Severe Storms Are Creating a Trickle-down Effect on Policy HoldersWhen Jim Phaneuf references the weather, he’s certainly not making small talk.
Rather, he’s discussing big business — the insurance business, which he’s been in for more than 36 years, enough time to see everything, or just about everything, in this industry.
Indeed, over the past several years — and one year in particular, 2011 — Phaneuf, president of Bell & Hudson Insurance Agency in Belchertown, and others in this sector have seen things they’ve never seen before in terms of weather calamities and the resulting impact on the companies that write the policies and the consumers who purchase them.
‘Historic’ is the word he and others have used to describe it all — meaning everything from 2011’s ice dams, tornadoes, hurricane, and freak October snowstorm to subsequent weather events such as Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012, and the general consensus that this part of the country will see more of the same in the years to come.
But instead of words, Phaneuf and others like to use numbers to get their points across.
“Between 1980 and 2012, there were 123 U.S. weather-related events that resulted in claims of over $1 billion,” he told BusinessWest. “In 2011 alone, there were 12 U.S. weather-related disasters with over $1 billion in claims, and that caused insurance companies to raise rates to attempt to recover their losses. Our experience has been that most home-insurance customers have experienced rate increases in the past two years, largely as a result of the storms of 2011 and 2012.”
Corey Murphy, president of First American Insurance Agency in Chicopee, agreed, noting that 2011 was a banner year for weather-related claims in this region and others, and the impact from those losses will be felt for some time.
“I knew the insurance companies were going to have to respond — it was a catastrophic year; we had pretty much every natural disaster you could have,” he said, noting that rates have escalated for business and residential policy holders alike, between 3% and 6% on average.
The numbers vary, he said, because in many instances, an agency can sometimes shop for and get a better price, even at a time when many carriers are still struggling to recover losses. Meanwhile, agents can work with clients to lower their insurance bills by making sure they’re buying only what they need, passing on what they don’t need, and employing strategies such as bundling policies, taking higher deductibles, and avoiding marginal claims that will nonetheless trigger premium hikes.
Overall, he said, this is a time for consumers to renew — and tighten — their relationship with their insurance agency, because if predicting the weather is difficult, if not impossible, so too is gauging and minimizing the impact of all that weather on one’s insurance bills.
For this issue and its focus on insurance, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what has become a perfect storm — in every aspect of that phrase — for insurance carriers, and a time of challenge for those looking to protect their assets and manage the cost of doing so.
Recapping recent events, meaning those of the past few decades and especially the past few years, those we spoke with said things have become more unsettled.
They used that word to refer to both the weather — which, in the opinion of many, is being increasingly impacted by global warming — and the fiscal health and well-being of insurance carriers.
Indeed, due to the recent spate of weather calamities, most insurance companies will not write polices for hurricane-prone coastal properties in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and Texas, said Bill Grinnell, president of Webber & Grinnell Insurance Agency in Northampton. So the states have created their own insurance mechanisms and set up rules, collecting premiums from property owners and assessing surcharges to those insurance companies that do business in other regions of those states.
“There is a wide belief that these storms are caused by global warming, which makes the weather less predictable and insurance outcomes less predictable,” Grinnell explained. “As a result, more revenues are needed to create reserves to cover the potential for more disasters, so there’s definitely been an uptick in the cost of insurance.”
According to a 2013 report, “Inaction on Climate Change: the Cost to Taxpayers,” by Ceres, a nonprofit organization advocating for sustainability leadership, the total loss exposure of these state-run insurance plans in the past 20 years has risen by 1,550%, from about $40 billion in 1990 to more than $600 billion in 2010. Additionally, the report says only 50% of the damages in the U.S. caused by extreme weather events are privately insured, which leaves the federal and state governments (the taxpayers) to pick up the remaining tab.
Insurance companies, said Grinnell, earn revenue in two ways: premiums, of course, and conservative, low-risk investments, primarily in the bond markets.
With the historically low rates of return on bonds, insurance companies are not earning as much as they have in the past, and at the same time, they’re seeing higher bills from their reinsurance companies after paying out billions for just the past two years’ worth of catastrophic storms.
