December 16, 2016
6 Worst Things to Happen to Insurance
by Bill Wilson
The author, retiring after nearly 50 years in the industry, lists the six worst trends he's witnessed in his distinguished career.
On Dec. 31, I will close out nearly three decades with the Big “I” at both the state and national levels, which followed a 19-year career with ISO and its predecessors.
To paraphrase the Farmers commercial, I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two over nearly 50 years. I’m so old I can remember when there were underwriting cycles and when investment income was as critical in driving those cycles as underwriting results.
When I started to look back over a long career, I was initially inclined to write about all the great things I’ve experienced—there have been many. But I decided to take an approach that I hope won’t be perceived as negative.
The good things don’t need fixing. So rather than focus on the best of 47 years, I’d like to address six issues I think are bad for the industry that have evolved at an accelerated rate in recent years. Here’s my roundup of the six worst things that have happened to the insurance industry in the last 47 years.
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The ‘insurance is a commodity’ myth. Anyone who pays attention to TV’s incessant insurance advertising knows the focus of the most prevalent ads is almost exclusively price. The public has been duped into believing that there is no real difference between insurance policies or insurers, and that the agent serves no useful purpose except to cost you an extra 15%.
At some point, even with the miracle of today’s technology in the form of automation, data analytics and more, insurers will be operating about as efficiently as they possibly can. If competition still focuses on price alone, how can insurers continue to compete? Considering two-thirds or more of the premium dollar goes to losses and loss adjustment expenses, you have to reduce that expense. The easiest way to do that is reducing what the policy covers.
The vanishing premise that the purpose of insurance is to insure. Perhaps due in large part to price-based competition, after the coverage broadening that began in the 1970s, insurance policies are increasingly stripped down to the point of sometimes becoming illusory.
In various seminars and webinars, I recount a story about my experience with a tree removal service whose excess and surplus commercial general liability policy excluded both in-progress and completed operations. While this trend is particularly apparent in personal lines and the E&S marketplace, it is spreading to standard markets, as well.
The problem is exacerbated by regulators who no longer review insurer form filings for coverage reductions, focusing their resources almost exclusively on keeping prices low—even if the reason they’re low is lack of coverage that endangers the public. Is it time for minimum coverage specs, just as we have minimum auto liability limits?
The obsession with data vs. people. Among underwriters and actuaries, today’s buzzwords are “data analytics” and “predictive modeling.” There is nothing inherently wrong with either—as long as they’re used properly as a tool.
My son is a data scientist in another industry, and the potential applications of the data many organizations collect are remarkable. But for us, it’s just an evolution from the pure actuarial analysis the industry has practiced for many decades. The industry can’t exist without the ability to predict losses.
The movement today, though, is not about predictability in the aggregate, but whether an individual risk or very small subgroup of insureds is likely to have a loss. At issue here is the accuracy and relevancy of these models, as well as their impact on affordability and availability for those individual risks that the algorithms say don’t measure up.
As Ben Franklin said, “All things in moderation.” Self-serving firms selling analytical services use the media to tout analytics as the be-all, end-all solution for all that ails the industry.
Consider this anecdote: Several decades ago, an agent negligently failed to insure a barn that subsequently suffered a total fire loss. The branch manager of the insurer contacted the four other branch managers of farm insurers the agent represented. They each agreed to pay one-fifth of the loss “so their agent wouldn’t be embarrassed in his small community.” How likely is this to occur today?
Industry disrupters and the resurrection of the “death of the insurance agent” prediction. Insurance industry media is loaded with stories about tech disrupters that are going to revolutionize the industry and put insurance agents out of business. Been there, done that.
How these startups are getting millions from venture capitalists is puzzling when you consider some of their business premises, including a recent one involving “micro-insurance.” The premise here is that a consumer purchases a policy with a phone app that only covers a particular item—snow skis, for example—and only while they’re in use. How can insurers possibly price such a risk affordably, and who wants 40 separate micro-policies?
The reality is that the foundation of the industry rests on an often complex legal contract. It’s not like buying a pair of socks or K-cups on the internet. Not every transaction can be reduced to a smart phone app or Amazon-like “one-click” purchase, nor should it.
The certificate of insurance frenzy and the “additional insured” illusion. Everybody wants to be covered by everybody else’s insurance. There’s nothing wrong with requiring business partners to carry insurance; it’s a good thing, because with the exception of auto financial responsibility laws and loan requirements, there’s not much pressure to ensure that individuals and businesses carry insurance to protect the public.
But I’m convinced that this situation has gotten out of control. Companies are spending billions of dollars on control and monitoring, while the actual coverages they provide are becoming increasingly illusory. What is gained here? And what are the ethics behind a large firm effectively forcing smaller businesses to cover them under the little guy’s policy, even if the big guy is 99% at fault?
The dumbing down of the industry. From agents to underwriters to adjusters, far too many industry professionals do not read the policy forms they sell and service. Many others review them at some point, but fail to understand what they’re looking at. Still others read them and think they understand them, but can’t apply them to real-life loss situations.
The problem is compounded by the increasingly rapid societal changes and exposures we witness daily. Insurance executives—including the people involved in the latest wave of industry “disrupters”—appear to lack both a historical perspective of the industry and a fundamental understanding that the overriding purpose of the industry is to protect individuals, families and organizations from financial ruin.
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The insurance knowledge gap is growing, as is the apparent disdain for quality insurance and risk management education. I think mandatory, bean-counting continuing education programs carry some of the blame—by and large, they’ve almost completely failed to accomplish what they set out to accomplish.
Despite the negative tone of this article, we work in a great and indispensable industry. Civilization and commerce as we know it couldn’t exist without insurance—but there’s always room for improvement.
I have no career regrets. It has been a great ride and a privilege serving all of you over the years. In closing, I’d like to point out that I’m not disappearing from the industry—just moving to a new chapter in my twilight years. I will be unveiling a website next month, where I will be blogging about these and other industry issues for (I hope) many years to come. I hope to see you there.