Thursday, October 16, 2008

NY Auto and Home Insurance in the Financial Crisis

Greetings, all. Like most small businesspeople these days I have been very busy trying to make sure I do those things necessary to keep our office busy and profitable in tough economic times. So I thought this would be a good time to talk about how the financial crisis is affecting the insurance companies.

We have all been reading about the failure of many Wall Street firms and banks. Some even have divisions in the insurance business such as AIG whose a widely publicized problems have many people worried because of their insurance policies with various parts of that group. However while banks and brokerage firms were de-regulated a number of years ago which is part of the reason for the current mess, the same is not true of the insurance business.

Insurance is one of the most heavily regulated businesses and New York in particular is considered the model for other states and around the world in keeping New York insurance companies solvent and able to pay their claims. Even in AIG, it is the parent holding company not the insurance units that are having problems.

As long as you were insured with a New York licensed insurance company you would have nothing to worry about in terms of whether claim would be paid up to $1 million, which is a guarantee that is part of the New York State insurance guaranty fund. And if you are one of those people on Long Island who have coastal or waterfront property and have been forced to get your insurance with an unlicensed carrier such as Lloyds of London or any number of other carriers out there, you are probably even safer because these companies have been managed for the long-term as opposed to the short-term money making goals of some of the big American financial companies which is what caused them to get in trouble.

One of my biggest fears about the insurance industry is that up until recently, there was a lot of talk about deregulation for insurance. What we have seen in this financial crisis is that deregulation leads to sacrifice of long-term viability in favor of short-term profits. That might be fine if you are talking about selling TV sets, but insurance simply must be based on a longer-term perspective including reserves for catastrophes that might only happen every 50 years. If we allowed the same sort of short-term thinking that led the large brokerage houses to package up toxic loans and sell them to people and then run with their commissions, we could easily cause a similar disaster in the insurance business by allowing people to suck out this money instead of putting part of it away for long term catastrophe management.

What we are seeing is a huge drop in value of all stocks in the financial sector based on the problems of the banks and brokerage houses. There really is not much reason for this in the insurance industry but there are probably some great bargains to be had on their stocks right now because they have been trampled with the rest of the sector.

But for the average person just wondering if they would get paid if they needed to put in a claim on their flood insurance or homeowners insurance (or car insurance for that matter) then the answer is that in general there should be nothing to worry about and the vast majority of insurance companies have plenty of money to pay claims. What we will most likely see is some consolidation of companies who do have very strong balance sheets who will be out there looking for other companies they can buy at bargain prices.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Quick Update on Long Island Flood Insurance

Summer is the season where everybody on Long Island has much better things to do than think about their insurance (as opposed to the rest of the year, when it's everybody's favorite pastime). But there is one item I wanted to post about since it may affect some of the readers.

FEMA, the government agency that oversees the National Flood Insurance Program, has been in the process of re-mapping Nassau and Suffolk counties, which is done about every 10 years. This is the first one for our area since Katrina so expect some changes.The new maps take effect next summer.

But in the meantime FEMA is hosting two meetings in Nassau County for anyone who might be interested in more information. The meetings will run from 4 to 8 p.m. and will be on September 9 at Valley Stream High School on Fletcher Blvd and September 10 at Long Beach Middle School on Lido Blvd.According to the Newsday article, 28,000 more buildings will be brought into flood hazard areas next year when the new maps take effect, and of those, the people who have mortgages insured by FNMA and other government backed plans will get a letter advising that they are now required to buy flood insurance where they did not have to before.

In the meantime, people have an opportunity to be 'grandfathered' into the maps and plans that are in effect now. If you buy flood insurance before the change next summer, and your flood zone changes under the new maps to a higher rate, you will still be able to keep the previous zone. So if you think you might be on the border of a flood zone, and may be in a higher rate class next year, you might think of buying coverage now to lock in your current zone.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Insurance Issues as we head into Hurricane Season 2008

Greetings all. have not posted in a while about the Long Island homeowners insurance market because it has been 'more of the same' for a while now. That's not to say the situation has gotten better, but change is what makes news, and there have not been many changes making their way to the public for a while.

It seems a little strange to be blogging about hurricane and flood catastrophes as I sit in my office and look out on to one of the most beautiful days we have had. Still, the 2008 hurricane season is underway, with Bertha chugging around the Atlantic as a reminder. Of course once again you can find experts who are saying that this season will be more active than normal, but those same experts have been saying that for several years and so far they have been wrong. I only wish I had a job like the weatherman, where I could be wrong half the time and still get paid.

There has been one interesting development recently that could make it easier to get homeowners or similar insurance down near the water. The New York Property Insurance Underwriting Association has been permanently authorized by the state legislature. This may not seem like much to the average person, but for years now, this New York State-backed insurer of last resort has had to be re-authorized every year, and has been held hostage by various groups within the legislature. They would only authorize the renewal if downstate legislators, who had to make sure this coverage was available to their constituents, would in turn vote for other things that they did not necessarily want. Ain't politics wonderful?

In any event, they have now been made permanent. In addition, they have been authorized to offer broader coverages, and incentives to partner with regular insurance companies who would then be able to write supplemental coverage known as 'wraparound' so that the two policies together will provide something closer to a homeowners policy. Naturally it will take some time to put this in place, but kudos to the state legislature for getting this done.

Meanwhile, on the flood insurance side, the re-mapping of Nassau and Suffolk Counties continues. Newsday had a big article this week on the changes that are being revealed now in Nassau. A lot of folks who were previously right on the edge of a 'special flood hazard area' as defined by FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program may now find themselves drawn into the hazard area by the new maps, which use more accurate mapping techniques as well as information drawn from the government's experiences with Katrina and other flooding situations.

