Category Archives: Insurers and the Economy

Bodily Injury Liability Prices and Overall Inflation

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

 

There is good news on the bodily-injury liability insurance front, but no one seems to have noticed. The cost of health care for severely-injured people has barely increased in the last year.

Primarily, bodily injury (BI) liability insurance pays for the medical bills of people who have been severely injured due to the negligence of the insured. As a result, the severity of BI claims would tend to track price changes for inpatient and outpatient hospital services, where severely-injured people would go to get treatment and recover. And lately, these price changes have been shrinking—big time.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates a price component for each of these each month as part of the various versions of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).[1] On June 12 the BLS published its latest data for May 2019.

For inpatient hospital services, the change in prices was +1.2 percent, when compared to prices a year earlier, in May 2018. For outpatient hospital services, the change in prices was even smaller (+0.9 percent), when compared to prices a year earlier.

To put these numbers in some context, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U)—the most widely-used measure of inflation—rose by 1.8 percent in May 2019 vs. May 2018. Many economists prefer to measure inflation without the effect of price changes for food and energy, which are notoriously volatile. This measure is known as the core CPI. Its May 2019 vs. May 2018 change was 2.0 percent.

When was the last time that any healthcare costs—let alone for hospital services—rose at a slower rate than general inflation? Of course, many other factors affect claims for bodily injury liability, but this is a welcome trend for a significant element.

[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).

Tariffs and Auto Insurance

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

 

Thursday’s announcement of escalating tariffs on Mexico could further squeeze auto insurers by making replacement parts more expensive.

In an action to deter the flow of asylum-seekers on the southern border, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would impose escalating tariffs on all Mexican imports beginning June 10 at 5 percent, growing steadily to 25 percent on October 1, if Mexico does not comply.

A tariff effectively acts as a sales tax on goods entering the country, so it drives up the price of those goods.

The property/casualty industry has previously noted a 25 percent tariff on Chinese goods could raise collision repair costs by 2.7 percent, or $3.4 billion. China is the No. 2 exporter of auto parts to the United States – about $20 billion worth in 2018, according to data AutomotiveAftermarket.org culled from federal databases. Mexico is No. 1. It sends us nearly three times as much – $59 billion last year. