Monday, November 26, 2007

Major Changes Ahead for the Insurance Industry?

Welcome back. I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. This post will not be about the New York auto or home insurance coverage that we usually cover. This time I will be highlighting some larger trends that in some cases have already come to affect other industries but may now be coming to an insurance policy near you.

One such new area is that the 'capital markets' are starting to make eyes at the insurance industry. When I say capital markets, I'm talking about monies raised by the giant investment firms like Merrill Lynch or Goldman Sachs. Up until now, insurance companies raised the money needed to back their insurance products by selling stock, and collecting premiums and investing them. But now these super-sized financial companies have become experts at raising literally billions of dollars quite quickly and efficiently, in their constant efforts to find investments to sell to their clients.

Traditionally, these financial companies would raise money for other companies by underwriting offers of their stocks and bonds. So if General Motors wanted to raise a billion dollars to invest in a new vehicle product line, for example, they could have Merrill agree to make good faith efforts to sell enough shares of GM stock (remember that stock represents an ownership interest) or GM could offer corporate bonds (debt that has to be repaid, but does not give up any ownership) for a similar amount. They would have to weigh the plusses and minuses of each.

Now, however, with the advent of things like hedge funds, and giant pension funds and even major individual investors looking to put their money to work, enough capital can be raised to start whole new companies and industries. The capital markets were a major force behind the growth of sub-prime mortgages over the past several years, as investors chased higher yields which could only be had by coming up with the many strange variations of mortgages, and in many cases giving them to people who, it turns out, couldn't afford them and are now facing serious financial problems.

These companies could end up having a huge impact on major insurance coverages such as catastrophe insurance. For instance, billions could be quickly raised to offer reinsurance (the kind of insurance that insurance companies buy for themselves against major events like hurricanes) except that instead of insurance companies buying their reinsurance from traditional markets like Lloyds, or SwissRe, they might look for better deals from the capital markets.

Competition is generally good in that it reduces costs. For instance, it would help us here on Long Island right now if insurance carriers could lower their cost of reinsurance for windstorms and hurricanes. That's what is causing all the disruption in the insurance market for waterfront homes these days. On the other hand, the capital market's tendency to use overly aggressive sales pitches, and only shoot for short term profit as opposed to long term viability, can make for quite a mess. Right now we are going through a mortgage and real estate crisis that was made much worse by predatory lending practices and speculation, fostered by these 'capital markets' chasing down an extra per cent or two of interest on their money through sub-prime mortgages.

The one thing about insurance that is different from almost any other kind of product, is that you can have catastrophic, once-in-a-lifetime events like Katrina or the four hurricanes in 3 weeks that hit Florida a couple of years back. These require careful long-term planning and an industry with plenty of real money behind it. I'm not sure I want to see insurance get the same kind of treatment as the mortgage industry has gotten this year as a result of reckless short term practices over the past couple of years.

Next up, will the next Presidential election bring a total change to our health insurance system?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Another Hurricane Season

Welcome back. I have not had time to post in a while but today as I was doing some "homework" I found that I needed to change the look of the blog, because with Google's new system, they had new template designs, and I had to choose one. I hope you like the look, though I know I don't have that many 'regular' readers. After all, not many people choose to while away their hours reading about insurance. I do have some regular readers of my other blog, www.aroundbabylon.com, but that's because I write about local happenings in our Village.

But while I'm here, I will write a short post. The market for homeowners insurance on Long Island is continuing to change. This past week we had our first call from someone who's being canceled by State Farm. They were told that State Farm is canceling people within a half mile of the water. I had heard that they stopped writing new business within a half-mile of the South Shore of Long Island but not that they were canceling anybody.

I say this not to pick on State Farm in any way. I happen to think they are pretty good company, and they are the biggest in auto and home insurance. Unfortunately, I just point it out to show what is happening in the Suffolk County and overall Long Island insurance marketplace. Even the largest insurance carriers do not have the capacity to absorb the business being shed by their competitors.

We need a lot of changes in not only the insurance business but also in the codes for new home construction and in other government regulations. But in the meantime, what we need most is a number of new carriers to come in the market and each take a small percentage of the business.

A big part of my job these days is keeping my eyes and ears open all the time for these new players. We wrote our first policy with one such insurance program this week. Our agents Association works hard on this issue all the time but Independent Insurance Agents only represent about 35% of the personal insurance market (meaning car and house insurance). And so we are not the "big players."

That would be Allstate, State Farm, Farmers and a few others. The problem is that, as I pointed out above, size is not an advantage here, because of the massive damage that would be possible in a Katrina size hurricane. Allstate is in favor of a government 'backstop', which is the only thing that would help them because of the sheer volume of business they wrote in coastal areas. But that idea has not caught on with most of the other companies, who would rather see a competitive market with risk-based pricing.

And while the public may debate about global warming, and whether it's caused by humans or not, the fact remains that sea levels are rising and temperatures are going up. And so the insurance companies simply don't know what's going to happen. Even if there is no such thing as global warming (and I personally think there is such a thing), we are at the very least in a period of rising temperatures and increased storm activity, even if it's just a natural cycle that will go away at some point. That point may still be 20 or 50 years away during which time we may or may not have some pretty strong storms. When you add that in to the amount of property value there is here on Long Island it's a pretty scary scenario.

