Will Subcontractor Default Insurance Still Have Value in the Recovering Economy?


June 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has burdened subcontractors with workforce shortages, supply chain issues, and financial difficulties.  Therefore, as states lift their stay-at-home orders issued to limit the spread of COVID-19 and construction projects resume, subcontractors’ ability to complete demanding, time-sensitive projects might be impacted. Subcontractor default is already a common and costly problem for general contractors.  When subcontractors fail to complete their contractual obligations, a general contractor’s profitability and reputation are greatly impacted. Effectively managing the risk of subcontractor default will be increasingly important for general contractors in the post-pandemic economy. 

Subcontractor Default Insurance (“SDI”) is a non-traditional insurance product which can minimize a general contractor’s damages resulting from a subcontractor’s default.  It is a two-party indemnity agreement between a general contractor and insurer.  It was created as an alternative to surety bonds, with the idea that the general contractor controls the default process and remedy to help keep projects on time and within budget.  Under a SDI policy, a general contractor enrolls prequalified subcontractors for either a specific project or policy term.  Then, the general contractor is indemnified by the insurance company for any covered costs incurred if one of the subcontractors defaults.  Typically, SDI claims stem from labor, work delay and quality issues, as well as financial-related defaults, which are not covered under general liability insurance policies. 

In addition to direct costs, SDI coverage usually includes indirect expenses such as liquidated damages, acceleration of other subcontracts, increased overhead and the like.  The insurer shares the risk with the general contractor through a deductible and co-pay; the general contractor absorbs some of the costs associated with a subcontractor’s default, usually up the deductible amount.  SDI coverage extends to the limits of the individual policy rather than being limited to the value of the subcontract.

In order to lessen their risk, SDI carriers require general contractors to prequalify subcontractors before they can be enrolled on the policy.  General contractors are in charge of this process.  In order to evaluate a subcontractor both operationally and financially, subcontractors must submit the following types of information: financial statements, proof of available lines of credit, safety record, and history of claims and litigation.  For subcontractors, the prequalification process is not different than that for surety bonds, except that it is executed by the general contractor instead of a professional surety underwriter. 

After the COVID-19 pandemic, insurance carriers will necessarily adjust their outlook on subcontractors due to the increased risk of loss.  Therefore, it will likely be more difficult for general contractors to find subcontractors able to prequalify for SDI policies and, in any event, the process will become more tedious.  In addition to the aforementioned information, general contractors will probably be interested in subcontractors’ business continuity plans and specific plans to mitigate impacts like loss of employees and/or project shutdowns. 

General contractors must be large and sophisticated enough to have the resources necessary to properly pre-qualify subcontractors, including assessing the financial risks of accepting subcontractors, and monitor their schedules and performance for the duration of the project.  While the pre-qualification process is necessary, it is insufficient to thoroughly manage the risk.  Even a subcontractor who is prequalified at the outset of a project must be managed throughout the entire course of work.  A general contractor’s oversight of subcontractor performance will be even more critical in the post COVID-19 economy as subcontractors are more likely to be operationally and financially stretched thin. 

In order to even qualify for SDI insurance, a general contractor typically needs minimum annual subcontractor volume in the $50-$100 million range.  In fact, for SDI to be cost-effective, carriers say that annual subcontracted values must exceed $75 million.  This is because SDI is expensive, usually ranging from 0.4 to 0.85 percent of total subcontract values. 

Given the increased risk of subcontractor default, SDI policies will likely be even more expensive as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Deductibles, which are already high, are likely to increase.  Currently, it is not unusual for a deductible to be in the $500,000 range.  In addition to that, SDI policies have a co-pay which is paid up the retention aggregate—often three to five times the deductible.  That said, SDI will still have value and provide cost savings under the right circumstances.  For very large jobs, it would be worth taking on part of the financial risk of default for general contractors to accept SDI’s high deductibles because it would cost much less (now typically 50% less) than subcontractors bonding and passing along costs within their bid.  Another consideration is whether the costs can be absorbed by the project.  General contractors can also strategically utilize SDI to target high-risk subcontractors. 

Cost will not be the only determinative factor in evaluating SDI’s value after the pandemic.  It is possible insurers will write more exclusions into policies to manage their own risk associated with impacts associated with mandated shutdowns similar to what the United States recently experienced.  Accordingly, subcontractor default stemming from such a shutdown (including impacts like workforce shortages and supply chain backlogs) would unlikely be covered.  SDI policies also generally do not cover defaults, which result from the following:  misrepresentation, fraud, defaults occurring prior to the policy period, material breach of warranty by the contractor, contracts acquired from other entities, war and losses arising from providing professional services.  

To determine whether or not SDI is a worthy investment, a general contractor must separately evaluate each project, and carefully weigh the cost, potential savings and risk involved. 

For more information on the efficacy of subcontractor default insurance in a recovering economy or other construction law topics, please contact Nicole Lentini and Becky Juhl