Catastrophe risk summary and recommended reading

Here is a summary of the various articles I have written concerning public policy in the context of the disastrous hurricane season suffered by the state of Florida:

  • 09.07.04: Financial Implications of Hurricanes – This article provides some insight concerning the evolution of public policy in the post-Andrew world. Because of persistent regulatory suppression of insurance rates, economic theory suggests that over time, product quality will likely deteriorate and insurers can be expected to exit the market. For all practical purposes, this is what has occurred in the Florida homeowners insurance market. Clearly, there has been a shifting of risk away from private insurers and toward government and policyholders. What has resulted is a rather ad hoc set of risk sharing arrangements which no one particularly likes and very few people understand.
  • 09.08.04: Catastrophes and Moral Hazard: The Case of Florida Windstorm Risk – This article explains why public disaster relief, however well intentioned, may make matters worse in the long term by undermining incentives for firms and individuals to select “economically efficient” levels of private insurance and loss mitigation.
  • 09.09.04: The double deductible problem in Florida – Here, you will find my “proposal” concerning policy regulation reform; i.e., why not offer consumers a choice between the status quo policy form and an alternative policy form that enables consumers to insure against aggregate losses? This is a workable reform, assuming that the rate suppression problem can also be properly addressed.
  • 09.10.04: Reinsurance reinstatement option – This article discusses an important contractual issue that is looming in the market for catastrophe reinsurance which may end up being considerably more significant economically than the “double deductible” problem (i.e., given the amount of catastrophe exposure this season, this important aspect of “fine print” may result in quite a few insolvencies).
  • 09.17.04: More on double deductibles – This article argues that in order to “fix” the Florida insurance market, regulatory reform needs to address pricing issues as well as policy forms. Specifically, 1) the rate suppression problem needs to be properly addressed so that rates accurately reflect the expected cost of risk, and 2) consumers ought to have a broader set of choices concerning policy forms.

For people who are interested in reading more about public policy as it pertains to catastrophe risk, I highly recommend two books: 1) Catastrophe Insurance: Consumer Demand, Markets, and Regulation, and 2) When All Else Fails: Government As the Ultimate Risk Manager. Finally, I also highly recommend Martin Grace’s weblog.

As Bush Goes, So Goes Market

Yesterday (Monday, September 20, 2004), E. S. Browning (Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal) wrote a very interesting article entitled “As Bush Goes, So Goes Market”.  He basically makes many of the same points which I made on Saturday, September 11 in my entry entitled “Update on the relationship between stock market returns and presidential futures returns“; i.e., that the presidential futures contracts appear to be pointing to a Bush victory this coming November, and that the stock market appears to be responding favorably.  Or does the direction of causality move in the opposite direction?; i.e., as the stock market improves, this implies that investors are more confident about the economy’s future prospects which which in turn improves the electoral prospects of the incumbent president (as reflected in futures prices).  Professors Naveen Khanna and Jennifer Brooke Marietta-Westberg (both finance professors at Michigan State University) make the latter (rather compelling) argument in their paper entitled “Is it ‘Kerry up, Market Down’ or ‘Market Down, Kerry up?’ Correlation versus Causation“.

More on double deductibles

Professor Martin Grace argues that the so-called “double deductible” problem in Florida is more of a problem of high deductibles, where doubling just worsens the problem.  Why are deductibles high?  Professor Grace notes that for some time now, insurers have not been allowed to charge adequate rates, so rate regulations have provided the incentive for the private insurance industry to reduce their Florida windstorm exposure.  Since less risk is privately insured, more risk is borne by policyholders and government in various forms, including higher deductibles and state run risk pools.

Florida provides an interesting case study of dysfunctional regulatory policy.  As Professor Grace so capably documents, the regulatory process has effectively undermined the viability of private insurance and substituted in its place an ad hoc set of risk sharing arrangements which no one particularly likes and very few people understand.  Unfortunately, it appears that things may get worse before they get better.  The New York Times published an article about the “double deductible” problem the other day which enumerates some of the short term measures and longer term reforms that are under consideration.  One idea which has been floated is to provide a cash grant of $500 to everyone who has suffered unpaid insurance losses during the course of this hurricane season.  While such a measure may alleviate some of the short term financial “pain” for affected consumers, from a longer term perspective this is not sound public policy, since policies like this undermine consumer incentives to make prudent risk management decisions (see “Catastrophes and Moral Hazard: The Case of Florida Windstorm Risk“).  Actually, this is a classic case of a policy which may have favorable political implications but carries with it rather undesirable economic consequences.  Furthermore, Mr. Tom Gallagher, who is the head of the state’s Department of Financial Services, wants to get rid of multiple deductibles and substitute an alternative policy that would enable consumers to insure against aggregate losses and therefore only pay one deductible.  There’s nothing wrong with this idea so long as insurers are able to charge a premium which reflects the added risk and cost associated with such a policy. However, why stop there? Why not provide consumers with the option to choose between a policy based upon the current policy form, and the alternative policy proposed by Mr. Gallagher? This would encourage self selection, and therefore allow for more efficient and fair pricing. Besides offering consumers greater choice, such a policy reform would also promote market efficiency and enhance the insurability of Florida windstorm risk. In order to “fix” the Florida insurance market, regulatory reform needs to address pricing issues as well as policy forms.  If not, then over time consumers and the state will continue to suffer from an insurability problem.

