Tag Archives: national flood insurance program

Catastrophes and ‘Do Little’ Syndrome

Cliff Treese of Association Data brought some statistics to my attention involving earthquake (EQ) insurance in California. Going back as far as 2001, the percentage of properties without EQ insurance were:

Homeowners       84-88%

Dwelling               95-97%

Commercial         89-93%

So, only about 15% of homeowners, 10% of business owners and 5% of dwelling owners buy EQ insurance. Why? Lots of studies and surveys have been done. It’s too expensive. It doesn’t pay much, especially for partial losses, because of percentage deductibles. “It’ll never happen to me.” The government will take care of me. “I thought my regular insurance covered this.” And on and on.

One of my favorite quotations is from Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who said, “The problem with Americans is that we’re fixers rather than preventers.” This is so true in so many ways. Following Hurricane Harvey, it was widely reported that only about 15% of flooded properties had flood insurance. We’ll see what happens, if anything.

See also: Harvey: First Big Test for Insurtech 

While we can’t prevent earthquakes and hurricanes, we can prevent, to a large extent, their financial impact by buying catastrophic insurance. Private insurers sell EQ coverage and, underwritten by the NFIP, flood insurance. Yes, in many cases, it’s expensive, but what are the alternatives when the exposure is so real? As I posted last week, is it time that such coverage was mandated and included, with a federal terrorism-like backstop, in standard policies covering property damage? Such a solution would be complex and difficult, but what are the alternatives?

And, while Gen. Doolittle’s quotation is so often true, it may be even more true that, increasingly, the problem with Americans is that we’re not preventers OR fixers. In the meme I used for last week’s post, I used another quotation from the German philosopher Hegel, who said, “History teaches us that man learns nothing from history.” This may be illustrated in a recent USA Today story about repetitive flood properties with this excerpt:

“Instead, NFIP embraced a “flood-rebuild-repeat” model that has spawned an almost $25 billion debt. The National Wildlife Foundation estimated in 1998 that 2% of properties covered by federal flood insurance had multiple damage claims accounting for 40% of total flood insurance outlays, and that more than 5,000 homes had repeat claims exceeding their property value. A recent Pew Charitable Trust study revealed that 1% of the 5 million properties insured have produced almost a third of the damage claims and half the debt.”

NFIP paid to rebuild one Houston home 16 times in 18 years, spending almost a million dollars to perpetually restore a house worth less than $120,000. Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston), has almost 10,000 properties that have filed repetitive flood insurance damage claims. The Washington Post recently reported that a house “outside Baton Rouge, valued at $55,921, has flooded 40 times over the years, amassing $428,379 in claims. A $90,000 property near the Mississippi River north of St. Louis has flooded 34 times, racking up claims of more than $608,000.”

See also: Time to Mandate Flood Insurance?  

Wow. Fully 2% of properties insured for flood account for 40% of all flood insurance payments. A $120,000 home was rebuilt 16 times in 18 years at a cost of almost a million dollars. Another home has allegedly flooded 40 times and still another property 34 times, racking up combined payments in excess of a million dollars. WHY? Apparently because we’re not fixers OR preventers AND we learn nothing from history.

Harvey Hammers Home NFIP Issue

The economic devastation and human suffering that Hurricane Harvey inflicted on vast numbers of people will sorely test the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) as it comes up for renewal, with the NFIP lapsing if Congress and the president fail to act by the end of the month. Some in the federal government, state regulators, industry experts and this economist favor solutions encouraging private sector participation in flood insurance markets. Near-term, the most likely and wisest course seems to be a short extension allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and NFIP to focus on settling claims while politicians and policy experts develop longer-term solutions.

With the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reporting the NFIP was $24.6 billion in debt before Hurricane Harvey, many in government and elsewhere feel significant reforms are needed. Other knocks against the NFIP as currently constituted include its reliance on allegedly inaccurate and out-of-date flood insurance rate maps (FIRMS), its failure to charge actuarially appropriate premiums and policy limits too low to provide adequate insurance protection. Some also contend that the NFIP encourages excessive risk taking and poor land use by providing subsidized insurance coverage for properties that repeatedly get flooded out, effectively divorcing those who choose to reside in flood prone locations from the consequences of their decisions.

