Tag Archives: inflation

Auto insurance prices and overall inflation

By Dr. Steven Weisbart, Chief Economist, Insurance Information Institute 

There is remarkable good news on the auto insurance front— auto insurance prices have been trending downward since February 2018, and are now below the general inflation rate, but no one seems to have noticed.

The vast majority of consumers in America buy auto insurance, so the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates a price component for it each month as part of the various versions of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).[1]

But insurance, like many products and services, is a difficult product for which to calculate a price. Ideally, one would want to determine only the change in the amount a consumer would pay to buy the exact same thing today as he/she would have paid in a prior time period. The challenge, with auto insurance as with many other products, is matching “the exact same thing” from a prior period. With cars, BLS tries to remove the effect on price changes of changes in features in new models that differ from prior models.

With auto insurance, the main reason premiums change from one period to another is insurers expectations for claims in the policy period. Obviously, changes can also be affected by expected investment results and by expense issues such as reinsurance prices. BLS has no way to account for these effects. It does try to standardize its calculation by using a hypothetical group of policyholders applying for a specified set of coverages and asking a panel of insurers to provide quotes for them.

So when, in 2016 and 2017, claims frequency ended its long downward trend and spiked upward, it was not surprising to see the BLS auto insurance price index rise as well. Figure 1 shows what this looked like (comparing prices in the current month to the same month in the prior year, seasonally adjusted by BLS):

Figure 1

The peak price change reached 9.7 percent in February 2018. But the spike in frequency ended, and you can see in Figure 1 that year-over-year price changes for auto insurance started trending down, ending the year at an increase rate of 4.7 percent.

The downward trend has continued into 2019. Figure 2 shows the results through April:

 

Figure 2

BLS says that the April 2019 auto insurance price is only 1.4 percent above the price in April 2018. This is not only below the rate of general inflation which, depending on how you measure it, has been running at roughly 2 percent for several years, but it is also the lowest year-over-year increase in auto insurance prices in over a decade (the last time the rate of increase was this low was in March 2008—also 1.4 percent).

So where are the headlines?

[1]The most familiar index is the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U)—prices as experienced by all urban consumers, but BLS also publishes CPI-W (prices as experienced by urban wage earners and clerical workers).

Auto insurance and inflation

Dean Baker and Matt Harmon, writing for the Center for Economic and Policy Research blog, analyzed various methodologies of measuring price changes in auto insurance: the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the Personal Consumption Expenditure deflator and what they refer to as I.I.I. data (average expenditures published by the NAIC). Their comments appear to be driven by the April 2018 report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the price of auto insurance in the CPI rose by 9.0 percent over the price in April 2017.  This observation leads to the claim that auto insurance “has passed medical care as a driver of inflation.”

The blog post takes a number of tangents—on health insurance, on the different methodologies used by the CPI and the PCE deflator—and then turn to the observation that what people actually pay for auto insurance isn’t increasing very much at all. They infer that because the cost of auto insurance is rising in the CPI, and at the same time the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer expenditures survey shows that auto insurance spending remains constant, consumers must be offsetting higher prices by buying less insurance.

In the comments section of the post, I.I.I.’s chief economist, Dr. Steven Weisbart addresses Baker and Harmon’s analyses of the various measurements of auto insurance costs and refutes the assumption that policyholders are assuming more risk as opposed to comparison shopping for cheaper polices, for example.

His full response appears below.

Dean Baker and Matt Harmon are correct that “there are aspects to the issue [of measuring inflation in insurance] that are informative about how we measure and think about inflation,” but their analysis is mistaken.

The CPI does, in general, aim to measure price changes in “quality-adjusted” goods and services. Its method for doing this for auto insurance is, unfortunately, seriously deficient. This is because auto insurance premiums are expected-cost driven. (By law, insurers cannot charge to make up for losses in prior years or charge in one state to make up for losses in another state.) Further, premiums are set based not only on expected claims (and claims adjustment expenses, including litigation defense for some third-party collisions), but also on expected investment income from the period between collection of the premium and the payment of a claim. The BLS methodology for determining current prices for auto insurance does not—indeed, cannot—capture these forces. Without recognizing them, premium increases in the current year over the prior year is mistakenly perceived as inflation.

In the last few years, there has been a dramatic upsurge in both the frequency and severity of auto insurance claims, both private passenger auto and commercial auto. Although severity (the average dollar cost of claims, unadjusted for quality improvements in recent years) has been increasing for a long time, increases in frequency (the number of claims per exposure unit) have been unusual and have been rising sharply. The Insurance Information Institute has discussed this in a white paper, identifying some of the major causes of these increases as increased congestion from the continued growth in the number employed, increased distracted driving, and higher speed limits in some cases. Auto insurers did not foresee these changes. They also (with many others) did not foresee the continued low interest rates that delivered lower investment income than they would have earned (and which they would have used to keep premium increases down) and in recent years increased premiums to try to get “ahead of the curve.” These are not inflationary increases in a quality-adjusted financial service.

Moreover, the BLS measure doesn’t try to capture what people pay. It created a hypothetical buyer and asks a panel of insurance companies what they would charge that buyer. The response doesn’t capture discounts that many insurers offer, such as for insuring both auto and home and other coverages with the same company, or for being a long-term policyholder, or being accident-free. As Baker/Harmon recognize, increases in what people pay for auto insurance have been much smaller than the BLS inflation measure. They infer that this means policyholders are assuming more risk. That’s possible, but other inferences are equally possible—such as that comparison shopping has led them to find the same coverage for a lower premium, or that some coverages are no longer cost-effective as their cars age.

Finally, the 9.0 percent year-over-year increase cited by Baker/Harmon is a bit of a cherry-picked datum. On the day the blog post was published, BLS released its CPI report for June 2018. It shows the CPI for auto insurance at 7.6 percent. Further, in two months the auto insurance component of the CPI will likely drop further, since the 12-month figure includes an unusual 0.9 percent increase in August 2017 that is unlikely to be matched in July or August 2018. Note that in the four most recent months of 2018 increases in the auto insurance component of the CPI were 0.3 percent in March, -0.2 percent in April, 0.4 percent in May, and 0.3 percent in June.