Once disaster strikes, the first priorities are always safety and preservation of property, but there are priorities to consider ahead of a loss to avoid unexpected surprises. Disaster mitigation and restoration is a critical service after property damage, and how you manage it may affect the outcome of your claim. Though there are many capable firms that specialize in property damage clean-up and restoration, there are some that will make mistakes, and others may even take advantage of the situation. When it comes to recovering the cost of mitigation and restoration services for an insurance claim, any mishaps can create big problems that may leave you stuck with the bill.
Here are five techniques to prevent potential problems before they arise:
Vet your emergency response team prior to loss — Preparation is the key in any endeavor, and with property damage claims you cannot be too prepared. Recovery service providers should be identified and interviewed. Make sure the company you choose will be able to handle your potential issues. Involve your insurer during vetting. There are “approved” vendors that insurance companies recommend; however, just because they are “approved” does not mean there will not problems. Notify the insurance company of who you plan to use, as well.
Clarify and document scope of work — Be clear on scope of work with the recovery firm and make the adjuster part of that conversation. Often, emergency response does not follow the normal protocols of a typical project. There likely won’t be time for detailed estimates, so try to get the adjuster to approve work in real-time to avoid second guessing.
Take a hands-on approach — Your property may still be underwater, but once access is granted you must be hands-on. No one should have access to your facility without the presence of a company representative. Assign a property supervisor to the affected site to keep track of who is there and what they are doing. It’s your property and your responsibility. The bigger the loss, the more people there will be coming in and going out, so it is vital to have a company representative onsite to observe and answer questions.
Audit contractor charges before approving — The first weeks after a loss are chaotic. It’s important for policyholders to put controls in place to monitor activity and to verify that work has been completed to specifications and according to the terms of the agreement. Reimbursable insurance expenses should be separated and audited prior to payment for proper detail and accuracy. This needs to be done efficiently in real-time. If you don’t have the resources, this step can be completed by your claim preparation accountants, i.e. forensic accountants. Having forensic accountants on your team, along with your technical experts, can let you process this information in the context of insurance recovery. Don’t assume your forensic accountants will automatically audit invoices. Identifying errors or, worse, fraud is critical to avoid delays in payment or project completion.
Address issues immediately — When the first invoice arrives, insurance companies may act surprised and even deny coverage, especially if the steps above have not been followed. Make sure to get the parties together to discuss the issues. Don’t procrastinate and don’t assume. It is important to be proactive with any potential discrepancies. The policyholder is responsible if there are unresolved differences. If the adjuster disagrees with the work performed and the invoices are paid, it may be difficult to recover all your expenses.
The immediate aftermath of a disaster is stressful and hectic. Preparation and communication can help you weather the storm and minimize unwanted surprises when you’re looking for claim payment. Having an experienced and independent forensic accounting team will reduce the stress, the workload and reimbursement issues. Per the tagline for one of the largest restoration firms, in the end you want it to be “Like it never even happened.”
As with many modern businesses, Blue Marble Microinsurance began with a question-the same question entrepreneurs and innovators ask themselves every day: What can we do differently that will eliminate inefficiencies and redirect resources to a more value-accretive cause?
The underlying mission of Blue Marble is tied to the recognition that insurance is important to economic development around the world. Without prefinancing losses, societies are vulnerable. Following disasters, people who show potential for emerging into the middle class frequently fall back to the bottom of the economic pyramid.
With the knowledge that fortifying the economic progression of the poor would add untold benefits to the global economy, to our industry and, of course, to the poor themselves, we asked another simple question: What needs to change in the insurance and reinsurance industry to make it relevant to the poor?
To examine this question further, Blue Marble’s founders needed to be open-minded about doing things differently and having a willingness to learn while leading. Only by researching the facts could Blue Marble articulate the problem that the founders set out to solve and establish a mission backed by a business model.
The problem was clearly identified in research literature. For example, Swiss Re reported that in the last 10 years, cumulative total damage to global property as a result of natural disasters was $1.8 trillion-only 30% of which was insured, resulting in a protection gap of $1.3 trillion. This gap is even wider when general property risk such as fire, water damage and burglary are considered. And the gap is likely to continue to grow as a result of trends such as global warming and urbanization. While this research covers a scope broader than microinsurance, we have identified the significance of the protection gap and its ever increasing trend.