Uncertainty about the exact extent of the devastation caused by Harvey will persist for some time, as the huge number of properties damaged by the storm, difficult conditions and continuing lack of access to some of the hardest-hit areas all add to the time necessary to assess losses. Further complicating efforts to understand the magnitude of the losses caused by Harvey, published reports often fail to clearly distinguish between economic losses, insured losses covered by private carriers and insured losses covered by the NFIP. Nonetheless, it appears Hurricane Harvey may exhaust the NFIP’s financial capacity, causing the program to go still deeper in debt.

See also: Harvey: First Big Test for Insurtech  

The NFIP purchased private reinsurance covering 26% of its losses between $4 billion and $8 billion, but Fitch Ratings believes losses from Hurricane Harvey could consume the NFIP’s $1.04 billion in reinsurance protection.

As Congress and the president ponder the way forward, the options available to them include several that would facilitate development of private markets for flood insurance akin to the private markets for homeowners insurance. Key elements of such solutions include measures clarifying mortgage lenders’ ability to use flood coverage underwritten by private carriers to satisfy insurance requirements imposed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The development of private markets for flood insurance will also require that the NFIP adopt actuarially sound pricing. Simply put, private carriers that must cover their costs and earn an adequate rate of return on capital would be at a tremendous disadvantage competing against taxpayer-subsidized coverage from the NFIP. And it would certainly help if carriers currently participating in the NFIP’s WYO Program were allowed to also offer alternative coverage. Currently, the WYO Program includes a non-compete clause that precludes carriers from offering alternative standalone flood insurance.

The constituencies supporting increased private sector involvement in flood insurance markets include the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies and the American Insurance Association, which have all come out in favor of the Flood Insurance Market Parity and Modernization Act passed unanimously by the House in 2016.

Thinking more broadly, there may be no need for the federal government to participate directly in the flood insurance business. Mechanisms akin to state FAIR and Beach Plans could serve as insurers of last resort for property owners unable to obtain coverage from private carriers. Or, we could transition from the NFIP as it exists today to a new NFIP modeled on the Terrorism Risk and Insurance Program (TRIP) introduced after the terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Under that program, insurers must offer terrorism coverage, with policyholders then free to accept or decline. If insured losses from a terrorist attack exceed specified triggers, the federal government provides reinsurance protection, and insurers subsequently reimburse the federal government.

Thinking still more broadly, there may be no need for the federal government to participate in the flood insurance business at all. With trillions of dollars flowing through global capital markets, catastrophe bonds and other insurance-linked securities could enable insurers and reinsurers to obtain all of the capacity necessary to cover flood risk without any federal reinsurance backstop.

See also: Time to Mandate Flood Insurance?  

An ideal solution would enable one policy to provide coverage for both wind losses and flood losses. As long as those losses are covered by separate policies, policyholders and insurers will remain burdened with having to distinguish wind losses from flood losses— a frequently contentious and often expensive undertaking that adds to the time necessary to settle claims.

In any case, private sector insurers and reinsurers now have access to data and sophisticated flood models that enable them to price and underwrite flood risk intelligently. And developments such as the new commercial flood insurance program recently introduced by ISO and Verisk Analytics set the stage for greater participation in flood insurance markets by ever greater numbers of insurers, as will the corresponding personal property flood insurance program they plan to roll out later this year. With state regulators and insurers aligned, it seems all that’s necessary to unleash the power of private markets is action on the part of Congress and the president. Why not send them a postcard?

Harvey: First Big Test for Insurtech

As Hurricane Harvey finally relents, the insurance industry is about to experience the flip side of a famous line from Warren Buffett. Talking about how investment portfolios shouldn’t be judged in good times, Buffett said, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Well, with the rain and the rain and the rain that Harvey inflicted on Houston and surrounding areas, we’re going to get to see who in the insurance world can swim.

That question will take two forms, one that we’ve seen in every disaster since time immemorial, but the other a new one, about insurtech.

The normal one is about whether insurers will perform in their moment of truth, or whether we’ll find the kinds of dubious decisions by adjusters and faked engineering reports that led to improperly denied claims and gave insurance a black eye after Superstorm Sandy.

