Monday, November 29, 2010

State-Run Property Insurers Lose Customers but Gain Risk

/PRNewswire/ -- Florida and Louisiana have reduced the number of high-risk policyholders covered by their state-run property insurers of last resort since 2008 while still leaving non-coastal property owners vulnerable to paying for these same insurers' potential coastal losses, according to the Insurance Information Institute's (I.I.I.) recently updated Residual Market Property Plans: From Markets of Last Resort to Markets of First Choice.

Florida Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, the largest property insurer of last resort in the U.S., provides insurance to residential and commercial property owners unable to purchase coverage in the standard market. Yet Florida Citizens saw the number of its total policies in force drop to 1.2 million at year-end 2009, down 14 percent from 1.4 million at year-end 2008. Meanwhile, Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, the fourth largest state-run property insurer of last resort in the U.S. in terms of total policies in force behind Texas and Massachusetts, has seen an even more dramatic reduction in its total policy count. Louisiana Citizens had about 165,000 policies in force in June 2008, a figure that dropped to 127,000 policies as of June 2010, a reduction of around 40 percent.

"However, this year's report by the Insurance Information Institute, like the reports of the last two years, records the ongoing growth in the exposure base of the residual market property insurers along with the still-precarious financial condition of some plans. This growth comes despite a collapse in the housing sector that has brought development in many catastrophe-prone areas to a near standstill," write the report's co-authors, Dr. Robert Hartwig, president of the I.I.I. and an economist, and Claire Wilkinson, vice president of Global Issues at the I.I.I.

The I.I.I. estimates that, even as the number of policyholders in Florida, Louisiana and the 32 other Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plans for which data are available dropped to 2.47 million from 2.62 million between 2008 and 2009, their cumulative exposure to loss grew to $614.9 billion in 2009 from $612.7 billion in 2008. The nation's FAIR plans account for by far the majority of policies and exposure in the U.S. overall residual property market. But when the FAIR Plan exposures are added to those incurred by Beach and Windstorm Plans, such as those in place in states such as Alabama and Mississippi, the U.S. residual market exposure to loss grows to $703 billion (2009) from $696 billion, according to the Property Insurance Plans Service Office (PIPSO).

"As long as [these] plans continue to grow, state finances will remain under threat and ultimately taxpayers, many of whom live nowhere near the coast, will continue to face the prospect of increased assessments in the years ahead," Dr. Hartwig and Ms. Wilkinson state.

Since state property insurers of last resort often charge premium rates that do not reflect the risk they are incurring on the policyholder's behalf, the claims paying capacity of FAIR, Beach or Windstorm Plans is relatively limited, and often exhausted quickly in the event of a severe storm. Should this occur, a number of capital-raising options are available to state-run property insurers. The two main options—levying assessments on all policyholders and issuing bonds that must be paid back by all state taxpayers—often result in higher costs for all of the state's policyholders, no matter where they live, as these costs are passed along in the form of premium surcharges or higher taxes. Every homeowners insurer doing business in a particular state is generally a member of a state-run residual market program, just as auto insurers join forces to spread the risks involved in covering problematic drivers through assigned risk programs.

"Increasingly plans are being bailed out by a diversion of tax revenues," the I.I.I. report states, pointing to the fact that in 2008, after Hurricane Ike struck the Texas coastline, $230 million of the $430 million in assessments incurred by the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association's (TWIA) member insurers were subject to premium tax credits. TWIA is the state's insurer of last resort for wind and hail coverage in 14 coastal Texas counties and parts of Harris County.

The report also notes that Mississippi enacted legislation in 2007 to allow a one-time diversion of $80 million in federal and state funds to the Mississippi Windstorm Underwriting Association (MWUA), one of the state's two residual market plans, to boost the MWUA's reserves for windstorm damage claims and protect MWUA policyholders against rate increases.

The I.I.I. report also offers a detailed analysis of the residual market plans in North Carolina and South Carolina, as well as the states cited previously, a list which includes Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi. Policymakers and other interested parties seeking an update on the pending federal pieces of legislation on the issue of natural catastrophe risk should consult the I.I.I. report's Appendix, which can be found on the final two pages of the 51-page document.

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