The Treasury yield curve inverted last weekend and many are concerned: Sustained inverted yield curves are often harbingers of recession. Insurers could also feel the impact, since the yield curve can influence an insurer’s rates, profits, and portfolio structure.
An inverted yield curve may be cause for concern. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, an inverted yield curve preceded all nine U.S. recessions since 1955. The Fed estimates that typically a recession occurs within two years of the inverted yield curve.
An inverted yield curve is not a perfect predictor of future recessions. There has been one false positive, in late 1966, in which an inverted yield curve was followed by an economic slowdown, not a recession. There have also been several “flattenings” of the curve, which did not lead to recession.
But what makes last week’s shift in the 1- year Treasury curve worrisome is the convergence of other negative signals over the last year – including expected macroeconomic considerations such as the waning of the 2017 tax reform.
How might insurance be impacted by a sustained inverted yield curve?
An inverted yield curve has multiple implications for insurance, some of which depend on the nature of an insurance company’s liabilities and investment profile.
Lower long-term rates hurt insurers whose claims take a long time to settle, like workers compensation. The money set aside to settle those claims gets invested in long-term securities. When those rates fall, insurers enjoy less investment income, which lowers profits. This puts pressure on insurers to raise rates to make up for the lost investment income.
The inverted yield curve also has implications for insurer investments. Given investments in fixed income and real estate, an inverted yield curve will require adjustments to avoid mismatch in obligations and revenues. Remedial actions could include selling assets to realize capital gains because the asset value of the bonds that had been bought at higher rates would now be more valuable.
The yield curve: a brief primer
The “yield curve” is a relationship between 10-year Treasury bond yields and three-month bond yields. Usually, the 10-year bonds have higher yields than three-month bonds, to compensate investors for longer-term risks.
But when there is recession risk and fears of falling interest rates, investors will invest in longer-term bonds to “lock in” at yields that are currently higher than they think will exist in the future. This increased demand for longer-term bonds will, paradoxically, lower yields since bond prices and interest rates are inversely related. At the same time, short-term bond demand goes down (since everyone is running to the long-term bonds), which increases yield.
If this happens, the three-month bonds will have lower yields than the 10-year bonds. And voila: the “normal” yield curve inverts.
The longer the inversion lasts, the higher the odds of a recession in the following quarter. For example, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, the yield curve inverted in August 2006 prior to the onset of the Great Recession in December 2007.
The Triple-I blog received the terrific opportunity to ask State Farm life insurance agent, Robert Stevenson, a few questions about getting the most out of the often-misunderstood financial product.
What is your educational background and what was the path that led you to become a life insurance agent?
Robert Stevenson: I grew up in Savannah, Georgia and attended Hampton University in Virginia. I was working on my master’s degree when I accepted an opportunity with State Farm Insurance Corporate Headquarters. My job was to help the company expand its presence on the east and west coast. During that time, I learned about becoming a State Farm agent, and fell in love with it. I worked hard, and in December of 2000, opened my agency in New York, New York. As a State Farm agent, I’m a small business owner – I get to know people on a personal level. Helping them manage the risks of everyday life, recover from the unexpected, and realize their dreams is truly rewarding. I’ve never looked back.
What advice would you give students that are considering becoming life insurance agents?
RS: You have to listen and you have to care. This is more than a job. It’s helping people protect what’s most important to them. People don’t always want to talk about life insurance. It’s uncomfortable. But, let’s be honest. Someday you will die. No one in the history of the world has ever cheated it. That’s why, you have to make sure people are protected, and that they understand the bigger picture. You’re taking care of families and protecting the lifestyle they spent years building. While nothing can bring someone back, a family’s dreams can still be achieved because their loved one had life insurance. It’s truly a gift of love. You need to help people understand this.
What is the most common misconception that your clients have about life insurance?
RS: That they don’t need it. That they have enough. Often, I’ll hear the response, “I have it through my employer.” But, there’s a chance that benefit can be taken away. Also, if you have life insurance though an employer, and you get a new job, you might not receive the same coverage in your new position. Or, if you retire, it’s likely you won’t receive the same amount you once had. It’s wise to be proactive and read the fine print. Health and age also play a role in life insurance. I often hear, “I’ll wait till I’m married or have kids to get it.” Problem is, as we get older, our health tends to decline. Therefore, if you wait to get life insurance, you’ll likely end up paying more for it.
