Perhaps the most emotionally compelling data point invoked by those who would compel insurers – through litigation and legislation – to pay business-interruption claims explicitly excluded from the policies they wrote is the property/casualty insurance industry’s nearly $800 billion policyholder surplus.
Many Americans hear “surplus” and think of a bit of cash they have stashed away for emergencies. And when you consider that nearly 40 percent of Americans surveyed by the Federal Reserve said they would either have to borrow or sell something to cover an unexpected $400 expense – or couldn’t pay it at all – that number may sound like overkill.
Not as much as you think
But policyholder surplus isn’t a “rainy day fund.” It’s an essential part of the industry’s ability to keep the promises it makes to policyholders. And although a number like $800 billion may raise eyebrows, when we look more closely at its components, the amount available to cover claims turns out to be considerably less.
Insurers are regulated on a state-by-state basis. Regulators require them to hold a certain amount in reserve to pay claims based on each insurer’s own risk profile. The aggregation of these reserves – required by every state for every insurer doing business in those states – accounts for about half the oft-cited industry surplus.
Call it $400 billion, for simplicity’s sake.
Each company’s regulator-required surplus can be thought of as that company’s “running on empty” mark – the point at which alarms go off and regulators start talking about requiring it to set even more aside to make sure no policyholders are left in a lurch.
By extension, $400 billion is where alarms begin going off for the entire industry.
It gets worse – or better, depending on your perspective.
In addition to state regulators’ requirements, the private rating agencies that gauge insurers’ financial strength and claims-paying ability don’t want to see reserves get anywhere near “Empty.” To get a strong rating from A.M. Best, Fitch, S&P, or Moody’s, insurers have to keep even more in reserve.
Why do private agency ratings matter? Consumers and businesses use them to determine what insurer they’ll buy coverage from. Also, stronger ratings can contribute to lower borrowing expenses, which can help keep insurers’ operating costs – and, in turn, policyholders’ premiums – at reasonable levels.
So, let’s say these additional reserves amount to about $200 billion for the industry. The nearly $800 billion surplus we started with now falls to about $200 billion.
To cover claims by all personal and commercial policyholders in a given year without prompting regulatory and rating agency actions that could drive up insurers’ costs and policyholders’ premiums.
Which brings us to today.
Losses ordinary and extraordinary
In the first quarter of 2020, the industry experienced its largest-ever quarterly decline in surplus, to $771.9 billion. This decline was due, in large part, to declines in stock value related to the economic recession sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, the industry remains financially strong, in large part because the bulk of insurers’ investments are in investment-grade corporate and governmental bonds. And it’s a good thing, too, because the conditions underlying that surplus decline preceded an extremely active hurricane season, atypical wildfire activity, and damages related to civil unrest approaching levels not seen since 1992 – involving losses that are not yet reflected in the surplus.
Insured losses from this year’s Hurricane Isaias are estimated in the vicinity of $5 billion. Hurricane Laura’s losses could, by some estimates, be as “small” as $4 billion or as large as $13 billion.
And the Atlantic hurricane season has not yet peaked.
The 2020 wildfire season is off to a horrific start. From January 1 to September 8, 2020, there were 41,051 wildfires, compared with 35,386 in the same period in 2019, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. About 4.7 million acres were burned in the 2020 period, compared with 4.2 million acres in 2019.
In California alone, wildfires have already burned 2.2 million acres in 2020 — more than any year on record. For context, insured losses for California’s November 2018 fires were estimated at more than $11 billion.
And the 2020 wildfire season has just begun.
All this is on top of routine claims for property and casualty losses.
Four billion here, 11 billion there – pretty soon we’re talking about “real money,” against available reserves that are far smaller than they at first appear.
No end in sight
Oh, yeah – and the pandemic-fueled recession isn’t expected to reverse any time soon. Economic growth worldwide remains depressed, with nearly every country experiencing declines in gross domestic product (GDP) – the total value of goods and services produced. GDP growth for the world’s 10 largest insurance markets is expected to decrease by 6.99 percent in 2020, compared to Triple-I’s previous estimate of a 4.9 percent decrease.
If insurers were required to pay business-interruption claims they never agreed to cover – and, therefore, didn’t reserve for – the cost to the industry related to small businesses alone could be as high as $383 billion per month.
This would bankrupt the industry, leaving many policyholders uninsured and insurance itself an untenable business proposition.
Fortunately, Americans seem to be beginning to get this. A recent poll by Future of American Insurance and Reinsurance (FAIR) found the majority of Americans believe the federal government should bear the financial responsibility for helping businesses stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. Only 16 percent of respondents said insurers should bear the responsibility, and only 8 percent said they believe lawsuits against insurers are the best path for businesses to secure financial relief.