Tag Archives: homeowner

Catastrophe Models Allow Breakthroughs

“In business there are two ways to make money; you can bundle or you can unbundle.” –Jim Barksdale

We have spent a series of articles introducing catastrophe models and describing the remarkable benefits they have provided the P&C industry since their introduction (article 1, article 2, article 3, article 4). CAT models have enabled the industry to pull the shroud off of quantifying catastrophic risk and finally given (re)insurers the ability to price and manage their exposure to the violent and unpredictable effects of large-scale natural and man-made events. In addition, while not a panacea, the models have leveled the playing field between insurers and reinsurers. Via the use of the models, insurers have more insight than even before into their exposures and the pricing mechanics behind catastrophic risk. As a result, they can now negotiate terms with confidence, whereas prior to the advent of the models and other similar tools, reinsurers had the upper hand with information and research.

We also contend that CAT models are the predominant cause of the reinsurance soft market via the entry of alternative capital from the capital markets. And yet, with all the value that CAT models have unleashed, we still have a collective sour taste in our mouths as to how these invaluable tools have benefited consumers, the ones who ultimately make the purchasing decisions and, thus, justify the industry’s very existence.

There are, in fact, now ways to benefit customers by, for instance, bundling earthquake coverage with homeowners insurance in California and helping companies deal with hidden volatility in their supply chains.

First, some background:

Bundling Risks

Any definition of insurance usually addresses the concept of risk transfer: the mechanism that ensures full or partial financial compensation for the loss or damage caused by event(s) beyond the control of the insured. In addition, the law of large numbers applies: the principle that the average of a large number of independent identically distributed random variables tends to fall close to the expected value. This result can be used to show that the entry of additional risks to an insured pool tends to reduce the variation of the average loss per policyholder around the expected value. When each policyholder’s contribution to the pool’s resources exceeds the expected loss payment, the entry of additional policyholders reduces the probability that the pool’s resources will be insufficient to pay all claims. Thus, an increase in the number of policyholders strengthens the insurance by reducing the probability that the pool will fail.

Our collective experiences in this world are risky, and we humans have consistently desired the ability to shed the financial consequences of risk to third parties. Insurance companies exist by using their large capital base, relying on the law of large numbers, but, perhaps most importantly, leveraging the concept of spread of risk, the selling of insurance in multiple areas to multiple policyholders to minimize the danger that all policyholders will experience losses simultaneously.

Take the peril of earthquake. In California, 85% to 90% of all homeowners do NOT maintain earthquake coverage even though earthquake is the predominant peril in that state. (Traditional homeowners policies exclude earth movement as a covered peril). News articles point to the price of the coverage as the limiting factor, and that makes sense because of that peril’s natural volatility. Or does it make sense?

Is the cost of losses from earthquakes in California considerably different than, say, losses from hurricanes in Florida, in which the wind peril is typically included in most homeowners insurance forms? Earthquakes are a lot more localized than hurricanes, but the loss severity can also be more pronounced in those localized regions. Hurricanes that strike Florida can be expected with higher frequency than large damage-causing earthquakes that shake California. In the final analysis, the average projected loss costs are similar between the two perils, but one has nearly a 100% take-up rate vs. the other at roughly 10%. But why is that so? The answer lies in the law of large numbers, or in this case the lack thereof.

Rewind the clock to the 1940s. If you were a homeowner then, the property insurance world looked very different than it does today. As a homeowner back then, you would need to virtually purchase separate policies for each peril sought: a fire, theft and liability policy and then a windstorm policy to adequately cover your home. The thought of packaging those perils into one convenient, comprehensive policy was thought to be cost-prohibitive. History has proven otherwise.

The bundling of perils creates a margin of safety from a P&C insurer’s perspective. Take two property insurers who offer fire coverage. Company A offers monoline fire, whereas Company B packages fire as part of a comprehensive homeowners policy. If both companies use identical pricing models, then Company B can actually charge less for fire protection than Company A simply because the additional premium from Company B affords peril diversification. Company B has the luxury of using premiums from other perils to help offset losses, whereas Company A is stuck with only its single-source fire premium and, thus, must make allowances in its pricing that it could be wrong. At the same time, Company B must also make allowances in the event its pricing is wrong, but can apply smaller allowances because of the built-in safety margin.

This brings us back to the models. It is easy to see why earthquake and other perils, such as flood, was excluded from homeowners policies in the past. Without models, it was nearly impossible to estimate future losses with any sort of reliable precision, leaving insurers the inability to collect enough premium to compensate for the inevitable catastrophic event. Enter the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which stepped in to offer flood coverage but never fundamentally approached it from a sound underwriting perspective. Instead, in an effort to make the coverage affordable to the masses, the NFIP severely underpriced its only product and is now tens of billions of dollars in the red. Other insurers bravely offered the earthquake peril via endorsement and were devastated after the Northridge earthquake in 1994. In both cases, various market circumstances, including the lack of adequate modeling capabilities, contributed to underpricing and adverse risk selection as the most risk-prone homeowners gobbled up the cheap coverage.