Other research has underscored how uninsured losses eventually become the responsibility of governments and society at large, resulting in a drag on the economic growth of nations. In emerging nations, 80% to 100% of disaster losses are uninsured, according to Swiss Re.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is an example that warrants examination. The United Nations World Food Program reports that 75% of Haitians live on less than $2 a day. In January 2010, the dire situation was worsened by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, about 230,000 people died, and nearly 1.5 million Haitians were displaced. Economic losses were estimated at about $8 billion- approximately 120% of GDP—with insurance penetration at around 0.3% of GDP.
In another example-the recent earthquake disaster in Nepal-we estimate the damages at 35% to 50% of GDP, with little to no aid delivered as of yet. The effect of the protection gap on developing nations and the consequence on the poor is crippling.
The poor, with no safety nets other than informal systems of caring for each other, are disproportionately affected by catastrophes. The safety nets break down in a village or community following a disaster, thrusting complete communities to the bottom of the economic pyramid for years to follow. In Nepal, communities rich with heritage and dependent on tourism are now struggling to survive with a safety net under stress. Without mechanisms for prefinancing risk, smallholder farmers, shop owners and artisans who lack savings fall deeper into poverty.
With an understanding of the problem that Blue Marble planned to address, a business case for the consortium was established. The problem was viewed as significant and the solution relevant to the global economy, our industry and the poor.
A Role for the Insurance Industry
The potential solutions include charity and public-private partnerships, but what role might the insurance industry assume? While some companies have attempted to enter the microinsurance market in hopes of providing risk protection to the poor, few actually succeeded. Some have been able to show profitability, but most lacked evidence of the double bottom line: the ability to deliver protection that also creates incentives and enables the poor to make better economic choices in their lives.
This is a crucial point. Risk protection, in and of itself, will not enable economic progression. Incentives embedded in the risk protection are the key drivers. Policies should be designed to encourage growth and expansion. For example, by creating a more certain outcome, a policy can enable the smallholder farmer to cultivate two hectors of land as opposed to one hector. Another example is enhancing a micro-entrepreneur’s willingness to expand his or her sewing business-to buy another sewing machine and hire an employee-all enabled by a reduction in the fear of theft.
Making It Work
A review of prior experiences-many unsuccessful-suggested that Blue Marble needed a different business model. The business model needed to recognize the vast array of talent required to address the protection needs within the context of poverty entrapment. From within the insurance industry, expertise was needed to support product development, regulatory environment and risk pricing. Other areas of expertise likely found outside of the industry included an understanding of the poverty ecosystem and how to partner with entities in the supply chain of the poor.
At the same time, the business model had to address the many barriers to success in microinsurance:
A long-term commitment was needed, yet our traditional business models were anchored on immediacies and benchmarked against such metrics as payback periods.
Financial literacy and trust needed to be established.
High distribution costs result in prohibitive frictional cost, making the protection unaffordable. The cost of innovation to address this frictional cost was high.
Understanding why the poor consistently made suboptimal economic choices even when given access to the means was critical.
Recognition of the barriers to success in microinsurance and the need for a unique talent model led Blue Marble to a collaborative approach: the formation of a legal entity owned by eight significant insurance entities with a dedicated management team supported by employees from the consortium members. Through collaboration, we would share the cost of innovation and be able to “mutualize” talent from within and beyond the industry. By stepping forward and collaborating among the eight, we developed a public-private outreach partnership with a shared goal.
Blue Marble was established as a legal entity owned by the eight but with a long- term focus. A dedicated management team was retained to give focus to the problem at hand and was backed by a governance model involving senior leaders from the consortium members.
The talent model was unique: The eight consortium companies represent 250,000 employees operating in 170 countries. A virtual business unit was established giving Blue Marble access to talent from the consortium members on a secondment basis. The win-win is that Blue Marble has access to both strategic and technical talent on an as-needed basis. For example, if a Spanish-speaking actuary with knowledge of agriculture risk in Peru is needed, we can identify the person and gain access to her expertise for a limited time. Likewise, Blue Marble facilitates reverse benefits in terms of employee engagement and an appreciation for the relevancy of our day-to-day work.
Why the Name Blue Marble?
Employees of all participating companies were informed about the microinsurance consortium initiative, and their ideas for names were solicited. The communication heads for each company coordinated the outreach and then narrowed the submissions. The board ultimately selected “Blue Marble.”
