By Ana Mano
SAO PAULO, Aug 5 (Reuters) - Insurers who sell policies limiting executives' liability from lawsuits have seen a surge in business thanks to a sprawling Brazilian corruption probe involving state-controlled Petroleo Brasileiro SA and a rash of corporate bankruptcies.
The country's so-called Directors & Officers (D&O) insurance market has more than doubled in value since 2011 based on the volumes of premiums paid, rising to 370 million reais ($114 million) last year, according to data from industry regulator Susep, the most recent available.
Such policies, which cover claims against senior executives for the decisions and actions they take as part of their management duties, typically cover legal bills arising from a criminal investigation. However, if the defendant is convicted and criminal intent is proven, then the insurer may demand repayment of those costs, says Juliana Casiradzi, D&O manager at Marsh.
Together with the sweeping Petrobras probe, a severe recession has contributed to a surge in claims to about 47 percent of premiums by 2015, Susep data show, up from just 9 percent in 2011. Typically, bankruptcies trigger tax, labor and environmental liabilities against companies and their executives.
But even the higher rate of claims is considered relatively healthy for the industry as it lags the overall claims to premiums ratio of 65 to 70 percent for the domestic market, said Flávio Faggion, owner of Siscorp, a São Paulo-based insurance market analysis firm.
Yet the spike in claims did catch some insurers by surprise.
For example, Zurich AG's local unit saw claims exceed premiums by 53 percent in 2015, according to Susep. Zurich declined to comment on the data.
Some insurers trying to manage soaring claims have resorted to barring firms with severe financial woes or links to corruption probes, said Marsh's Casiradzi, adding that companies with extensive government contracts were seen as particularly hard to insure.
Premiums have also soared, with some clients paying up to 50 percent more to renew their annual policies, she said.
GOV'T CONTRACTS A DANGER SIGN
But the market, which remains underpenetrated by global standards, is expected to expand at an annual rate of at least 15 percent, Fator Corretora's D&O manager Luis Rosanelli said.
D&O premiums represent 0.2 percent of Brazil's $58 billion insurance market whereas in the United States and Europe penetration is between 1 and 3 percent, said Alvaro Igrejas, corporate risk director at broker Willis Towers Watson PLC .
A large number of privately owned and family businesses lack coverage, and certain big companies, including state-run power generator Furnas Centrais Elétricas SA, only bought their first D&O policy a year ago, Rosanelli explained.
Beneficiaries may include Chubb Ltd, which grabbed about 55 percent of Brazilian D&O premiums last year after buying Itau Unibanco's large corporate risk portfolio in 2014. Smaller players such as France's Axa and U.S.-based Travelers Cos also stand to gain. While in 2015 Axa paid no claims, Travelers' kept claims below 8 percent. Both declined to comment.
Even excluding the vast Petrobras bribery and corruption probe, D&O is virtually indispensable amid Brazil's labyrinthine+ labor, tax, regulatory and environmental-laws.
Former TIM Participacoes CEO Mario Cesar de Araujo said legal cases stemming from his job with the company six years ago still haunt him, with judges regularly blocking access to his bank account.
"I never suffered any personal loss but it is an inconvenience," Araujo told Reuters, adding that he had had cash blocked from a personal account, though all such funds were eventually unfrozen.
Often used as a bargaining chip when executive compensation is being negotiated, D&O policies are widely used in the Brazilian market, says Guilherme Petreche, associate director at Page Executive, the global headhunting firm.
Multinationals also occasionally buy local D&O policies for their executives to insulate them from domestic legal claims.
However, given higher premiums, a recent study by headhunting firm Page Executive with 1,000 top ranking executives in Brazilian companies showed a 3 percent drop in executives covered by a D&O policy in 2015. ($1 = 3.1887 Brazilian reais) (Reporting by Ana Mano; Editing by Christian Plumb, Bernard Orr)