In the case of Harvey, the question for the industry is, essentially: Do insurers want to be Joel Osteen or J.J. Watt?

As you may know, given that he’s all over TV, Osteen is the senior pastor at a megachurch in Houston who was mocked on social media for being slow to open the doors of his “prosperity gospel” Christian church and provide shelter and aid for those displaced by the hurricane. He says that he has been maligned and that he was always ready to help, if the city had asked, but his many critics have noted that nobody had to ask Houston’s mosques to open their doors and made Osteen the king of memes this week. Osteen is damaged. The only question is how badly.

On the flip side is J.J. Watt, the all-everything defensive lineman for the Houston Texans. Very early in the storm, he made a personal pledge of $100,000 and asked for others to kick in, stating a goal of $200,000. Well, his sincerity and concern went viral, drawing donations from tiny to huge, from Drake to Walmart. Last I checked, total donations exceeded $20 million. With the waters receding, Watt and teammates will be personally going around the city, delivering water, clothing and everything else he’s bought to hand out. He could run for king in Texas, and nobody would get in his way.

While acknowledging that insurance is a business that has no obligation to pay more than it owes policyholders, I think the choice is clear: Be like J.J. Watt as much as you can. Don’t be Joel Osteen.

See also: Harvey: Tips to Avoid Claim Issues  

The new question is trickier. The insurtech movement has been around for a few years now, but Hurricane Harvey is the first true catastrophe that has happened during a time when the insurance industry is laying a claim to innovation. (For good measure, Typhoon Hato has been hammering Macau and Hong Kong at the same time.)

We’re about to find out how innovative we really are.

Some companies are following the traditional playbook and dispatching armies of adjusters to the afflicted region. But we’ll also see the skies filled with drones and will learn how effective they can be at documenting the damage and how much their work still has to be supplemented by humans.

We’ll learn a lot about the “gig economy” and whether part-time workers, such as the “Lookers” provided by WeGoLook, can efficiently supplement the full-time insurance workforce, speed the process of claims and slash away at the costs of sorting out a full-on disaster.

Supposedly, insurtech is letting everything happen faster. Startups such as ViewSpection and MondCloud provide for self-service on claims, letting individuals send photos and videos and allowing insurers to do triage and pay easy claims quickly. But reality may intrude.

Every time I see a photo of some aid facility and spot a sign saying “Free legal services,” I want to applaud those who are helping the injured pro bono, but the cynic in me sees lawyers fishing for clients. I suspect that the hurricane is a full-employment act for every recent law school graduate in Texas. The lawyers, of course, have a vested interest in avoiding quick settlements, so they can work the insurers, take thousands of cases to court and perhaps find some lucrative class actions.

Insurtechs, meet lawyers. We’ll have to see how that goes. I don’t often bet against the lawyers.

Insurers have begun using chatbots, such as Pypestream’s, in their call centers, which should help handle the deluge of calls that will come in from customers and allow insurers to contact customers more often and more effectively to keep them up to date on the progress of claims. We’ll have to see how insurers do about handling customers’ concerns in these hours and days and weeks of need, as well as what role technology plays.

Better data and analytics, sometimes powered by AI, are supposedly making us all smarter about mitigating risks, underwriting and everything else, but it’s easy to congratulate yourself on being smart when you don’t face a test.

In the real test — accuracy — I’d say insurtech startup HazardHub wins early points for putting out an analysis right before the storm saying that $77 billion of property was at risk in Houston, quite a bit higher than other estimates I saw – though lower than some estimates now circulating, and damage estimates always seem to grow, never diminish.

We’ll see whether the powerful new analytics let any company in particular get away from the risks in Houston – keeping in mind that ProPublica identified the particular risks in Houston, because of lack of restrictions on real estate development, in a story published last year. If the journalists could spot the risks, how did the insurers do?

The verdicts will take weeks and months to come in, because the damage has been so extensive and because problems are still developing in what continues to be a stew of mold, fetid water and chemicals. But we’ll get a sharp sense of where innovation has, in fact, happened and where it needs to go – if we keep our eyes open, evaluate the results honestly and take the lessons seriously.

