Is My Insurance Company ‘A-Rated’?

I just got a question from a prospective client about what the financial rating is for the companies we have used to quote coverage for the home they are buying. The answer is not so simple, so I thought this would be another good subject for a post.

A lot goes into a carrier’s financial rating, but mostly it’s about analyzing their ability to pay claims, and the biggest issue there for us on Long Island, and particularly on the South Shore, is catastrophic windstorm. This can be a hurricane or just high winds. But the problem is that it affects MANY homes rather than just one or two. Virtually all insurance companies can easily pay for one or two homes that, for instance, burn completely to the ground. But the idea that a windstorm could damage THOUSANDS of homes in the same area at the same time could bankrupt an insurance carrier who is not that stable.

Since the financial meltdown of 2008, AM Best (www.ambest.com ), the oldest and most respected rating company, has gotten much more conservative in their ratings. This is due to a number of factors. For one, the accounting mumbo jumbo that led to a lot of losses in the meltdown, was hidden even from the rating companies. For another, global climate change is drastically changing the exposures near the coast. So companies who write homes near the water have a much tougher time getting that coveted A rating.

In the meantime, most of the biggest traditional insurance companies (Travelers, Allstate, Hartford, State Farm, etc) have pulled back 2-3 miles from water in what they write. So the negative impact of waterfront and coastal property on their financial rating gets greatly reduced, as opposed to other, mostly smaller, companies who are finding ways to take on this risk.

Another ratings agency has sprouted up called DEMOTECH. (www.demotech.com) also gives financial ratings. One thing you will hear from insurance reps is that there are a couple of companies out there who are rated A by Demotech. But in many cases THESE COMPANIES ARE NOT EVEN RATED BY AM BEST! Others have an A rating from Demotech but B or B+ from AM Best.

The reason is fairly straightforward. A lot of the investment capital, and reserve funding that the Demotech A rated companies use to back up claims payments comes from promissory notes from private investors such as billionaire George Soros and others. These investors have been chasing returns that are higher than the 1 or 2 % you can get on bank accounts and bonds these days, and have turned to complex insurance investments. Demotech counts these ‘promissory notes’ as if the insurance company already has the money. AM Best does NOT count these and so may assign a lower rating to a particular company. But again, many of the companies rated A by Demotech are not rated AT ALL by AM Best, and are not even eligible to be looked at by them.

The final point to make is that if the insurance carrier is admitted in the state of New York, coverage is also backed by the New York State Insurance Guarantee Fund. This is comforting, but after seeing what happened with NY Rising, relying on the state government could be frustrating. You might get paid by them eventually but it would probably take several years, which could be a big problem.

Bottom line? Deal with someone you trust, and ask questions and research a little yourself so you know what questions to ask.

Visit us at www.nortonandsiegel.com for more info.

Home Insurance – Going to the Dogs?

I read an interesting statistic recently. These days one out of every three homeowners insurance liability claims across the country is coming from the family dog! Those are lawsuits since they fall under liability, not cases where the dog chewed up a piece of furniture. And that is a national statistic, not limited to New York or Long Island.

Anybody who has changed (or been forced to change because you are ‘too close to the water’) home insurance in the last few years knows that you now have to answer a bunch of questions about your dog if you own one. Certain breeds are not wanted by almost any insurance company here on Long Island, where lawsuits are even more common than they are in other areas.

The latest development is that ISO, the Insurance Services Office who comes up with the standardizes policy forms used by many insurance companies all over the country, is including a canine exclusion in their next major revision to the homeowners policy form, due to come out later this year. That does NOT mean that all policies will immediately exclude dogs, but it DOES mean that, if approved by the N.Y. State Insurance Department, the exclusion will be available for insurance carriers to use.

I believe this has become one of the ‘dirty little secrets’ of why there have not been more insurance companies coming in to the Long Island area to write new homeowners coverage after the massive pullout by the ‘big companies’ that has been happening for several years now (think good hands, good neighbors, etc). I am not criticizing those companies for reducing their exposure to major storms in the New York coastal areas, because they definitely had too much financial exposure to large losses from the inevitable big hurricane.

But the companies that HAVE come in to fill the gaps, including Lloyd’s of London, and other ‘non-admitted’ insurers, have all included dog exclusions in their policies. They can do this because as non-admitted or excess lines insurers, they are not subject to New York rules. So while their hurricane exposure is greater, the day-to-day problem of dogs is gone. This also applies to their exclusions for trampolines, another seemingly minor thing that has become a major issue.