If you think you are close to a flood hazard area but not in one, you might want to think about buying flood insurance soon. If you are outside the zone, in what's called a 'preferred zone' and buy coverage at those low rates, then it changes, you are grandfathered in to the low rates for as long as you keep your home. The difference can be thousands of dollars. And if it turns out that you were NOT one of those now lumped in to the higher hazard area, you can always stop carrying the flood coverage in a year or two when we know more about the new maps.

As always, for more information you can contact us through our web site at

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Flood and Wind Insurance Reform in Congress

The National Flood Insurance program, administered through FEMA which is in turn part of the Department of Homeland Security, is currently how the vast majority of Long Islanders and people all around the country buy their flood insurance when needed. The idea of the program was that because flood is catastrophic in nature, meaning that it can affect large numbers of people at the same time, that only the taxing power of the federal government was enough to make sure that when the time came to pay huge claims, the money would be there.

The problem is that the rates being charged in the program are not nearly enough to pay the claims, so additional monies have had to be put in over the years by Congress, and those funds basically come out of taxes paid be everybody, not just those in the flood hazard areas. There are some social arguments back and forth about whether that's right or wrong, but after Katrina, it was decided that the program needed to be revised to be 'actuarially sound', meaning that it would collect enough premium dollars to pay the claims, without resorting to general tax revenues or other bailouts. The difference is many billions of dollars, and the answer they have come up with is to include more people in the flood hazard areas and also to increase rates.

But since a couple of the people whose homes were destroyed in Katrina happened to be influential members of Congress, they are not looking to stop there. In trying to judge who was responsible to pay the claims of Katrina, there was a lot of finger-pointing on the part of insurance companies who denied some claims that they felt should have been paid under flood coverage. However since many of the affected residents had been told that the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, in building the levee system, would protect them from flood, they did not carry flood insurance and so were left with no way to rebuild.

What is being proposed is to move windstorm coverage from the private homeowners insurance industry to the government-backed flood insurance program, and price it accordingly. Interestingly, this has the insurance industry up in arms. Although as we know here on Long Island, and particularly as you get farther out on the South Shore of Suffolk County, many insurance companies are shying away from providing policies at all because of the windstorm exposure.

Now this sets up an interesting position for the insurance carriers. On the one hand, they are arguing that wind insurance should NOT be taken out of their hands and put into the Government hands. In general, a founding principle of our country was private ownership, and that the Government should not set itself up as a competitor to private industry. But there are many cases (Medicare, Workers Comp...) where private industry was not up to the task and the government stepped in.

To me, it seems simple enough - if covering losses for hurricanes is a money-losing proposition for insurance companies (which one would have to think it must be if they won't write more coverage) then why would they care if the government took it over? And virtually any argument that could be made for or against the government covering windstorm could be easily turned into the same argument for flood insurance. So which is it? The coverage is too risky and they don't want it, or it's profitable and should be left in private hands? The answers being given by the industry suggest they are trying to play both sides of the fence.

As for me as an agent, I have to say it doesn't really matter. I sell both the government flood insurance as well as home insurance for all kinds of waterfront property. Our job is to deliver, explain, and service the product. So I have no great stake in the outcome here, but I know a snow job when I see one.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Big Changes in Long Island Flood Insurance

Hello all, and please accept my apologies for not having written a blog entry in quite some time. But this morning's Newsday article regarding flood insurance had something in it that got me so frustrated that I had to write.

The article is about the re-mapping of flood zones on Long Island by the FEMA, the government agency in charge of the national flood insurance program. They are using new equipment and techniques to reevaluate all the flood maps which may or may not result in people now being required by their bank or mortgage company to carry flood insurance where they may not have been required before.

FEMA is suggesting that some who live near a flood zone are currently outside of it might want to think about purchasing flood insurance now because the price may change dramatically if they are included in a flood zone after the new maps are issued. For instance right now someone who is not in a flood hazard area here on Long Island would pay under $400 for the maximum flood insurance available from the government. If your house is deemed to be in a flood hazard area when the new maps are complete your rate could easily be four to five times higher.

Under FEMA rules, if you have a flood insurance in place and your zone changes you grandfathered in to the old zone for as long as you keep your insurance in force. So if you live close to a flood zone but outside it you might want to think about buying one of the inexpensive policies now. If you end up in a flood zone and your bank requires the coverage, you will be locked into the lower rate. If you remain outside of flood zone under the new maps, you could cancel the policy after a year if you wish. (FEMA will not allow a policy to be canceled in the middle of the year unless you sell your home)

My problem is that in the article there is a quote from County Executive Steve Levy saying that homeowners should be allowed to make their own decision on whether to carry flood insurance or not, as opposed to having that decision made for them by FEMA or their bank. The fact is that we hear every day from people who are only buying flood insurance because their bank is forcing them because of government regulations. They feel that the fact that they've never seen a flood in their home means they will never be flooded. Unfortunately this is not the case and we only need to look at the ongoing problems resulting from hurricane Katrina to see that.

In addition, the idea coming from the County Executive that people should be able to choose which government programs and mandates they participate in and which they choose not to is absurd. If that were the case most people on the South Shore would probably still have cesspools in their backyards except that the government mandated participation in the Southwest Sewer District in order to protect our drinking water in the long run. The same logic is behind a part of our sales tax collections which go to fund open space purchases.

And how about school taxes? I have no children in school anymore. Can I opt out of school taxes because I no longer see the direct benefit to me? I found this to be a very irresponsible statement by the County Executive and contrary to the whole reason for the existence of virtually every government program. It's fine to be a fiscal conservative with the general opinion that government should take the least role possible in people's day-to-day lives. However say that these decisions should all be left to the individual homeowner and rely on them to make the best decision for everybody for the long-term simply does not work and is not valid.