baking a Final Pie Chart

As we face the task of baking a pie with 97 slices, two problems emerge. One is that our pie-making software can display only 40 colors. Two is that only the ten largest slices are wide enough to label with even just a percentage figure.

But we promised you pie, didn't we?

So here's our proposed solution: We'll bake a pie with 39 slices, with the smallest slice going to Motorcycle Management Consulting Services Inc. at $81.9 million (0.7%). And then the 58 other companies, which together have around 17% of the market, will go into one big "other" slice.

Figure 3
Vehicle Service Contract Industry
VSC Administration Revenue, 2010
(as a percentage of $11.175 billion)

Figure 3

Figure 4

Some of these companies may be familiar. Others may not. We have names and addresses for them all if readers have any trouble finding them. Chances are that a name that looks unfamiliar is actually a subsidiary or an alias of a well-known company.

But while this list goes down to $81 million, our master list gets mighty small towards the bottom. For instance, Nation Warranty Corp., which resells NAC service contracts nationally, also self-insures and self-administers VSCs, but only in its home state of Florida.

It's a 634 company, named after the chapter of the Florida statutes that allows these small local motor vehicle service agreement companies to exist. And it's the smallest administrator on our list, with 2010 VSC administration revenues estimated at just $3.4 million.

The Largest Administrators

At the other extreme, we estimate that 29 of these VSC administrators will have VSC revenues above $100 million this year. Eight will be above $400 million. But in last week's newsletter, we said that Toyota was the single biggest administrator. Yet they're fifth on this list. And we said the Automobile Protection Corp. was the biggest non-OEM administrator. Yet they're sixth on this list. What happened?

The answer is, it all depends how you count. The companies ranked one through four -- The Warranty Group, GMAC, Protective Life, and Allstate Dealer Services -- each own multiple captive administrators that are individually smaller than either Toyota ($547 million) or APCO ($500 million). But bundled together, they're all larger than either Toyota or APCO.

But wait, isn't Toyota Financial Services the captive administrator for the Toyota Motor Insurance Company, which is the captive insurance carrier of the Toyota Motor Corporation? Well, yes, but TFS is still the largest single VSC administrator. It's larger than either GMAC Service Agreement Corp. or Universal Warranty Corp., if they were listed separately. And that heft comes in spite of the fact that TFS has ceded the VSC business in entire states to the Toyota car dealers in those states.

Most of the underwriters that we wrote about in the past two newsletters are also represented in this week's chart by their captive administrators. So we won't recycle all that narrative about which administrators go with which underwriters. One of the reasons we're linking to all those company web sites is to allow interested readers to probe these companies in depth on their own time.

In fact, as we look down the list, it appears that the only major underwriters who don't also own and operate an administrator are Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. and its National Casualty Co. unit; Allianz AG and its Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. unit; and Berkshire Hathaway and its National Indemnity Co. unit. BNP Paribas Assurance SA would also be on that list, except it recently sold its Cardif Property and Casualty Insurance Co. unit to Interstate National Corp., which we reckon is the second-largest "indie" administrator (with estimated 2010 VSC revenue of $208 million).

Warrantech Automotive Inc., by the way, is bundled into the AMT Warranty entry, with a market share of $375 million or 3.4% representing their combined revenue. On its own, we reckon that Warrantech Automotive would have sold $251 million this year, making it the second-largest independent administrator. But now the administrator is wholly-owned by AmTrust. So we made an adjustment, and moved it to the "captive" list.

Meanwhile, yes, APCO used to be part of Ford, but it's not now. So it is now the largest independent VSC administrator, and by that we mean it is not currently owned by either a vehicle manufacturer or an insurance company. It's truly a third-party administrator. Third on the "indie" list is Auto Services Company Inc., also known as ASC Warranty or as Route 66 Extended Warranty. And fourth among the "indies" is the United States Warranty Corp. of Florida, which we talked about last week.

Counting the Money

By the way, we should note that in this week's calculations we're counting premiums paid by consumers, which includes the sales commissions kept by dealers and brokers. Some administrators count the commissions as revenue and then count the money going back to the seller as an expense. Other simply sell the VSCs to the dealer or broker at a set price, and how much the seller marks it up and how they report that revenue is their business (and the tax man's).

To eliminate that difference, we're counting everything the same way. As we explained last week, let's assume that a new car dealer sells a VSC for $1,850. They keep $850 and pass the remaining $1,000 on to the administrator. Then the administrator pays $460 to an underwriter for a reimbursement insurance policy, pays its expenses and takes a profit from the remainder. That's a gross oversimplification of who pays whom and when, but you get the point: There are typically three companies splitting the premium paid by a consumer.

In the past two newsletters, we measured just the $460. In this newsletter, we're measuring the $1,850. Of course, some VSCs cost considerably more. And some, such as the powertrain-only policies sold for high-mileage used cars, can cost considerably less. But we'll assume $1,850 to be an average, at least for new cars.

We should also note that we tried our best not to include revenue for anti-theft etching services, for vehicle tracking systems, emergency roadside assistance plans, motor clubs, or for GAP coverage. But inevitably some of those must have been bundled into the VSCs prices, and made their way into our revenue estimates.

We're also specifically excluding the companies that sell additives, lubricants or coatings that they then cover with product warranties. Some of them are even insured. But those aren't vehicle service contracts, though they are frequently sold that way. And we're excluding most of the "expiring warranty" salesmen, who for the most part were simply selling the contracts on behalf of others and were not administrators at all.

Instead, we're looking at what we'll call the legitimate VSC industry, at the administrator and underwriter levels. Those are the backers of service contracts that pay legitimate claims, that are backed with insurance or at least by adequate reserves, and are sold by either dealers or established sales agents who will give out their address and phone number and won't hide behind (800) numbers or post office boxes. Most of the "expiring warranty" guys wouldn't even tell you their real names.

We calculated that the 97 administrators on our list (actually, it's more like 109 administrators if all the units of the captives were to be listed separately) represent more than 99% of the legitimate VSC industry. But no sooner did we make that calculation than a little bird told us we'd missed one and perhaps two major dealership groups that self-administer their VSCs.

Counting On Your Help

So we're not done yet. While we will get back to covering manufacturer's product warranties next week in such industries as computers and appliances, and while we will spend the holidays documenting service contracts in the electronics sector, we also plan to go back to some of those dealers and ask for their help with some new and improved pie charts for 2011.

Before we get there, however, we'd again like to ask readers for some confidential assistance. Last week we asked if we missed anyone, and if anything seemed out of place. We received multiple responses. Now we're asking for help to fix the revenue estimates. Some are too high; some are too low. But how can you tell which are which? It's a bit like the executive who estimated that half the money he spent on advertising was wasted. He just didn't know which half.

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