How do you help a client determine how much insurance they need and what type of policy is best for them?
RS: I start by forecasting. I ask customers questions like, “Where do you want to be in five, 10, 20, 30 years? Do you want to be married? Own a business? Have children? Travel? What’s your dream?” It’s vital for people to understand the importance of investing so they can generate more income as the years go by. Life insurance is not an afterthought. It’s the foundation of an investment strategy. You can’t invest in mutual funds, or stocks, or your child’s college, or buy rental properties, etc., if you don’t have the income. If something happens to you – your family is able to replace your income and still achieve their dreams.
It’s also important to help customers understand the difference between term life and whole life. Term does exactly what it sounds like – it covers you for a period of time. If you die within that period of time, your family is covered. But, think about this. Let’s say you’re 35, and you want to buy 20 or 30 years of term life insurance. Do you think you’ll be living 20 or 30 years from now? When I ask people that question, most answer, “Yes.” That’s when I remind them, when 20/30 years goes by and they’re still living, they won’t receive this payout. Whole life covers you for the entire length of your life. No matter what. It guarantees your family will get paid. It’s more expensive up front, but you’re guaranteeing a payment – it builds value you can cash out.
How does one make sure that their life insurance policy does not get lost and that their beneficiaries get paid as quickly as possible after their death?
RS: When we sell a life policy, we tell our clients, “Make sure your loved ones are aware of the policy and each of you know where important documents are located.” For example, the safe in your house. Also, as life changes, periodic updates with your State Farm agent or financial planner are a smart idea to ensure everyone is on the same page.
What professional achievement are you most proud of?
RS: That’s a tough one. I’d say, when I got my securities license. It allows you to sell packaged investment products like mutual funds and variable annuities. Getting this takes a lot of work and involves rigorous testing. I had one opportunity to pass it. That was a lot of pressure. But it was worth it. Getting my securities license gave me the opportunity to open my office and help people.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
RS: I enjoy reading and golf. Having activities like these lets me to unwind. But more so, I love spending time with my family. I have a son and a daughter who keep me busy. Family time is important. All things in equal parts. That’s what keeps life joyful.
By Lynne McChristian, I.I.I. Non-resident Scholar and Media Spokesperson
Ah, spring! The season of renewal, of fresh beginnings, of flowers in bloom – and of fresh batteries in the smoke alarm. Yes, you probably overlooked that last item, so here’s a reminder to put it on the spring to-do list.
Checking (and changing) the batteries in the smoke alarm is a good springtime habit. Most homes have a smoke alarm, but if you don’t check it with regularity, you can’t be sure it’s working. It is one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind things, so here’s a reminder to put your home or business smoke alarm top of mind.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), almost three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms or in homes where the smoke alarm was not working. NFPA also points to missing or disconnected batteries as the reason for inoperable smoke alarms. Dead batteries cause 25 percent of smoke alarm failures.
That chirping sound you hear at night? It’s not the first robin of spring. It’s the smoke alarm battery alerting you that it’s time for a change. And, if your smoke alarm is more than 10 years old, replace the entire alarm. It’s inexpensive protection that is worth every cent.
Most insurance companies offer discounts for smoke alarms, particularly monitored systems. After you check the batteries and/or upgrade your smoke alarm, check with your insurer on any possible discount. It might be a small amount, but the alarm itself is big protection – for every season.
It was a balmy 67-degree day in New York on March 15, which prompted the inevitable joke that since it’s warm outside, then climate change must be real. The wry comment was made by one of the speakers at the New York Academy of Science’s symposiumScience for decision making in a warmer word: 10 years of the NPCC.
The NPCC is the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an independent body of scientists that advises the city on climate risks and resiliency. The symposium coincided with the release of the NPCC’s 2019 report, which found that in the New York City area extreme weather events are becoming more pronounced, high temperatures in summer are rising, and heavy downpours are increasing.