“So the reinsurance companies that provide the insurance for your insurance carrier for big disasters have increased their rates to the carriers, and those rates have been passed right down to the policyholders,” Grinnell explained, adding that the regional carriers in New England that do business in Massachusetts weren’t directly affected by Hurricane Katrina or, to a great degree, Superstorm Sandy. “So the majority of the storm-related increases are due to more localized events.”
Locally, Phaneuf added, state Attorney General Martha Coakley and Commissioner of Insurance Joseph Murphy are making sure carrier premiums and rates are justified.
“The attorney general seems to have served as a watchdog with the insurance issue,” he said, “to keep insurance companies’ rising rates in check.”
For instance, when his staff sees a client’s premiums spike significantly, they will attempt to shop that business around to get similar coverage, but at a better rate.
“We try to find a better home for their insurance if we’re able to, which we can some of the time, but not all of the time,” he said. “It’s definitely worth the effort if the insurance is going up more than 7% or 8%.”
Murphy agreed, but noted that there is seemingly less room for negotiating between agency and carrier in this environment, adding that this is another sign of the times and a product of the more adverse conditions within the industry, even though the weather has been much calmer this year.
“There’s a lot less back-and-forth over the last year or two. Now, there’s a lot less room; they’re pretty firm on what their prices are,” he said. “This year, it was a pretty mild year, but there were predictions that storms would increase, so there were a lot of adjustments by carriers based upon that.”
Those adjustments, Murphy went on, have appeared as higher premiums and a much harder look at what policies companies will underwrite. He called it “getting tighter.”
When Murphy and his agents present a potential policyholder to an underwriter — the person at the carrier who will decide how much to charge on the commercial lines, or even if they’ll write it or not — they want a much clearer picture of what they are writing.
“So, as an agent, we’re trying to present the best possible picture of that potential client,” he added. “The more you can make an underwriter feel comfortable about what they are writing, the better they feel about doing it.”
Meanwhile, agents can work with clients in a number of ways to help control their insurance bills without reducing coverage, said Phaneuf, listing several possible ones, including a willingness to accept a higher deductible.
“They generally mean lower annual premiums, but more out of your pocket when you have a loss,” he explained. “Your agent will also make you aware that you can control premiums by bundling discounts for your home and auto and installation of alarm systems, renewing your policies with the same insurer, and maintaining a loss-free status.”
Elaborating, he said that going years without filing a claim can lead to attractive discounts, savings that could more than offset the long-term costs from filing a claim in an instance where the damage only marginally exceeds the deductible.
In addition, Murphy told BusinessWest, he and his agents make sure their business clients are updating their product inventory and specific elements that they need for doing business.
“Business owners have to understand what their business is rated on,” he noted, adding that some standard ratings are based on square footage, which doesn’t change unless there is an expansion or a move, but other things do change, like real-estate values, replacement costs, inventory levels (up or down), or an increase in sales, all of which accurately reflect the business’s exposure.
The First American staff helps educate their commercial clients about keeping up with the current state of their property and business.
“If you don’t respond to your carrier with any updates, then they assume that all remains the same, and you could be paying more when you shouldn’t have to,” said Murphy. “But you don’t want them to be caught underinsured.”
Batten Down the Hatches
Grinnell and others we spoke with said their background is in business and insurance, not climatology or meteorology.
Predicting the weather is more difficult than ever, he noted, adding that even those with degrees in those subjects can’t say what will happen next year or over the next decade. The best thing to do is be prepared as much as possible, and that philosophy extends to the realm of insurance.
Phaneuf agreed, adding that, when it comes to weather patterns that are predicted to cause havoc in the future, protection of one’s home or business is, now more than ever, a complex business transaction.
“It cannot be effectively and appropriately done in 15 minutes,” he said. “In spite of what some national insurance carriers would like to have you believe, it is not a simple transaction like buying laundry detergent or breakfast cereal. If you treat it too lightly, you may not have the protection that you need when you need it … at a time of great loss.”
Elizabeth Taras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org