One company has even come up with a specific liability insurance policy to cover dogs. Unfortunately it costs $800 PER DOG! But the reason it’s so high is that they feel the only people who will buy the policy are those who feel they have the kind of dog who needs to be covered. So it’s not like most folks with a sort of normal, happy-go-lucky dog will feel they need it, but the ones with the pit bulls, dobermans, and rottweilers might.

We Haven’t Had a Hurricane on Long Island, How Come my Insurance Still Went Up?

Welcome back to me, as I have not posted in a while now. The market for coastal and waterfront homeowners insurance on Long Island and in the New York – New Jersey – Connecticut area in general has, if anything, gotten a little better in the last year or so, with a few more carriers coming in to the market, and some companies at least NOT canceling as many people as they were 3 and 4 years ago. In addition, prices for insurance with the ‘excess lines’ markets such as Lloyds of London, Scottsdale, and many others, have been driven down by competition. This is/was especially true in the past several years where we have not had major storm activity.

But in the most recent six months, there has been a ‘firming’ of prices and some tightening of underwriting coming from these excess insurance carriers who are the ones taking the risk on houses closest to the shore. The question becomes, why? There are several reasons at play.

For one thing, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that in ANY type of insurance, but especially a line like home/fire insurance where there is a potential for catastrophic losses, rates can only go down so far before they ‘bounce along the bottom’. That’s the price at which companies start to notice that their profit margin is being squeezed. Insurance companies, if run properly, can make money, but it comes from relatively very small percentage profits on huge dollars. So when you are working on a 5% margin, or even less, it doesn’t take much to turn your results from black ink to red.

The next thing that’s having an effect on all insurance company profitability is the low interest rate environment. When the insurance company is able to get a decent income on their holdings, competition can force them to lower or hold the line on rates they charge to customers. But since most insurance companies invest mostly in interest bearing bonds, and we know what rates are available on those, their investment income has dropped substantially in the past few years.

Finally, the string of catastrophes in other parts of the world has an effect on the reinsurance market, which is where insurance companies buy insurance for themselves against the major catastrophes. That spreads the risk out all over the world, but unfortunately we have seen more and more events like tornadoes, tsunami’s, massive flooding, and other things that, even though they might not happen here, still affect rates for property with a high catastrophe risk.

Recent Changes in New York Insurance

It’s been a while but the insurance marketplace has been quiet. Still, there are a couple of new items to report.

Across New York state, a law was passed a while back making it illegal to be using anything other than a hands-free phone while driving. I don’t know how it is in the rest of N.Y. but here on Long Island it seems that almost half of the drivers going by my office every day are on a hand-held phone. But now the law has been given more teeth. As of yesterday, a cel phone violation will now add two points to your NY driver’s license and motor vehicle record. That means that if you get a couple of other tickets, a cel phone violation could be the difference that causes your license to be suspended (for accumulating more than 11 points in an 18 month period). Insurance companies will also be more likely to charge for cel phone violations now, although New York car insurance companies use a different point system.

Research has shown that driving while talking on a hand held phone gives you about the same chance of having an accident as driving while under the influence of alcohol. So this is a real issue. Of course, so are other distractions such as applying makeup, texting (possibly the worst) or reading the paper while drinking coffee. The bottom line is that when you get behind the wheel you are now in a potentially deadly weapon, and we all need to be more careful.

Meanwhile in the Long Island homeowners insurance market, if anything it has eased up a little, though the larger carriers continue to cancel and non-renew some homeowners policies, especially along the south shore in Suffolk County. But some new, smaller insurance carriers have come into the market, and competition has caused some pricing to drop. So if you had to buy expensive homeowners insurance because you were canceled or you bought your waterfront home in the past couple of years, you might want to contact your agent to see if he or she can shop around for you a little.

Suffolk to hold Meetings about Hurricane Preparedness and Home and Flood Insurance

Starting tonight and for the next several weeks, the Suffolk County Department of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Services is holding a series of meetings around the County where the topics will be Hurricane Preparedness, as well as how to understand your homeowners and flood insurance and make sure you have the protection that you think you have.

Each meeting will have a presentation from the County, as well as a representative from the Board of Directors of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of Suffolk County. I will be at the one tonight (May 26) at the Tanner Park Senior Center in Copiague, as well as the one in West Islip next Thursday at the American Legion Hall on Union Blvd. Times are 7-9. Other members of our Agent’s Association Board will represent the insurance industry at the various other meetings. 

For more information please visit www.suffolkcountyny.gov/MEND

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.

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 www.NYInsuranceWithSerivice.com.

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.