Update on the relationship between stock market returns and presidential futures returns

In an earlier post entitled “Kerry Up, Markets Down? A Regression Analysis“, I reported the results of the following regression equation:

(1) rS&P500,t = a + brKerry,t + et,

where rS&P500,t = daily return on the S&P 500, rKerry,t = daily return on the Kerry Futures contract, a = intercept, b = slope; and et= error term.  I was motivated to estimate this regression equation after reading a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Kerry Up, Markets Down” which claimed that “…when Kerry’s political fortunes rise, the stock market tanks.”  The evidence presented in this article for this conjecture did not seem all that robust; specifically, it was based upon graphically comparing 5 day moving averages of Kerry Futures Contract prices (available from the Iowa Electronic Markets website) with 5 day moving averages of the S&P 500 index.  A more convincing analysis is possible by running this very simple regression equation given in (1) above. I found that while there is statistically significant inverse relationship, the economic significance of the effect is rather negligible; specifically, a 1 percent change in the value of the Kerry Futures contract is associated with a -0.0389% change in the value of the S&P500 index.

It struck me that if Kerry was “bad” for the stock market, it would be interesting to find out whether Bush was “good” for the stock market, so I decided to reestimate regression equation (1) and also run a similar regression (given by equation (2) below) on the Bush Futures contract.

(2) rS&P500,t = a + brBush,t + et,

where rBush,t represents the return on the Bush Futures contract.  For both contracts, I used realized daily returns from the period June 2, 2004 through September 9, 2004, resulting in 69 daily observations for the futures contract and stock market returns.

The “new” Kerry results are given in the following table:

Kerry Regression Statistics
R2 = 0.0508
Observations: 69
a = 0.00001 (P-value = 0.9921)
b= -0.03789 (P-value = 0.0626)

Compared with the original regression results from August based upon 47 daily observations from the period June 2, 2004 through August 10, 2004, there has hardly been any change in the parameter values.  The correlation between daily returns on the Kerry Futures contract and daily returns on the S&P 500 index is -0.225, and although this inverse relationship is statistically significant (as indicated by the low “P-value” in the table above), it is not economically significant, since it implies that a 1 percent change in the value of the Kerry Futures contract is associated on average with a -0.03789% change in the value of the S&P500 index.

Next, let’s turn our attention to the parameter estimates for regression equation (2), which relates stock market returns to Bush Futures contract returns.  There, we find the following:

Bush Regression Statistics
2 = 0.1007
Observations: 69
a = -0.00005 (P-value = 0.9525)
b= 0.06997 (P-value = 0.0079)

The correlation between daily returns on the Bush Futures contract and daily returns on the S&P 500 index is .317, and although this positive relationship is statistically significant (as indicated by the negligible “P-value” in the table above), it also (like the Kerry contract) is not economically significant, since it implies that a 1 percent change in the value of the Bush Futures contract is associated on average with a 0.06997% change in the value of the S&P500 index.

While this represents an interesting statistical exercise, the low goodness of fit (R2) and the b values reported in these tables indicate that there are other (probably much more) important determinants of stock market returns other than the odds of who our next president will be. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that if you take the net difference in the two beta values for Kerry and Bush (0.10786) and assume an expected annual return of 7-10% on the S&P 500, Kerry “costs” investors roughly 75 to 100 basis points per year, the order of magnitude of which is comparable in many cases with the management fees that are typically charged by actively managed mutual funds.