The name was nominated by Denise Addis, an executive assistant from Guy Carpenter. Addis wrote: “Blue Marble is a nickname for our planet…Technology and social media have made the world an even smaller place, and the planet itself has become a community more than ever before. I think this venture will expand that community.”
The Blue Marble name captures our holistic view of our world. Underscoring our mission to extend insurance protection to a broader portion of the population and to advance the role of insurance in society in a socially responsible and sustainable way, it reminds us that we all share the planet. It is up to us to connect with citizens around the world to make life better for us all.
This article first appeared in Carrier Management. Joan Lamm-Tennant spoke to Carrier Management about Blue Marble Microinsurance during a videotaped interview at the IICF Women in Insurance Global Conference in June. Excerpts of the interview are presented below.
What is microinsurance?
Lamm-Tennant: Microinsurance is risk protection for the poor-artisans, small- scale farmers, shop owners. We address their specific risk protection needs and enable them to have stable consumption, which allows them to invest, improve productivity and grow through the economic pyramid.
What are the greatest benefits for carriers that take part in the microinsurance consortium?
Lamm-Tennant: It’s an opportunity to have an impact, to be relevant, to work in public-private partnerships and solve the protection gap. By solving the protection gap and being a part of the financial inclusion initiatives, we in fact enable a massive emerging middle class…
Today, we have seven billion people in the world. The middle class is only 1.8 billion. We could double that in the next 15 years.
The opportunity is also significant in terms of solving our own problems within the insurance industry. It’s an opportunity to be forced to innovate because being successful in these markets is not about lifting and shifting products that are on our shelves. It’s about being more efficient, being more focused on the value proposition within our products, and it’s about new distribution channels.
Because we’re forced to innovate, we’ll have the opportunity to reverse innovate. Last of all, we have a talent challenge within the insurance industry. The Millennials are not necessarily interested in investing their brilliance, their talent, in our causes. So this is a way in which we join them in their cause for relevancy.
Exactly how does the collaboration work? How do carriers share the costs, premiums and claims? Whose paper are policies written on?
Lamm-Tennant: We’re a service entity. Our objective is to prepare a complete turnkey, cost-efficient package for the carriers so that they can enter the market…
What are the component parts of that package? It could be everything from policy design to distribution mechanisms to social impact metrics. In essence, by delivering this package to the carriers, they then will have to add risk capital, using this enabler to enter the market. Their goal is to create the market.
Yes, one of them will lead, and that’s a part of our governance structure. Collectively, among the eight carriers, we have licenses in many markets. A lead, perhaps, would be somebody who is already present with a license…Within and among the eight of us, to fill the demand, our goal is to engage local carriers and other partners. [What] we’re trying to do is make it cost-efficient, by sharing the development cost, so that they can enter with risk capital at a profitable level.
In what areas do you expect microinsurance carrier participants to innovate and reverse innovate?
Lamm-Tennant: Success will not occur by simply reducing a few zeros off the line and saying, “Here, we’ve made this a smaller product. So won’t you buy it?”…There has to be a clear value statement…
The second part is our distribution mechanisms have to be efficient. I’m not suggesting abandonment of the agency distribution system, [but the question is] how do we enable that system to be very efficient with technology?
The third is how we measure success…If we truly want to be relevant, let’s put some broad measures of social impact in our products and not carve it off into a CSR initiative.
Those are three platforms that are going to be critical to our success and create an opportunity for the carriers to then rethink similar issues in their traditional business.
How are microinsurance products distributed?
Lamm-Tennant: We’ve seen some success in some markets with the distribution through utility companies, mobile phone operators, even seed manufacturers. [But] the embedded distribution costs are quite high…Some of these products distributed on those platforms could have a claims ratio of 10 or 20 and a distribution cost of 50 or 60. So we can’t just roll ourselves into those platforms.
We have to think about how to utilize those platforms yet still do it in an efficient way and not impose such distribution costs. Having said that, we are an arm’s throw away. It is within our reach that the poor will move from mobile phones to smartphones…
How will you measure the success of the venture?
Lamm-Tennant: Success to us is having demonstrated evidence that those who are benefiting from our products are benefiting in a sense that they are moving up the economic pyramid-that we’re seeing behavioral change. We’re seeing them put risk aside and invest in their businesses, grow their land, sustain their consumption if it’s a food sustainability motive that we’re looking at.
Munich Re is known as a conservative giant of international reinsurance, so it might seem odd that it is joining the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in covering U.S. flood. A quick look at the opportunity shows why the plan makes sense.
