Tag Archives: northridge

A Troubling Gap in Earthquake Coverage

Earthquakes are among the most devastating and economically destructive natural disasters, with the 1994 Northridge earthquake still ranking as the fifth-costliest disaster in U.S. history. Yet unlike other common perils such as floods, fires and windstorms, the overwhelming majority of earthquake risk in the U.S. is completely uninsured. Even in California, the most earthquake-exposed state in the union, only about 13% of residences maintain coverage for earthquake damage, according to the most recent survey completed by the state insurance department.

The primary cause of this low percentage is that, unlike those other risks, earthquake coverage is not required to secure the collateral of mortgages owned or guaranteed by the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) known as Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association), which accounts for 21% of the $14.99 trillion U.S. mortgage debt outstanding. and Freddie Mac (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation), which accounts for 12%.

This exposure should be of concern to policymakers. Ten years ago this month, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac both were taken into conservatorship by their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), and were granted a $187 billion capital injection from the U.S. Treasury Department. While each of the GSEs has subsequently repaid its debt to the government, including a 10% return on investment, the Treasury continues to provide financial support through senior preferred stock purchase agreements. Currently, the Treasury owns $200 billion of the GSEs’ senior preferred stock.

See also: Spreading Damage From Wildfires  

Should a major earthquake strike in the U.S.—as is inevitable—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac both would see the destruction of potentially billions of dollars in structures that serve as collateral for their mortgage portfolios and mortgage guarantees. In addition to requiring direct Treasury outlays to the GSEs, the low takeup rate of earthquake insurance also means that taxpayers almost certainly would be asked to shoulder a disproportionate amount of disaster recovery costs through state and federal disaster aid.

The FHFA acknowledges that it does not currently track the GSEs’ exposure to uninsured earthquake risk. This paper seeks to quantify the size of that uninsured liability and to propose a means to transfer these implicit taxpayer guarantees to the private sector. Our data analysis comprises three components:

  • Using seismic maps published by the U.S. Geological Survey, we identify 249 counties across 21 states that are substantially exposed to the largest earthquake risks.
  • Using property-level databases published by the FHFA, we find that, as of 2016, the GSEs held $355.71 billion of unpaid principal for mortgages in those 249 counties, including $210.1 billion held by Fannie Mae and $145.61 billion held by Freddie Mac.
  • Making certain base assumptions about the proportion of principal that is attributable to structural value and regional surveys of earthquake insurance takeup, we estimate the total value of uninsured earthquake-exposed collateral held by the GSEs, as of 2016, is $204.68 billion.

Finally, we propose that Congress move immediately to require a report on risk transfer by the GSEs. Building on their recent credit risk transfer programs, we believe Fannie and Freddie should be required by the FHFA to transfer at least a portion of their earthquake exposure to the private market through a combination of traditional reinsurance transactions and catastrophe bond securitizations.

See also: 5 Tips for Avoiding Personal Injury Claims  

To finance such transactions, the GSEs should require mortgage originators to assess an appropriate credit charge to take on mortgages in earthquake-prone regions. To provide incentives for property owners, that charge could be waived for properties that demonstrate continuous earthquake coverage or significant investment in seismic retrofitting mitigation.

You can find the full paper here.

When Nature Calls: the Need for New Models

The Earth is a living, breathing planet, rife with hazards that often hit without warning. Tropical cyclones, extra-tropical cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados and ice storms: Severe elements are part of the planet’s progression. Fortunately, the vast majority of these events are not what we would categorize as “catastrophic.” However, when nature does call, these events can be incredibly destructive.

To help put things into perspective: Nearly 70% (and growing) of the entire world’s population currently lives within 100 miles of a coastline. When a tropical cyclone makes landfall, it’s likely to affect millions of people at one time and cause billions of dollars of damage. Though the physical impact of windstorms or earthquakes is regional, the risk associated with those types of events, including the economic aftermath, is not. Often, the economic repercussions are felt globally, both in the public and private sectors. We need only look back to Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy and the recent tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia to see what toll a single catastrophe can have on populations, economies and politics.

However, because actual catastrophes are so rare, property insurers are left incredibly under-informed when attempting to underwrite coverage and are vulnerable to catastrophic loss.

Currently, insurers’ standard actuarial practices are unhelpful and often dangerous because, with so little historical data, the likelihood of underpricing dramatically increases. If underwriting teams do not have the tools to know where large events will occur, how often they will occur or how severe they will be when they do occur, then risk management teams must blindly cap their exposure. Insurers lacking the proper tools can’t possibly fully understand the implications of thousands of claims from a single event. Risk management must place arbitrary capacity limits on geographic exposures, resulting in unavoidable misallocation of capital.

However, insurers’ perceived success from these arbitrary risk management practices, combined with a fortunate pause in catastrophes lasting multiple decades created a perfect storm of profit, which lulled insurers into a false sense of security. It allowed them to grow to a point where they felt invulnerable to any large event that may come their way. They had been “successful” for decades. They’re obviously doing something right, they thought. What could possibly go wrong?

Fast forward to late August 1992. The first of two pivotal events that forced a change in the attitude of insurers toward catastrophes was brewing in the Atlantic. Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 event, with top wind speeds of 175 mph, would slam into southern Florida and cause, by far, the largest loss to date in the insurance industry’s history, totaling $15 billion in insured losses. As a result, 11 consistently stable insurers became insolvent. Those still standing either quickly left the state or started drastically reducing their exposures.

The second influential event was the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, CA. That event occurred on a fault system that was previously unknown, and, even though it measured only a 6.7 magnitude, it generated incredibly powerful ground motion, collapsing highways and leveling buildings. Northridge, like Andrew, also created approximately $15 billion in insured losses and caused insurers that feared additional losses to flee the California market altogether.