There’s one other question that needs to be answered, too, this one on the government policy level. Flood insurance isn’t working in the U.S., so what do we do about it? 

Perhaps lulled by a lack of major storms hitting the U.S., homeowners have increasingly declined to purchase policies, so estimates are that 80% to 85% of homes in Houston were not covered. Meanwhile, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which provides so much of the coverage, is already heavily in debt because it underprices risk and hasn’t recovered from Superstorm Sandy. By law, the NFIP needs to be renewed this month, but we’ve all seen how dysfunctional Congress is these days, and Congress has even more pressing priorities this month, such as dealing with the budget and raising the national debt ceiling.

The best proposal I’ve seen so far is to require that homeowners and renters insurance, commercial property policies, auto policies and so on all have a flood piece to them, so that citizens carry the responsibility and so that risk is priced in the market, rather than being dumped on the federal government.

See also: Time to Mandate Flood Insurance?

One person attached a compelling comment to this article on how the federal government, not insurers (and, ultimately, the insured public) will pay for the recovery from Hurricane Harvey:

“Homeowners have three options: 1) buy flood insurance through the NFIP, 2) live in a non-flood plain or 3) accept the risk of living in a flood plain. Option 4 of Harvey victims expecting insurers/taxpayers to compensate them for their increased risk is not an option.”

A century ago, in the earliest days of IBM, founding CEO Tom Watson Sr. placed signs in offices that said, “Think.” When the company sparked fears of bankruptcy 25 years ago, wags penciled in two words underneath some of those signs, so they read, “Think – or Thwim.” Flood insurance in the U.S. is in “Think or Thwim” mode. I hope we think.

Time to Mandate Flood Insurance?

According to this article, only 15% of homeowners in the Houston area have flood insurance:

“As of August 2016, just 15% of the 1.6 million homes in Harris County, where Houston is located, had flood insurance, according to emailed data from the Insurance Information Institute, and only 28% of the homes in ‘high-risk’ areas for flooding.”

See also: Hurricane Harvey: A Moment of Truth 

We all know the reasons why people don’t buy flood insurance. They think, “It’ll never happen to me.” It’s too expensive. They don’t have to. They don’t know they need it. Or, they’re told they don’t need it in idiotic articles like this one that can be found plastered all over the internet:

“Unless you live in a flood plain or an area with a history of water problems, don’t even bother buying flood insurance. If none of the homes in the area has ever been flooded, yours is unlikely to be the first.”

Last month, in a blog post about healthcare, I raised the issue of whether we should explore an alternative system to how we currently insure catastrophic exposures to loss:

I’ve opined for years that we should abolish the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and windstorm pools, mandate property coverage by all owners and tenants and include flood and windstorm damage in standard homeowners, commercial property, auto and other policies. Minimum and maximum catastrophe loadings could be established so that there is some degree of subsidization in more risky areas. CRITICAL, though, would be mandated loss control measures, including zoning restrictions, building codes and so forth. Loss prevention and reduction would be absolutely necessary components of an insurance program, as they should be now.

The reality is that, unless the risk of loss is almost definite or coverage is mandated, people simply will not buy the coverage. And if the risk of loss is high, the cost of insurance is either unaffordable or results in adverse selection and repetitive losses. While the focus today is on flood, this holds true for other catastrophic exposures like earthquake.

Is this doable? Should property insurance be mandated and include catastrophe premium loadings similar to civil disorder charges applied in the late ’60s? Can the risk of loss be spread enough that the private sector can manage it? Can commerce and governments work together to invoke loss control measures to mitigate loss to manageable levels? What are the issues? What are the obstacles? Can they be overcome?

See also: Harvey: Tips to Avoid Claim Issues  

Your comments are welcome below. And, please, no political rants, just rational and respectful arguments, points and counterpoints.

Hurricane Harvey: A Moment of Truth

The first major hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005, Hurricane Harvey will cause billions of dollars in economic damage and disrupt countless lives. In the wake of massive economic losses and untold human suffering, including loss of life, millions of individuals and businesses will turn to their insurers for help. This will be a make-or-break experience, a real moment of truth.