U.S. inland flood insurance is an untapped source of non-correlated premium unlike any other in the world. The market is dominated by an incumbent market maker that is in trouble because it offers an inferior product that cannot price risk correctly (this paper nicely summarizes the problems at NFIP). So, here is what the new entrants are seeing:
Contrary to industry beliefs, flood is insurable. The tools are present to accurately segment risk.
Carriers offering flood capacity will differentiate themselves from competitors. This will give them a leg up on the competition in a market that is highly homogeneous. Carriers not offering flood will likely disappear.
The market is massive, with potentially 130 million homes and tens of billions of dollars at stake.
Let’s go into details.
Capital Into a Ripe Market
The U.S. Flood Market
As most readers of Insurance Thought Leadership already know, many carriers have flood on the drawing board right now. The Munich Re announcement was not really a surprise. We all know there will be more announcements coming soon.
Let’s summarize the market reasons for the groundswell of private insurance in U.S. flood.
The most obvious characteristic of the market is the size. For the sake of this post, we’ll just consider homes and homeowner policies. Whether one considers the number of NFIP policies in force as the market size (about 5.4 million policies in 2014), the number of insurable buildings (133 million homes) or something in between, there is clearly a big market. And the NFIP presents itself as the ideal competitor – big, with a mandate not necessarily compatible with business results.
So, there is no doubt that a market exists. Can it be served? Yes, because the risk can be rated and segmented.
Low-Risk Flood Hazard
To be clear: A low-risk-flood property has a profile with losses estimated to be low-frequency and low-severity. In other words: Expected flood events would rarely happen, and not cause much damage if they do. For many readers, joining the words “low-risk” and “flood” together is an oxymoron. We strongly disagree. Common sense and technology can both illustrate how flood risk can be segmented efficiently and effectively into risk categories that include “low.”
Let’s start with common sense. Flood loss occurs because of three possible types of flood: coastal surge, fluvial/river or rain-induced/pluvial (here is more information on the three types of flood). The vast majority of U.S. homeowners are not close enough to coastal or river flooding to have a loss exposure (here is a blog post that explores the distribution of NFIP policies). Thus, the majority of American homeowners are only exposed to excess surface water getting into the home. We’d be willing to wager that most of the ITL readership does not purchase flood insurance, simply because they don’t need it. That is the common-sense way of thinking of low-risk flood exposure.
How does the technology handle this?
There is software available now that can be used to identify low-risk flood locations (as defined by each carrier), supported by the necessary geospatial data and analytics. Historically, this was not the case, but advances in remote sensing and computing capacity (as we explored here) make it entirely reasonable now, with location-based flood risk assessment the norm in several European countries. Distance to water, elevations, localized topographical analyses and flood models can all be used to assess flood risk with a high degree of confidence. In fact, claims are now best used as a handy ingredient in a flood score rather than as a prime indicator of flood risk.
How to Deliver Flood Insurance in the U.S.
Deliver Flood Insurance to What Kind of Market?
Readers must be wondering at the size of market, because we offered two distinctly different possibilities above – is it about 5 million to 10 million possible policies, or 130 million policies? The difference is huge – the difference is between a niche market and a mass market.
The approach taken by flood insurers thus far is for a niche market. The current approach probably has long-term viability in high-risk flood, and the early movers that are now underwriting there are establishing solid market shares, cherry-picking from the NFIP portfolio.
On a large scale, though, the insurance industry’s approach needs to be for a mass market.
Here is a case study describing the mass market opportunity:
Using InsitePro (see image below), you can see that the property is miles and miles away from any coastal areas, rivers or streams. More importantly, the home is elevated against its surroundings, so water flows away from the property, which is deemed low-risk.
The area has no history of flooding, and this particular community has one of the most modern drainage systems in the state.
Screenshot of InsitePro, courtesy of Intermap Technologies. FEMA zones in red and orange
Using Google Maps street view, we can estimate that the property is two to three feet above street level, which adds another layer of safety. Also, this view confirms that the area is essentially flat, so the property is not at the bottom of a bathtub.
And, as with most homes in California, this property has no basement, so if water were to get into the house it would need to keep rising to cause further damage.
To an underwriter, it should be clear that this home has minimal risk from flooding. As a sanity check, she could compare losses from flood for this property (and properties like it in the community) to other hazards such as fire, earthquake, wind, lightning, theft, vandalism or internal water damage. How do they compare? What are the patterns?