Old legacies die hard, but models stand ready to help responsibly underwrite and manage catastrophic risk, even when the availability of windstorm, earthquake and flood insurance has been traditionally limited and expensive.

The next wave of P&C industry innovation will come from imaginative and enterprising companies that use CAT models to economically bundle risks designed to lower the costs to consumers. We view a future where more CAT risk will be bundled into traditional products. As they continue to improve, CAT models will afford the industry the confidence needed to include earthquake and flood cover for all property lines at full limits and with flexible, lower deductibles. In the future, earthquake and flood hazards will be standard covered perils in traditional property forms, and the industry will one day look back from a product standpoint and wonder why it had not evolved sooner.

Unbundling Risks

Insurance policies as contracts can be clumsy in handling complicated exposures. For example, insurers have the hardest time handling supply chain and contingent business interruption exposures, and rightly so. Because of globalization and extreme competition, multinational companies are continuously seeking value in the inputs for their products. A widget in a product can be produced in China one year, the Philippines the next, Thailand the following year and so on. It is time-consuming and resource intensive to keep track of not only how much of a company’s widgets are manufactured, but also what risks exist surrounding the manufacturing plant that could interrupt production or delivery. We would be hard-pressed to blame underwriters for wanting to exclude or significantly sublimit exposures related to supply chain or business interruption; after all, underwriters have enough difficulty just to manage the actual property exposures inherent in these types of risks.

It is precisely this type of opportunity that makes sense for the industry to create specialized programs. Unbundle the exposure from the remainder of the policy and treat it as a separate exposure with dedicated resources to analyze, price and manage the risk.

Take a U.S. semiconductor manufacturer with supply exposure in Southeast Asia. As was the case with the 2011 Thailand floods or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, this hypothetical manufacturer is likely exposed to supply chain risks of which it is unaware. It is also likely that the property insurance policy meant to indemnify the manufacturer for covered losses in its supply chain will fall short of expectations. An enterprising underwriter could carve out this exposure and transfer it to a new form. In that form, the underwriter can work with the manufacturer to clarify policy wording, liberalize coverage, simplify claims adjusting and provide needed additional capacity. As a result, the manufacturer gets a risk transfer mechanism that more precisely aligns with the balance sheet affecting risks it is exposed to. The insurer gets a new line of business that can provide a significant source of new revenue using tools such as CAT models and other analytics to price and manage those specific risks. By applying some ingenuity, the situation can be a win/win all around.

What if you are a manufacturer or importer and rely on the Port of Los Angeles or Miami International Airport (or any other major international port) to transport your goods in and out of markets? This is another area where commercial policies handle business exposure poorly, or not even at all. CAT models stand ready to provide the analytics required to transfer the risks of these choke points from business balance sheets to insurers. All that is required is vision to recognize the opportunity and the sense to use the toolsets now available to invent solutions rather than relying on legacy group think.

At the end of the day, the next wave of innovation will not come directly from models or analytics. While the models and analytics will continue to improve, real innovation will come from creative individuals who recognize the risks that are causing market discomfort and then use these wonderful tools to build products and programs that effectively transfer those risks more effectively than ever. Those same individuals will understand that the insured comes first, and that rather than retrofitting dated products to suit a modern-day business problem, the advent of new products and services is an absolute necessity to maintain the industry’s relevance. The only limiting factor preventing true innovation in property insurance is imagination and a willingness to no longer cling to the past.

Where Price-Focused Sales Are Heading

I recently read an article about “digital insurance stores.” The article made some good points, though this was not one of them: “Agents need to go beyond their traditional roles as sellers of auto insurance because auto is fast becoming more commoditized.” [emphasis added]

Once again, we’re told that auto insurance is a commodity. In articles (see the “Price Check” article, for example) and webinars, we’ve communicated why auto insurance in particular, and personal lines insurance in general, is not a commodity, nor is it “fast becoming more commoditized.” If anything, the opposite is true. In his paper, “Reevaluating Standardized Insurance Policies,” University of Minnesota Law School Professor Daniel Schwarcz writes about homeowners insurance:

“The current personal-lines insurance marketplace is largely organized around a myth. That myth is that personal-lines insurance policies are completely uniform. This myth explains regulatory rules that do nothing to promote insurance contract transparency….

“Different carriers’ homeowners policies differ radically with respect to numerous important coverage provisions. A substantial majority of these deviations produce decreases in the amount of coverage relative to the presumptive industry standard….”

“If regulators do not act to substantially improve consumer protection in this domain, then it can be expected that coverage will continue to degrade for most carriers, in a modern-day reenactment of the race to the bottom in fire insurance that triggered the first wave of standardized insurance policies….”

Most of the agents I know recognize the demonstrated market share threat of direct, price-focused sales but don’t fear it. Transparent competition is generally a good thing. Historically, intensified industry competition has, more often than not, resulted in more broadened, innovative products. That’s no longer the case given the lack of transparency in the marketing of direct/online insurance products.

