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.

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