For this specific home, the NFIP premium for flood coverage is $430, which provides $250,000 in building limit and $100,000 in contents protection. The price includes the $25 NFIP surcharge.
This is a mind-boggling amount of premium for the risk imposed. Consider that for roughly the same price you can get a full homeowners policy that covers all of these perils: fire, earthquake, wind, lightning, theft AND MORE! It is crazy to equate the risk of flood to the risk of all those standard homeowner perils, combined! We provided this example to show that even without all the mapping and software tools available for pricing, what we can quickly conclude is that the NFIP pricing for these low-risk policies is absurdly high. Whatever the price “should” be for these types of risks, can you see that it MUST be a fraction of the price of a traditional homeowner’s policy? Don’t believe that either? Consider that the Lloyd’s is marketing its low-risk flood policies as “inexpensive,” and brokers tell us privately that many base-level policies will be 50% to 75% less expensive than NFIP equivalents.
The news gets even better. There are tens of millions of houses like this case example, with technology now available to quickly find them. These risks aren’t the exception; these risks can be a market in their own right. Let the mental arithmetic commence!
Summary: Differentiate or Die!
The Unwanted Commodity
Most consumers of personal lines products don’t have the time or the ability to evaluate an insurance policy to determine whether it provides good value. Regrettably, most agents and brokers don’t have the time to help them either. So, when shopping for a product that they hope they will never use and that they are incapable of truly understanding, consumers will focus on the one thing they do understand: price.
Competing on price becomes a race to the bottom (yay! – another soft market) and to death. But there is an opportunity here – carriers that compete on personal lines/homeowner insurance with benefits that are immediately apparent (like value, flexibility, service, conditions and, inevitably, price) have a rare chance to stake out significant new business, or to solidify their own share.
The flood insurance market is real, and it’s big enough for carriers to establish a healthy and competitive environment where service and quality will stand out, along with price. Carriers that would like to avoid dinosaur status can remain relevant and competitive, with no departure from insurance fundamentals – rate a risk, price it and sell it. It’s obvious, right?
Which carriers will be decisive and bold and begin to differentiate by offering flood capacity? Which carriers will evolve to keep pace or even lead the pack into the next generation of homeowner products? More importantly, which of you will lose market share and cease to exist in 10 years because you didn’t know what innovation looks like?
In December 2005, just three months after Katrina savaged the Gulf Coast, we edited On Risk and Disaster, a book on the key lessons that the storm so painfully taught. The book was very different from most of the post-mortems that focused on the country’s lack of preparedness for the storm’s onslaught. It focused sharply on how to reduce the risk of future disasters—and how to understand how to help those who suffer most from them.
One of the most important findings highlighted by the book’s 19 expert contributors was that the storm affected lower-income residents far more than others. Reducing the exposure to potential damage before disasters occur, especially in the most hazard-prone areas, is one of the most important steps we can take. To achieve this objective in low-income areas, residents often need help to invest in measures to reduce their losses. Failing to learn these lessons will surely lead to a repeat of the storm’s awful consequences.
Now, 10 years after Katrina struck, six lessons from the book loom even larger.
1. Disasters classified as low-probability, high-consequence events have been increasing in likelihood and severity.
From 1958 to 1972, the number of annual presidential disaster declarations ranged between eight and 20. From 1997 through 2010, they ranged from 50 to 80. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the number of severe weather events—those that cause $1 billion in damage or more—has increased dramatically, from just two per year in the 1980s to more than 10 per year since 2010. That trend is likely to continue.
2. Most individuals do not purchase insurance until after suffering a severe loss from a disaster—and then often cancel their policies several years later.
Before the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California, relatively few residents had earthquake insurance. After the disaster, more than two-thirds of the homeowners in the area voluntarily purchased coverage. In the years afterward, however, most residents dropped their insurance. Only 10% of those in seismically active areas of California now have earthquake insurance, even though most people know that the likelihood of a severe quake in California today is even higher than it was 20 years ago. Moreover, most homeowners don’t keep their flood insurance policies. An analysis of the National Flood Insurance Program in the U.S. revealed that homeowners typically purchased flood insurance for two to four years but, on average, they owned their homes for about seven years. Of 841,000 new policies bought in 2001, only 73% were still in force one year later, and, after eight years, the number dropped to just 20%. The flood risk, of course, hadn’t changed; dropping the policies exposed homeowners to big losses if another storm hit.