Meanwhile, there are also a number of major insurance companies, who need no introduction here, who are chasing just the automobile insurance market without taking any share of the risk 0f catastrophic loss that mainly affects the property market. As these companies suck dollars from the insurance buying public, the effect is to weaken the financial positions of those companies who also take their fair share of the property insurance market.

We live in interesting times. As always, more information is available by visiting our web sites at www.NYInsuranceWithService.com and www.FloodInsuranceNY.com.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Coastal Homeowners Insurance - Has it stopped getting worse?

Apologies for not writing in a while. I'm not unhappy to say that it's because our office has been very busy. We're having other adventures as well, having just installed a new 'paperless office' software and hardware system. There is still paper on everybody's desk, but the piles are slowly going down and will not return.

In any event, there is news, and some rumors, to report. In the very short term, like right now, insurance companies are still tightening up and cancelling or non-renewing homeowners insurance for many people on Long Island and other coastal areas. In the past two weeks, two fairly large players shut off new business in Suffolk County and most of Nassau. This is a matter of how much capacity they have overall, not a fear of any one house getting damaged. Another major carrier, one of the biggest in the country, in fact, stopped writing within a half mile of the shore and rumor has it they may start canceling those within 1000 feet of tidal water.

Insurance companies can buy reinsurance to protect themselves from major catastrophes. But how much they can buy is limited to some extent by their overall size and capital reserves (that's grossly oversimplified but the longer explanation is so boring that it hurts). And the insurance regulators as well as the financial companies that give insurance carriers their precious A and A+ ratings are threatening to lower them if they don't reduce their waterfront and coastal insurance exposure.

Add in to those issues that there are a number of large carriers that have come in to the market just writing car insurance, taking no part of the risk in the homeowners insurance department, and most especially not the coastal properties. That has also reduced the capital and reserves of the remaining companies that write both auto and home insurance. That's why one of the big criteria that a certain company is using to decide who to cancel is whether they have their car insurance with them or somewhere else. They are giving preference to customers who also insure their cars along with the home, and why not? Most businesses are expected to give some discount or other incentive to those who buy more from them.

But there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. For the first time in a long time I heard at a meeting the other day some news of early discussions with insurance carriers who are not in the Long Island homeowners insurance market at all. That's what we need, some companies who can balance their exposure in other parts of the country against some new business in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. This will still take probably the rest of this year to show any real progress, but at least it's a rumor in the right direction.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Quick Update

Just a quick update, not a whole new post, but I found it interesting. One of my main jobs is seeking out new markets for clients that we already have or might come across. In this vein, the other day I saw a market for various types of youth programs. We write a few of those, so I contacted the company.

I was told that they made a decision not to write anything on Long Island. This is related to the catastrophe storm stuff, but it's not like there are thousands of youth groups on Long Island in the same way that there are thousands of expensive homes. This is just another example of companies that are in panic mode.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Our First Storm Scare of the Season

This past weekend, Long Island and the surrounding areas got our first scare of this season. For those who don't realize it, we are already in the beginning weeks of what is considered hurricane season for our part of the world.

Here in Nassau and Suffolk counties, we got pretty lucky this past weekend. New Jersey was not so lucky and they continue to dig out of the mess. This was a nor'easter, as opposed to a tropical storm. There are a couple of things that were different. One is that it came from over the middle of the country, as opposed to tropical storms and hurricanes, which originate (strangely enough) in the tropics, out over water.

So that means that our deluge of rainfall was preceded by a bunch of snow being dropped on the middle part of the country. Usually they are laughing at us when we get hit by a tropical storm, because those rarely make it far inland. Once they do go over land, they quickly lose much of their strength.

The other thing that makes nor'easters so treacherous, especially here on Long Island and in the sort of inverted coastal corner that is the New York metropolitan area, is that the wind comes from a different direction than what is normal for us. Typically, our winds are the 'prevailing westerlies'. (Wind is named for the direction where it originates). That's why our weather patterns usually run from west to east. So if it's raining in central Pennsylvania, most times you can watch as the weather forecasters tell us how long it will be until that reaches us.

Even in this nor'easter, it came from the west relative to us. But the wind is from the northeast instead of the usual west. That means that to a certain extent, these high winds are blowing water in towards our south shores as they circulate around the storm's center! That's why nor'easters can cause heavy flooding even though it might not seem, walking out into our back yards, that things are all that horrible.

Let's hope this does not portend a more active hurricane season here on Long Island. In the past few weeks several more major insurance carriers have stopped writing in Suffolk County. The markets that are open are getting more expensive. And a couple of bad storms could really cause a crisis. We shall see.

As always for more information please visit our web sites at www.NYInsuranceWithService.com and www.FloodInsuranceNY.com.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Homeowners Insurance Adventure Continues

These days, the insurance industry, especially in catastrophe hurricane exposed areas like Long Island, is changing very quickly. This is very different from not too long ago. Insurance companies and their employees tend to be very conservative, resisting changes sometimes for years before caving in. Agents tend to be the same, because our job is to protect against risk of loss, as opposed to many other business and personal models, where taking risks is part of the fun.