Insurers will be presented with a golden opportunity to justify the public’s trust and earn the respect of policyholders, regulators, legislators and others in government. But insurers also run the risk of failing to live up to expectations and incurring the wrath of voters and their elected representatives.

See also: Flood Risk: Question Is Where, Not When  

The first test may well be distinguishing damage caused by wind from damage caused by flooding, as virtually all insurance policies exclude losses due to flooding (the exception being those policies issued by the National Flood Insurance Program). Insurers will need to be careful, thorough and fair when settling claims.

Equally important, insurers will need to be perceived as having been so, and communication will be key. Insurers would be well advised to do what they can to make policyholders feel they have been treated with respect, dignity and compassion even when their claims must be denied or settled for some amount less than the claimant sought.

Moreover, insurers would be well advised to settle claims as quickly as possible without unduly sacrificing sound loss adjustment and efforts to weed out fraud and abuse.

Finally, with the media sure to draw attention to heartbreaking stories about human tragedy in Harvey’s aftermath, insurers might benefit from doing what they can to shine a light on their efforts to help individuals and businesses recover. Surely it is worth noting that, as others evacuate, insurers gear up to send large numbers of claim adjusters to work in extremely difficult conditions in hard-hit areas.

Hurricane Harvey will also lead to many other moments of truth. For example, the devastation caused by Harvey may well prove to be the first real test at extreme scale of new insurtech created to improve loss adjustment. Will use of drones, aerial imagery, artificial intelligence, digitalization, big data, predictive analytics and the like prove as beneficial as hoped? Will insurtech entrepreneurs and insurers who have invested in these technologies be vindicated? And, on a more positive note, will experience coping with Harvey reveal new opportunities to use emerging technologies to increase speed, efficiency and fairness?

Insured losses from Hurricane Harvey may also test reinsurance mechanisms, including catastrophe bonds, other insurance-linked securities and sidecars. And what about so-called hedge fund reinsurers, which sought to profit by investing insurance float using strategies like those typically employed by hedge funds? Will they continue to participate as claims mount, or will they instead seek to exit the business? Some past catastrophes triggered significant inflows of fresh capital, as investors sensed opportunities to profit from a turn in reinsurance markets. Such was the case following Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005. Will the “fast money” come rushing in again, and, if it does, will it prove to also be “smart money”?

All of the above raises the question, “Will Hurricane Harvey lead to a reset of catastrophe models, pricing for hurricane risk and underwriting?” Some past storms, such as Hurricane Andrew in 1992, convinced insurers that they had previously underestimated hurricane risk and thus led to dramatic resets in coastal property insurance markets, with attendant price increases and availability problems. Whether Harvey brings about such a reset seemingly depends on whether current catastrophe models did an adequate job alerting insurers to the risk of an event like Hurricane Harvey. If so, changes in coastal property insurance markets may be muted. If not, expect price increases and availability problems.

See also: Is Flood Map Due for a Big Data Make-Over?  

Last, and let’s hope least, Hurricane Harvey may test insurers’ enterprise risk management. Prior to Harvey, the property/casualty industry had ample surplus, and most insurers were well capitalized. But surplus was not evenly distributed across insurers, and only the surplus of those insurers that wrote policies covering properties struck by Harvey is available to cover claims from Harvey.

If an insurer only wrote risks in Oregon, its surplus won’t be called upon to cover claims from Harvey. Bottom line, insurers that covered properties affected by Harvey, that were aware of potential losses and that have ample financial resources to cover claims and continue operations can give themselves good grades for enterprise risk management.

On the other hand, Insurers that covered properties affected by Harvey, that were surprised by their losses and that lack the resources to cover claims must give themselves failing grades for enterprise risk management.

And then there is a gray area: insurers that intelligently judged the risk of insolvency to be acceptably small, took a calculated risk and then lost that bet. Though such insurers will fail, it cannot be said that their enterprise risk management failed. Eliminating even the most remote chance of insolvency is not practical. Neither is it economically viable. Sound enterprise risk management consists of: 1) understanding risks; 2) making conscious, intelligent decisions about which risks to take, which risks to avoid, which risks to mitigate and which risks to transfer; and, 3) enforcing controls that keep operations within the bounds established by an enterprise’s appetite for risk.