3. Individuals aren’t very good at assessing their risk.
A study on flood risk perception of more than 1,000 homeowners who all lived in flood-prone areas in New York City examined the degree to which people living in these areas assessed their likelihood of being flooded. Even allowing a 25% error margin around the experts’ estimates, most people underestimated the risk of potential damage; a large majority of the residents in this flood-prone area (63%) underestimated the average damage a flood would cause to their house. It is likely that “junk science,” including claims that climate change isn’t real, leads many citizens to problems in assessing the risks they face.
4. We need more public-private partnerships to reduce the costs of future disasters.
Many low-income families cannot afford risk-based disaster insurance and often struggle to recover from catastrophes like Katrina. One way to reduce future damages from disasters would be to assist those in hazard-prone areas with some type of means-tested voucher if they invest in loss-reduction measures, such as elevating their home or flood-proofing its foundation. The voucher would cover both a portion of their insurance premium as well as the annual payments for home-improvement loans to reduce their risk. A program such as this one would reduce future losses, lower the cost of risk-based insurance and diminish the need for the public sector to provide financial disaster relief to low-income families.
5. Even if we build stronger public-private partnerships, individuals expect government help if they suffer severe damage.
Just before this spring’s torrential Texas rains, there was a huge battle in the Texas state legislature about whether local governments ought to be allowed to engage in advance planning to mitigate the risks from big disasters. Many of the forces trying to stop that effort were among the first to demand help when floodwaters devastated the central part of the state. Even the strongest believers in small government expect help to come quickly in times of trouble. We are a generous country, and we surely don’t want that to change. But jumping in after disasters strike is far more expensive than taking steps in advance to reduce risks. Everyone agrees that the cost curve for disaster relief is going up too fast and that we need to aggressively bend it back down.
6. Hurricanes tend to grab our attention—but there are other big risks that are getting far less attention.
Hurricanes are surely important, but winter storms, floods and earthquakes are hugely damaging, too. Too often, we obsess over the last catastrophe and don’t see clearly the other big risks that threaten us. Moreover, when big disasters happen, it really doesn’t matter what caused the damage. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who led the recovery effort after Katrina, called the storm “a weapon of mass destruction without criminal intent.” The lesson is that we need to be prepared to help communities bounce back when disasters occur, whatever their cause; to help them reduce the risk of future disasters; and to be alert to those who suffer more than others.
The unrest that rocked Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death reminds us that Adm. Allen’s lesson reaches broadly. The riots severely damaged some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and undermined the local economy, with an impact just as serious as if the area had been flooded by a hurricane. Many of the same factors that bring in the government after natural disasters occurred here as well: a disproportionate impact on low-income residents, most of whom played no part in causing the damage; the inability to forecast when a random act, whether a storm surge or a police action, could push a community into a downward spiral; and the inability of residents to take steps before disasters happen to reduce the damage they suffer.
Big risks command a governmental response. Responses after disasters, whatever their cause, cost more than reducing risks in advance. Often, the poor suffer the most. These issues loom even larger in the post-Katrina years.
Natural disasters have become more frequent and more costly. We need to develop a much better strategy for making communities more resilient, especially by investing—in advance—in strategies to reduce losses. We need to pay much more attention to who bears the biggest losses when disasters strike, whatever their cause. We need to think about how to weave integrated partnerships involving both government and the private and nonprofit sectors. And we need to understand that natural disasters aren’t the only ones our communities face.
Sensible strategies will require a team effort, involving insurance companies, real estate agents, developers, banks and financial institutions, residents in hazard-prone areas as well as governments at the local, state and federal levels. Insurance premiums that reflect actual risks coupled with strong economic incentives to reduce those risks in advance, can surely help. So, too, can stronger building codes and land use regulations that reduce the exposure to natural disasters.
If we’ve learned anything in the decade since Katrina, it’s that we need to work much harder to understand the risks we face, on all fronts. We need to think about how to reduce those risks and to make sure that the least privileged among us don’t suffer the most. Thinking through these issues after the fact only ensures that we struggle more, pay more and sow the seeds for even more costly efforts in the future.
This article was first published on GovEx and was written with Donald Kettl and Ronald J. Daniels. Kettl is professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Volcker Alliance. Daniels is the president of Johns Hopkins University.
