The big hurricanes have passed for now, but the battle over insurance rates and coverage is just beginning. Insurance-industry executives and regulators...
WASHINGTON — The big hurricanes have passed for now, but the battle over insurance rates and coverage is just beginning.
Insurance-industry executives and regulators are warning of significant premium increases for homeowners’ insurance nationwide — including double-digit-percentage increases in the Gulf states — that could also spill over into other types of insurance.
After a catastrophic event causes widespread property loss, insurers by law must move money from their capital base, known as the policyholders’ surplus, to a reserve account large enough to pay expected claims.
Typically, they then seek price increases to replenish capital and guard against future claims. Insurers also usually pass along to all customers their own increased costs for backup insurance, known as reinsurance.
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In remarks echoed elsewhere in the industry, Evan Greenberg, chief executive of Ace, a large Bermuda-based commercial insurer, recently said Hurricane Katrina was a “market-changing event” that would require price increases in sectors beyond property insurance. He said rates for covering the marine and energy industries were already rising. “Ultimately, the effect of these events will be felt worldwide.”
The expected price jumps would hit consumers in a marketplace where prices already were climbing at more than twice the rate of inflation.
Average annual homeowners’ premiums have risen 62 percent since 1995, to $677 — an industry estimate that does not include the effects of the summer’s catastrophes. In part, the rapid cost escalation is a result of higher home prices, which force consumers to buy more insurance at higher premiums.
The record-setting season of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma and its industry-shaking consequences offer a window on the murky world of insurance pricing — where regulation, markets, litigation and politics all play a hand in a process that occurs out of sight of most consumers.
By law, prices are set by state insurance commissioners, who must approve insurers’ rates. Under the rules, price increases aren’t allowed for past losses — only future risks — but insurers plug big losses in their actuarial models to make the case that the world is becoming riskier. Generally, price increases are likely to be smaller farther away from hard-hit areas.
As a practical matter, rates for businesses are set between buyer and seller and can fluctuate sharply. Commercial property rates, for instance, jumped about 71 percent from the end of 2000 to mid-2003 before easing recently, according to Advisen, a New York-based insurance consulting company.
Homeowners’ and auto-policy rates are typically given more scrutiny, though consumer advocates complain that state regulators are too quick to accede to industry demands, which also include attempts to cut off coverage to risky areas to reduce costs.
State regulators say this summer’s hurricanes gave insurers ample motive to consider cutting back on coverage. “When you get hit by a car in the middle of the street, you start looking both ways,” said J. Robert Wooley, Louisiana’s insurance commissioner.
Allstate, for instance, has both trimmed exposure and sought to raise rates. Just last month, two units of the Northbook, Ill., company asked Florida regulators for rate increases averaging more than 25 percent. Florida allowed 8 percent, ruling that the companies failed to provide adequate support for the request. Allstate earlier this year also transferred 95,000 Florida homeowners’ policies to another company, Universal Group, based in Puerto Rico.
The Insurance Information Institute, a trade group in Washington, D.C., says insured catastrophe losses in 2005, estimated at $56.8 billion, are the largest ever, twice as big the losses created by four hurricanes in Florida last year, which was itself a record.
Seven of the 10 biggest-loss-creating hurricanes in history occurred in the past two summers.
And Wilma, costing an estimated $7.2 billion or more, could end up being history’s fifth most destructive hurricane.
But consumer advocates say insurers perennially use high-profile losses to campaign for higher rates and make enormous profits as a result. The industry has recorded profits of more than $100 billion since the terrorist attacks of 2001, and last year, it recorded profits of $38.7 billion, even after the $27.5 billion loss suffered from the four Florida hurricanes.