“The report tracks increasing risks for the city and region due to climate change,” says Cynthia Rosenzweig, co-chair of the NPCC and senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “It continues to lay the science foundation for development of flexible adaptation pathways for changing climate conditions.”
“What you can’t measure, you can’t manage,” said Columbia University’s Klaus Jacob, paraphrasing Peter Drucker and making a concise case for the importance of the work the NPCC is doing.
The changes in temperature and precipitation that New Yorkers are experiencing are broadly tracking the climate change projections made by the NPCC in 2015. However, the 2019 report notes that such comparisons should be viewed with caution because of the role that natural variation plays in the short term.
William Solecki, co-chair of the NPCC said “Recent scientific advances have…helped the panel craft new sets of tools and methods, such as a prototype system for tracking these risks and the effectiveness of corresponding climate strategies.”
One such tool is the Antarctic Rapid Ice Melt Scenario, which the NPCC created to model the effects of melting ice sheets on sea level rise around NYC. The model predicts that under a high-end scenario, monthly tidal flooding will begin to affect many neighborhoods around Jamaica Bay by the 2050s and other coastal areas throughout the city by the 2080s.
The NPCC 2019 report recommends that the city establish a coordinated indicator and monitoring system to enable the city and its communities to better monitor climate change trends, impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation measures.
The report also notes the important role of insurance in support of climate change adaptation and mitigation. “Public–private partnerships are essential for facilitating infrastructure resilience, particularly for publicly owned infrastructure systems that often lack resources for resilience improvements. Coordination of insurance and finance is an important future direction to achieve comprehensive resiliency in infrastructure that reduces negative climate change consequences,” said the report.
The I.I.I.’s primer on climate change and insurance issues can be found here.
And sure, that all might come to pass someday. Very smart people are working on blockchain applications. But right now it seems like the hype bubble is bursting, at least in the public mind.
Here are Google searches for “blockchain” over the past five years in the “finance” category:
Here is the search for “cryptocurrency”:
And just for fun, here’s the valuation of bitcoin:
I’m not the first person to notice this, of course. The Gartner “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies” 2018 report put “blockchains” on the cusp of the dreaded “trough of disillusionment”.
Trough of disillusionment. Sounds ominous.
Why the cool down about blockchains? The short answer: expectations have begun to re-align with reality.
There are several reasons why.
Earlier this year I wrote an article for the Actuarial Review about blockchains – and how they might be solutions in search of a problem. In the article, I cited Stephen J. Mildenhall from the School of Risk Management of St. John’s University, who compared a blockchain to a military tank. In theory you could drive your kids to school in a tank. But why would you? Tanks are extremely expensive, slow and inefficient (plus, I’m not sure they’re road-legal). A minivan would be a better solution. Like a minivan, a simple SQL database could probably do most jobs that a blockchain could do, except much more cheaply, quickly and efficiently.
Another big sell of blockchains was that they were theoretically unhackable. As I wrote last year, that’s only kinda-sorta the case. Blockchains themselves might be unhackable (depending on their governance structures), but for a lot of applications they need to connect to that extremely hackable thing called The Internet. Which is why you’re regularly reading about massive cryptocurrency heists.
But just because we’re in the trough of disillusionment (sorry, I just love that phrase), doesn’t spell the end for blockchains. This is a normal process for emerging technologies: a new technology is developed, everyone gets extremely excited, then reality kicks in and the hard (and underreported) work begins of perfecting the technology for real-world use.
I wouldn’t be surprised if blockchains quietly become ubiquitous for some applications in the near future – but how they’re integrated and what kind of real impact they’ll have are anyone’s guess.
In the meantime: beware the hype about any emerging technology.
To make sure that homeowners are aware of the importance of flood insurance, the I.I.I. recently partnered with the Weather Channel.
A video posted to the Weather Channel’s Facebook page demonstrates just how destructive flooding can be; for example, in the video you can see the devastation from Hurricane Sandy wreaked on Breezy Point, a coastal community in Queens NY.
“What’s remarkable about flood insurance is that only 12 percent of people have it,” says Sean Kevelighan, I.I.I.’s CEO. One misconception that people have about flood insurance is that it’s included in a homeowners policy. But that’s not the case. A separate flood policy must be obtained. Flood insurance is mostly sold by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, but some private insurers have begun offering it as well.