Given a focus almost entirely based on low-price, “painless” marketing by increasingly data-driven, tunnel-visioned and short-sighted financial bean counters, what we’re likely seeing now is the beginning of a lemming-like stampede over a coverage oblivion cliff. Too many carriers today couldn’t care less about the role their products play in protecting American families from financial ruin. They’ve convinced themselves (and much of America) that what consumers really want and need is fast, cheap and funny and that the way to sell that is through lizards with Australian accents and box store clerks who’ll sell you a generic brown-paper-packaged insurance product at whatever price you tell her.

So-called experts and researchers who likely have never read their own auto policies and almost certainly have never compared two or more policies tell us that car insurance is a commodity where the best deal is the cheapest price that can be quoted in two minutes (yes, one company implies that it can ascertain your unique exposures and quote you the right product in two minutes, not 15, 7.5, or five). The experts tout the efficiencies of the Internet as the marketing channel that can bring even greater riches to insurers, as they predict the imminent demise of ignorant, un-hip Baby Boomer insurance agents who foolishly believe that consumers need consultation and advocacy. Note, too, that virtually all of these research reports focus on the advantages to the insurance company, with almost complete disregard to the obvious disadvantages to the American consumer.

But let’s say they’re right, that the Internet provides efficiencies that traditional marketing and sales channels cannot compete with. When all you can offer is “fast and cheap,” at some point you can’t provide that product any faster or cheaper. You’ve become as efficient as you possibly can be. So, when price is your only value proposition, what do you do at this point when you can’t cut the expense ratio any closer? Presumably, you’d look to, by far, the biggest component of premium – losses and loss adjustment expenses. So, how do you reduce that component, which accounts for 75% to 80% of premium, to continue to compete on price?

One way would be to actually return to underwriting. But you can’t do that when you’re quoting in two minutes. So, what does that leave? Reducing coverage or becoming more restrictive in claims handling practices. After all, who will know? Everyone agrees that “car insurance” is a commodity, so no one is considering what the policy actually covers or doesn’t cover. Until claim time. And, on average, that’s only once every seven years or so. So, again, no one much will notice…other than the families who lose just about everything they own because they bought an inferior product.

As Mr. Schwarcz opines, that’s exactly where the industry is headed in auto insurance unless agents make their case to the consuming public about the value of consultative selling and claims advocacy. And unless regulators return to carefully vetting the products they approve for the marketplace to ensure that they do not leave unreasonable, potentially catastrophic coverage gaps for insureds and that they reasonably protect the public from becoming victims to overly restrictive policy exclusions and limitations.

Copyright 2015 by the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. Reprinted with permission.

The ‘Netflix Approach’ to Home Insurance

One of the biggest challenges faced by the U.S. homeowners insurance industry are the losses driven by hazardous conditions or poor maintenance. Field inspections help carriers learn more about the many unknowns about a structure and a property before they underwrite the risk. But the inspection report, which costs between $30 and $100, then gets archived and is never touched again. If the homeowner moves to a new carrier, it either has to conduct a new inspection or underwrite the risk without having all the required information.

This scenario got me thinking about applying a “Netflix approach” to home inspections. You can buy movies that you want to watch, or, under the Netflix approach, you can, in essence, share the initial investment by renting them from Netflix. With a centralized investment, you gain a higher level of value than your individual investment would provide.

Here are a couple of questions to consider:

  1. A significant percentage of most U.S. homeowners insurance carriers’ books never get inspected because of limited budgets and underwriting resource constraints. Is there a cheaper and more effective way to learn more about the true condition of every property risk that is being underwritten?
  2. Should the industry continue to look at inspection dollars as an expense and continue to operate in silos? Or would it be possible to monetize a carrier’s historical investment in its inspection program for the greater good?

The Inspection Data Exchange Network

Those two questions provide a compelling reason for U.S. homeowners carriers to come together and consider an Inspection Data Exchange Network.

In an imaginary world, this central data exchange platform would allow carriers to share address-specific historical inspection reports with participating carriers for underwriting purposes. In a majority of risks, the condition hazard profile of a given address is unlikely to change drastically within 12 to 18 months from the date of the original inspection. Depending on a carrier’s risk tolerance and inspection budget, the carrier could either order a new report or decide to use historical inspections.

The carrier that would rent the historical inspection report would pay a fraction of the full price back to the carrier that contributed the original report. Proper measures would need to be implemented to ensure everyone gains appropriately from participating in the network and to avoid scenarios where a small group of participants subsidize the inspection investment for others. This Inspection Data Exchange Platform should ensure the “content creators/artists” — in this case, the inspection vendors — also benefit from this solution.

Even carriers that order inspections based on predictive model-based solutions should be able to benefit from the reduced spending by renting a section of the inspection reports from the network.

Imagine the benefit of monetizing something that was considered a sunk cost, while having the ability to get valuable insight on the true condition of all the policies on your book? Every $7,000 condition hazard-related claim that can be avoided goes straight to the carrier’s bottom line.

The Inspection Data Exchange Network could be an additional lever that can help drive profitability in the homeowners line of business. Are we ready as an industry to do this?