Reinsurance reinstatement option

With the entire furor over the so-called “double deductible” problem in Florida, a contractual issue is looming in the market for catastrophe reinsurance which may be much more significant economically. Insurers writing property insurance routinely purchase reinsurance coverage for the purpose of limiting their catastrophe exposures. When insurers purchase reinsurance, they must decide whether to pay extra for an option which automatically reinstates coverage after an insured event occurs. The default reinsurance contract pays for one insured event, and then the coverage disappears unless the insurer has purchased the option to reinstate. Insurers can select how many reinstatements they wish to have. Typically, the cost to reinstate coverage is roughly half the cost of the original reinsurance premium. For example, suppose a reinsurer quotes $100 for the default reinsurance contract which does not reinstate. Then the reinsurer might quote a price of $110 for a contract which reinstates once, $120 for a contract which reinstates twice, etc. Whenever reinstatement occurs, the reinsurer would charge the insurer an additional $50 premium.
Since it is rare that multiple hurricanes strike the same properties, many insurers will prefer to purchase the default reinsurance contract and retain the risk of a subsequent catastrophe. Unfortunately, this is likely to be the most popular strategy for the smaller, less solvent companies for two reasons: 1) since the “option to default” conveyed by the legal rule of limited liability is more valuable for such firms, smaller, less solvent insurers are likely to reinsure less than larger, moresolvent insurers by not purchasing the reinstatement option, and 2) by foregoing the purchase of the reinstatement option,this results in significant reinsurance premium savings. Furthermore, given the dynamics of the Florida insurance market (where, for a variety of reasons, many of the worst risks are covered by such companies), we may be looking at a much worse insolvency scenario for the Florida insurance industry than we might have otherwise expected.
I wish to thank my good friend and colleague, Dr. Richard Derrig, for pointing this problem out to me.

The double deductible problem in Florida

In a statistical sense, the probability that the same property is damaged by multiple hurricanes is surely a rare event.  However, this is a situation which many property owners in Florida now face.  The print media is filled these days with examples of policyholders whose properties have sustained separate damages from Hurricanes Charlie and Frances who will likely have to pay two deductibles.  Hopefully this won’t become an n deductible problem; obviously whether n will be greater than or equal to two will depend upon how the rest of the hurricane season plays out.

While one cannot help but be sympathetic toward people who face such financial hardships, it is also important to think through this issue in a logical fashion. Under most property insurance contracts, claims and deductible payments are related to a specific insured event.  The insurance policy promises to make the property owner whole after an insured event occurs (where being made whole is defined as paying the difference between the property damage related to the insured event and the deductible).  Even if a policyholder suffers the misfortune of multiple (e.g., 2, 3, …, n) different hurricanes affecting the same property, contractually these represent multiple insured events, not one.  Consequently, n deductibles apply.  Similarly, a person who has the misfortune of being involved in multiple car accidents is not afforded the option of treating multiple accidents as one event; in fact, these are multiple events and each event has its own claim settlement process.

A useful way to think about the double deductible problem is to relate it conceptually to the World Trade Center controversy.  In that case, there was one insured event; specifically, a coordinated strike by terrorists on the two buildings.  Although it could be (and certainly was) argued that were two insured events, the court’s decision to treat it as one event appropriately came down to a question of policy language, which is why the “one event” position eventually prevailed in that case.  In the case of Florida homeowners insurance, multiple deductibles follow as a logical consequence of (state regulated) homeowners insurance policy forms which require separate claims and deductibles for damage on separately named storms.  From a contractual standpoint, Hurricanes Charles and Frances were clearly two different insured events, so two deductibles (or three if Ivan also ends up hitting the same property) would seem appropriate and consistent with standard policy form contract language and legal principles of insurance.

In all likelihood, the state of Florida will end up considering various regulatory reforms once this hurricane season is over.  Even Florida governor Jeb Bush has weighed in on this issue, suggesting that the double deductible is something that might need to be changed because of the financial hardship that this creates for many property owners.  In my view, a constructive approach would involve giving consumers the option to choose between a policy based upon the current policy form, and an alternative policy that would enable consumers to insure against aggregate losses.  Contractually, the latter policy type would closely resemble a typical health insurance contract which has a “stop loss” provision built in for aggregate losses.  Since the alternative policy would provide consumers with the opportunity of insuring against paying multiple deductibles, consumers could expect to pay more for the alternative policy than for the current policy.  Besides offering consumers greater choice, such a policy reform would improve market efficiency.  So long as these contracts are fairly priced, chances are that the worse-than-average risks would tend to gravitate toward the stop loss policy, whereas the better-than-average risks would tend to gravitate toward the current policy form.