For those savvy enough to have purchased the coverage, it made a world of difference. “If we did not have flood insurance we would have been completely dependent on [government assistance]. It would never have been enough to fix out house”, says one resident of Breezy Point.
The video has garnered over a thousand views so far. We hope it leads to more people getting this invaluable protection. For more information about flood insurance click here.
According to Deutsche Welle, an Austrian court has held a farmer liable after one of his cows killed a hiker walking through his farm. The article reported that the cow grew enraged at the hiker’s dog and charged at them. The farmer will have to pay over $200,000 in restitution for the horrible event to the deceased’s spouse and son.
I’m not well-versed on the nuances of Austrian liability law and insurance. But what if a similar (hopefully non-fatal) accident happened on a farm in the U.S. – how would insurance play a role?
Luckily, there’s a thing called “farm insurance.” It can get complicated, but often a farm insurance policy is just a hodgepodge of property and liability coverages – with a lot of customization in between for the unique needs of each farm.
Today, let’s just focus on the liability part. Imagine Farmer Joe’s cow, Betty, runs wild and breaks the leg of someone visiting his farm. What happens?
Paying for liability damages and medical expenses
The standard farm liability policy will cover damages if someone is hurt on the farm (subject to various limitations and exclusions, of course). So when Betty breaks someone’s leg, Farmer Joe’s insurance will help cover any damages he has to pay. The farm policy will also pay for some medical expenses, regardless of who is at fault for the injury. Medical expenses usually include first aid and other necessary services.
Feats of strength are not covered
Easy enough. But imagine another scenario: Farmer Joe is holding a cow race on his farm and has invited his neighbors to watch. Betty breaks loose from the race track and breaks his neighbor’s leg. In this case, Farmer Joe is probably not covered for any injuries arising out of races, strength contests, or stunts. Nor is he covered if someone got hurt while riding Betty for a fee.
Lots of policies, lots of options
There are many types of farms: dairy farms, cattle ranches, horse farms, poultry farms, agritourism farms. There are many different types of insurance coverages available for each unique situation. Here’s just a taste:
Horse farms and ranches (property and liability)
Commercial equine (liability for horse-breeding operations)
Equine (business coverage if a horse becomes ill or dies)
Livestock insurance (covers animals other than horses)
Farrier (property and liability for people who shoe horses)
Roadside farm stand and farmers’ market insurance
Agritourism (corn mazes, on-premises hay rides, petting zoos)
It’s always important to talk to an insurance agent about your coverage needs. You may not think that you have farm liability exposures, but if you live in a semi-rural or rural area and own livestock, it’s probably a good idea to double check.
You can read more about farm and ranch insurance here.
Most recently, New Jersey legislators reportedly announced a bill that would permit recreational marijuana. If signed into law, New Jersey would join ten other states and D.C. that currently permit recreational marijuana. More than 30 states and D.C. also permit medical marijuana programs of some kind.
But as legalization spreads, concerns about driving under the influence of marijuana continue unabated.
Today, the I.I.I. has published a report that examines the current state of the issue.
“A rocky road so far: Recreational marijuana and impaired driving” dives into the hazy questions surrounding marijuana impairment: its effects on driving abilities, how traffic safety might be impacted, and how states are grappling with the issue of “stoned driving.” (Download the report here.)
Unfortunately, there are still many unknowns when it comes to stoned driving. Marijuana impairment degrades cognitive and motor skills, of course – but marijuana-impaired driving is an evolving issue with many questions and few concrete answers. Legalization is still relatively recent. Data are still being gathered. How to understand and measure marijuana impairment are still open questions.
Do the rates of marijuana-impaired driving increase following recreational legalization? Answer: probably. Does marijuana-impaired driving increase crash risks? Answer: probably, but we still don’t concretely know to what degree. What about traffic fatalities – do those increase after legalization? There’s evidence that traffic fatalities could increase following legalization, but there is still quite a bit of discussion about this issue.
There is active research, discussion and debate being conducted to answer these and other questions. As more states legalize recreational marijuana, forthcoming answers will become ever more critical to help best guide public policy and traffic safety initiatives.