Beatrice Garcia has an article in today’s Miami Herald about Citizens Insurance company, the state-sponsored home insurer of last resort for those of us in the hurricane belt. See Is Citizens Insurance ready for the big one?
Citizens is known for its high rates, DMV-quality service, and for being under-capitalized. It is not much fun to deal with, but then neither is my bank. (Which, come to think of it, is also state-capitalized these days.)
The article does a good job of noting some of the issues with Citizens:
Citizens is the largest insurer in Florida, covering 1,057,829 homes, condos and apartment buildings. The biggest chunk of its policies — $232.1 billion worth — are written on riskier, coastal properties.
Insurance regulators, legislators and critics of Citizens say the company's frozen rates aren't actuarially sound. In laymen's terms, that means the insurer is not bringing in enough money through premiums to cover the bulk of the potential losses it could face after a huge storm.
To get Citizens' rates back on course, a law passed in May requires the insurer to raise rates 10 percent a year over the next five years. The smaller annual increases soften the rate shock for homeowners. But eventually, rates could end up about 60 percent higher.
But Citizens isn't totally in dire straits. The insurer should have nearly $3.9 billion in cash in the bank by the end of the year, says Binnun.
Add in a guarantee from the State of Florida to buy $750 million of Citizens bonds, a bank credit line and proceeds from municipal bonds it has already sold and the total of available funds comes to $6.9 billion.
Citizens also buys back-up insurance from the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund to cover some of the losses it might face. This year, it purchased nearly $9.8 billion in coverage.
All that gives Citizens the ability to cover up to $16.8 billion in claims.
But even with all the funds it could tap, Citizens could fall short if “the big one'' — that one-in-100-years storm — hits the state. Such a storm could rack up claims totaling about $22 billion, Binnun says.
In other words, Citizens need to save up another $3.2 billion — about double what it will have in the bank by the end of the year –- in order to be actuarially sound. That’s a lot of money, but if it could save that amount since its founding in 2002, it should be able to pile it up in a few more years. Unfortunately, it's going to do that by raising our already quite substantial insurance rates some 10% per year until the money pile is big enough.
The Herald article more or less assumes that private insurance would be better, although it notes that some private policies have coverage limitations.
As it happens, I have a Citizens policy. Over the last three years I’ve had two letters from private insurance companies announcing they were taking over my policy unless I opted out (this was a state plan to encourage people to leave Citizens). One look at the capitalization of those companies and I opted out. In addition, my insurance agent has sent me proposals from three or four private companies, all but one of them started recently under the new Florida law encouraging companies to enter the market. None has a track record. None has much capital either. They are not rated by any of the major rating agencies (except one, that had a not-so-great grade of BBB-). They have their own ratings bureau, one which says they are just fine thank you, but it's not one I feel any reason to believe.
Unfortunately, in this era of light regulation private insurance is not inevitably better than public; indeed, I think some of these new tiny companies may be worse. This is, in fact, the ironic implication of a new analysis of the state home insurance market from the Competitive Enterprise Institute which shows how poorly capitalized the new private insurers really are. (CEI is not a source I’d rely on uncritically, but it confirms what I’ve worked out myself from looking up reports on the new Florida-only insurance companies. For more see Florida insurance numbers deceive and Consumers cry foul over Citizens' shift to low-rated firms.)
From the point of view of the homeowner, private insurers also have a degree of political risk that Citizens lacks: If they go belly up, the state has no moral obligation to bail them out — on the other hand, we have good reason to believe that at the end of the day the state (or the taxpayers) will stand behind Citizens.
I turned down my insurance agent’s suggestion that I go private, even though the proposed rates were a few dollars lower than what Citizens charged. My agent was all for it, claiming the service would be better (no word on the relative commissions!). The risk seemed too great.