Catastrophes and Moral Hazard: The Case of Florida Windstorm Risk

An important public policy aspect of catastrophes such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and terrorist actions is the effect of public disaster relief on the incentives of private firms and individuals to make prudent risk management decisions.  Typically, economists are most worried by the possibility that public disaster relief, however well intentioned, may make matters worse in the long term by undermining incentives for firms and individuals to select economically efficient levels of private insurance and loss mitigation. 

A useful way to think about this problem is to consider what optimal risk management and insurance decisions might look like in a world without public disaster relief, and compare these decisions with the decisions that are likely to be made in a world with public disaster relief.  Since consumers fully internalize the costs and benefits of risk management and insurance decisions in the former case, but do not in the latter, the prospect of public disaster relief reduces consumers’ demand for private insurance and incentivizes consumers to underinvest in loss mitigation.  This is a classic example of the so-called “moral hazard” problem.  Moral hazard refers to the tendency for insured consumers to change their behavior in ways that increase the probability and/or size of claims.  It is an important issue whenever risk sharing occurs and the price at which risk is transferred is distorted in some fashion; e.g., in the form of subsidized insurance provided after the fact by public entities such as FEMA.

Financial Implications of Hurricanes

Fortunately, the severity of damage from Hurricane Frances will likely be much less severe than what was anticipated in the later part of last week.  Then, forecasters were bandying about Andrew/911 level estimates; e.g., $20-$50 billion.  The three most prominent insurance risk management companies, AIR Worldwide, Risk Management Solutions and EQECAT, now estimate that insured losses from the storm will likely range from $2 billion to $10 billion, which still aren’t exactly “chump change”.  Combined with Charley’s insured losses of $7 billion, this is turning out to be a rather expensive hurricane season for the insurance industry.

The worst hurricane (in terms of total property damage and insured losses) was Hurricane Andrew, a Category 4 hurricane which hit Florida in August 1992.  Andrew caused $20.3 billion in losses for insurers (in today’s dollars) and caused a dozen insurance carriers to go bankrupt.  Andrew set in motion fundamental changes in the way that the insurance business is conducted in Florida.  Consider the following examples of private sector innovation:

  • Insurers (e.g., USAA) have begun to experiment with insurance securitization, where catastrophe risks are shared in capital markets rather than in the reinsurance markets. 
  • Companies doing business in Florida have begun to set up separately capitalized subsidiaries which theoretically could fail without taking their parents down (e.g., Allstate has such a subsidiary, called “Allstate Floridian”).  This strategy enables insurers to create financial firewalls between their Florida companies and the rest of their business organizations, thereby limiting the financial consequences of rate suppression and the risk of insolvency which would otherwise have to be borne by the parent company.

Furthermore, other mechanisms have been put in place which causes consumers and the state government to share more of the catastrophe risk.  Consider the following:

  • Florida Hurricane Cat Fund. After Andrew, Florida created a risk pool which provides catastrophe reinsurance for companies writing homeowners insurance policies in the state of Florida. Allstate will only pay out $425 million for Charley-related losses because the fund pays 90% of Allstate’s losses in excess of $305 million; thus Charley was a manageable loss for Allstate.  In comparison, Allstate’s net exposure to Andrew resulted in a $2.5 billion loss (in 1992 dollars) Similarly, State Farm is expected to pay out $200 million for Charley-related losses, compared with $3.7 billion for Andrew-related losses.  Similar stories apply for other major insurers with significant Florida exposure; e.g., companies such as Nationwide, St. Paul Travelers, CNA, The Hartford, etc.).
  • Insurer of Last Resort: Citizens Property Insurance Corporation. Because insurance price regulations have generally suppressed rates below their true costs, this has provided insurers with incentives to “cherry pick”; i.e., select the best risks, and refuse to cover higher risk properties.  Many of these higher risk properties have been picked up by the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., created by the Florida Legislature in 2002 as an insurer of last resort. Interestingly, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has become so “successful” that it currently insures 800,000 coastal homes that private insurers refuse to fully cover.  
  • Higher deductibles mean that consumers pay a higher proportion of claims. Some homeowners pay anywhere from 2-5% of windstorm losses, vs. the less than 1% typical for fire damage. Pre-Andrew, deductibles were typically specified in terms of absolute dollar amounts rather than percentages.

It will be interesting to see how this hurricane season plays out.  To date, the damages have been very manageable for the insurance industry.  However, if we have many more storms like Charley and Frances, this may have significant pricing and coverage implications for property insurance markets throughout the United States.  Historically, the capital shocks from major catastrophes such as Andrew and 911 caused insurance rates and reinsurance rates to rise and coverage levels to fall.  This is to be expected, since capital shocks result in capacity constraints in these markets, which in turn result in higher rates and lower coverage.