These days, change is fast and drastic. I have not posted here in about a month and a half, but in that time, several more carriers have stopped or severely cut back on writing home insurance on Long Island, especially within a half mile of the water. The latest one I heard about was State Farm, who stopped writing new policies within 2500 feet of the Bay. Adirondack Insurance recently severely limited their new policies in all of Suffolk County regardless of distance to water, and New York Central Mutual is not only limiting new policies, but they recently became part of the group that is actually canceling people.

Allstate continues to cancel thousands of policyholders, though they have made some efforts to bring other companies to the table so that their Long Island agents still have something to sell. There are almost no new players coming in to the New York market, except for some 'excess lines' carriers such as Lloyd's of London and Lexington Insurance Company. These carriers write policies at a much higher price, but at least they make coverage available.

If it turns out you are forced to seek insurance from one of these non-standard companies, be sure the agent you are dealing with has experience with them, especially with waterfront home insurance issues, and knows what to look for. We have seen policies that COMPLETELY EXCLUDE wind damage! What is the point of having insurance if you are not covered for a hurricane, which is just a big windstorm with a name? Some of these policies also carry exclusions for pets, underground oil tanks, and other unusual clauses. We have also seen policies that offer 'actual cash value' coverage on the structure itself, which takes depreciation based on age, as opposed to a 'regular' homeowners insurance policy which insured at replacement cost.

Of course, these policies still do not cover flood damage even though they may cost 2-3 times more than what was considered normal for Long Island home insurance only a couple of years ago. Flood insurance continues to be available through your local agent via the FEMA National Flood Insurance Program, and excess flood insurance is available from a number of companies, when the $250,000 maximum building coverage through the FEMA program is not enough.

Remember also that if your policy is through an excess and surplus insurance company, you are NOT protected by the New York State Guaranty Fund. That fund provides up to $1,000,000 in coverage if an insurance carrier defaults or becomes insolvent. Lloyd's prides itself on never having defaulted on a claim in over 100 of years of existence. And Lexington is part of AIG, the world's largest insurer. Still, the fact is they are not subject to regulation by the New York State insurance department, nor backed by the Guaranty Fund.

Another solution that is being used is the New York Fair Plan, otherwise known as NY Property or NYPIUA. That is a state-run operation that was designed to provide basic fire insurance for properties in blighted areas or which have other problems. But the policies provide NO liability insurance, no theft coverage, no coverage for burst pipes, and have many other restrictions. Again, in some cases, this may be your only practical option, but you need to be aware of just what you are buying. We have come across insurance offices here on Long Island telling their clients that they are getting a homeowners policy from NY Property, and nothing could be further from the truth.

As always, for more information, visit our sites at www.NYInsuranceWithService.com or www.FloodInsuranceNY.com.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What is a Hurricane/Wind deductible and why is it on my Homeowners Insurance policy?

If you are a resident of the Long Island area and have not looked at your homeowners insurance policy lately, you probably should. One of the big changes that has come about over the last couple of years is the addition of a special, higher deductible for hurricane damage. Sometimes the higher deductible is for 'wind and hail', not just specifically hurricane. It depends on the insurance company.

So what does this mean? Quite simply, it means that if Long Island is hit by a hurricane, instead of your standard policy deductible of $500 or $1000 (the amount you have to pay in a property loss, after which the insurance company pays) may instead be tens of thousands of dollars! Usually, the deductible is a percentage of the amount of insurance on your house, ranging from 2% to as much as 10%. By law, the insurance companies must put both the percent and the dollar amount on the face of your policy.

These are being dictated by the reinsurance companies, the place where insurance carriers go to protect themselves againts catastrophic losses (those that affect large numbers of policy holders at the same time). These are your giant off-shore companies, many based in Bermuda or in the London market. They are not subject to the same state regulation as our 'domestic' carriers, and so they can decide what they want to charge and what coverages they will provide, and our Long Island homeowners insurance carriers pretty much have to live with it or assume more risk themselves, which they don't want to do.

As an example, if your house is covered for $400,000 and you have a 5% hurricane deductible, you would have to shell out $20,000 after a hurricane before your insurance company would be involved. And one of the biggest problems is that there is no standardization among the insurance carriers. Some have deductibles that activate with ANY hurricane that hits Long Island, some for category 2 storms, some just for any wind or hail whether or not it's associated with a hurricane.

There has been some talk in the state legislature about allowing a tax deductible savings plan that people can put money into each year to prepare for paying these large deductibles if a hurricane hits. The Small Business Administration (SBA) may also get involved in offering low interest loans but that is not guaranteed at this point in time. You can also buy an insurance policy to cover the deductible, from Lloyd's of London, for about 10% of your deductible. So in our example above, it would cost $2000 a year to cover your $20,000 deductible, not a very good bet.

This is an evolving area and as insurance agents here on Long Island, and in particular in Suffolk County, we need to be paying attention. But as consumers, readers of this article need to look at their own policies and make sure you understand what coverage you have so it doesn't come as a surprise when the inevitable storm hits.