For the past two weeks, the disaster movie “San Andreas” has topped the box office, taking in more than $200 million worldwide. The film stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who plays a helicopter rescue pilot who, after a series of cataclysmic earthquakes on the San Andreas fault in California, uses his piloting skills to save members of his family. It’s an action-packed plot sure to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
As insurance professionals who specialize in quantifying catastrophic loss, we can’t help but think of the true disaster that awaits California and other regions in the U.S. when “the big one” actually does occur.
The real horror starts with the fact that 90% of California residents DO NOT maintain earthquake insurance. The “big one” is likely to produce economic losses in either the San Francisco or Los Angeles metropolitan areas in excess of $400 billion. With so little of this potential damage insured, thousands of families will become homeless, and countless businesses will be affected – many permanently. The cost burden for the cleanup, rescue, care and rebuilding will likely be borne by the U.S. taxpayer. The images of the carnage will make the human desperation we saw in both Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy pale by comparison.
The reasons given for such low take-up of earthquake insurance generally fall into two categories: (1) Earthquake risk is too volatile, too difficult to insure and, as a result, (2) is too expensive for most homeowners.
Is California earthquake risk too volatile to insure?
The earthquake faults in California, including the Hayward, the Calaveras and the San Andreas faults. are the most studied and understood fault systems in the world. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) publishes updated frequency and severity likelihood every six years for the entire U.S. This means that estimation of potential earthquake losses, while not fully certain, can be reasonably achieved in the same manner that we can currently estimate potential losses from perils such as tornados and hurricanes. In fact, the catastrophe (CAT) models agree that it’s likely that on a dollar-for-dollar exposure basis, losses from Florida hurricanes that make landfall are more severe and more frequent over time than California earthquakes, yet nearly 100% of Florida homeowners actually maintain windstorm insurance. If hurricane risk in Florida isn’t too volatile for insurers to cover, then earthquake risk in California should follow that same path.
Isn‘t earthquake coverage expensive?
Again, the answer is a resounding no.
The California Earthquake Authority (CEA), the largest writer of earthquake insurance in the U.S., has a premium calculator that quotes mobile homes, condos, renters and homeowners insurance. For example, a $500,000 single-family home in Orange County, CA, can be insured for about $800 a year, or roughly the same price as a traditional fire insurance policy. To protect a $500,000 home, an $800 investment is hardly considered expensive.
The real question should be: Are California homeowners getting good value? CEA policies carry very high deductibles — typically in the 10% to 15% range — and the price is “expensive” when the high deductibles are considered. As one actuary once explained it to us, “With that kind of deductible, I’ll likely never use the coverage, so like everyone else I’ll cross my fingers and hope the ‘big one’ doesn’t happen in my lifetime.”
It’s this lack of value that’s the single biggest impediment preventing millions of California homeowners from purchasing earthquake insurance. It’s also an area that has much room for improvement.
How can we as an industry raise the value proposition of earthquake coverage? Consider the following:
The industry can make better use of technology, especially the CAT models. California is earthquake country, but it’s also a massive state. This map shows that the high-risk areas mostly follow the San Andreas fault and the branches off that fault. There are many lower-risk areas in California, and the CAT models can be used to distinguish the high risk from the low risk. Low risk exposures should demand lower premiums. Even high-risk exposures can be controlled by using the CAT models to manage aggregates and identify the low-risk exposure within the high-risk pools. We expect that CAT models will help us get back to Insurance 101 by helping the industry to better understand exposure to loss, segment risks, correct pricing, manage aggregates and create profitable pools of exposure.
The industry can bundle earthquake risks with other risks to reduce volatility. Earthquake-only writers (and flood as well) are essentially “all in” on one type of risk, to steal a common poker term. Those writers will fluctuate year to year; there will be years with little or no losses, then years with substantial losses. That volatility affects retained losses and also affects reinsurance prices. Having one source of premium means constantly conducting business on the edge of insolvency. Bundling earthquake risks geographically and with other perils reduces volatility. The Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Hawaii and even areas in the Midwest and the Carolinas are all known to be seismically active. In fact, Oklahoma and Texas are now the new hotbed regions of earthquake activity. Demand in those areas exist, so why not package that risk? Reducing volatility will reduce prices and help stabilize the market. We estimate that in parts of California, volatility is the cause of as much as 50% of the CEA premium.
Hollywood has produced yet another action-packed film. But to add a touch of realism, Hollywood screenwriters should consider making the leading actor, The Rock, a true hero – an “insurance super hero” who sells affordable earthquake insurance.