Andrew and Northridge were game changers. Across the country, insurers’ capacity became severely reduced for both wind and earthquake perils as a result of those events. Where capacity was in particularly short supply, substantial rate increases were sought. Insurers rethought their strategies and, in all aspects, looked to reduce their catastrophic exposure. In both California and Florida, quasi-state entities were formed to replace the capacity from which the private market was withdrawing. To this day, Citizens Property Insurance in Florida and the California Earthquake Authority, so-called insurers of last resort, both control substantial market shares in their respective states. For many property owners exposed to severe winds or earthquakes, obtaining adequate coverage simply isn’t within financial reach, even 20 years removed from those two seminal events.

How was it possible that insurers could be so exposed? Didn’t they see the obvious possibility that southern Florida could have a large hurricane or that the Los Angeles area was prone to earthquakes?

What seems so obvious now was not so obvious then, because of a lack of data and understanding of the risks. Insurers were writing coverage for wind and earthquake hazards before they even understood the physics of those types of events. In hindsight, we recognize that the strategy was as imprudent as picking numbers from a hat.

What insurers need is data, data about the likelihood of where catastrophic events will occur, how often they will likely occur and what the impact will be when they do occur. The industry at that time simply didn’t have the ability to leverage data or experience that was so desperately needed to reasonably quantify their exposures and help them manage catastrophic risk.

Ironically, well before Andrew and Northridge, right under property insurers’ noses, two innovative people on opposite sides of the U.S. had come to the same conclusion and had already begun answering the following questions:

  • Could we use computers to simulate millions of scientifically plausible catastrophic events against a portfolio of properties?
  • Would the output of that kind of simulation be adequate for property insurers to manage their businesses more accurately?
  • Could this data be incorporated into all their key insurance operations – underwriting, claims, marketing, finance and actuarial – to make better decisions?

What emerged from that series of questions would come to revolutionize the insurance industry.

The Next Jolt That Will Hit California

Losses from Sunday’s 6.0-magnitude earthquake near Napa, the largest in California in 25 years, seriously damaged more than 170 structures and injured more than 200 people. Overall earthquake-related losses are expected to exceed $1 billion.

Many unreinforced masonry buildings risk being declared a total loss. But even retrofitting doesn’t always ensure earthquake immunity. The charming 1901 stone Goodman Library in downtown Napa was seismically retrofitted at a cost of $1.7 million a few years ago, yet the top of the building toppled over in the earthquake. A nearby historic brick building was retrofitted for $1.2 million after a 2000 Napa earthquake, and it was red-tagged Monday with serious damage, as well.

Unfortunately, the repair and rebuilding costs will be the next jolt that rocks the budgets of businesses and homeowners. It’s estimated that less than 12% of homeowners in California have earthquake coverage – a figure that was as high as 22% last year, according to the California Earthquake Authority. CEA underwrites more than 800,000 policies representing 70% of the homeowner earthquake insurance in the state.

California has two-thirds of the nation’s earthquake risk, with 2,000 known faults producing 37,000 measurable earthquakes a year. Besides California, the U.S. Geological Survey maps show major earthquake risks in nearly half the U.S.

In 1994, after a 6.7-magnitude earthquake hit the Northridge area of Southern California, 93% of homeowner insurance companies restricted or refused to write earthquake insurance policies. In response, the California legislature established the California Earthquake Authority (CEA) in 1995 to provide a reduced-coverage (“no-frills”) earthquake policy for homeowners in the state — things like swimming pools, decks and detached structures are not included. Insurance carriers in California can offer their own earthquake coverage or be a participating member of the CEA, which made the CEA one of the largest providers of residential earthquake coverage in the world.

Currently, 21 major insurance carriers participate in CEA, and its assets total nearly $10 billion. Its A.M. Best rating is A- (excellent). CEA policies are available to homeowners and renters, including for mobile homes and condominiums, if their primary homeowners’ coverage is with one of the CEA insurers. Keep in mind that many condominium communities have common ownership, which means that the condo owners could have joint and several liability for repairs after an earthquake. CEA reports that it uses 83% of the premiums it collects for claims or reinsurance, 14% for broker commissions and 3% for operations/overhead.

The likelihood that state or federal disaster relief may be available is a risky proposition for home or business owners. The president needs to declare a disaster before the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can grant any limited assistance. States surplus funds for relief, on the other hand, are simply non-existent.

So why are people buying less earthquake coverage when the hazards of a potential devastating earthquake are growing? Unlike other natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires that are usually covered under homeowners’ insurance policies, earthquake coverage is a separate insurance policy with a deductible of 10% or 15% of the structure’s estimated replacement cost.

The average earthquake policy in California in 2013 cost $676 a year, according to the California Department of Insurance. The current average cost of a home in California, according to Zillow, is $429,000. Even with a minimum 10% deductible, a homeowner would be out of pocket $42,900 before earthquake insurance coverage kicks in.

Business properties suffer a much larger risk factor considering the additional exposure of damaged inventory, a red-tagged (unusable) building risk and loss of use and income.

In contrast, flood insurance is available in most of the country with a $1,000 building and $1,000 contents deductible as part of the property coverage. The Insurance Information Institute reports that the average flood damage claim in 2013 was $26,165 for the 13% of U.S. homeowners who buy the additional flood coverage – sometimes as a condition to their mortgage, if they are located in a flood zone.

Low-frequency, high-severity risks like earthquakes represent a bet that few home or business owners can afford to lose. Unfortunately, Californians, who own the nation’s highest-valued properties, also have the most money on the table when the next big shake comes.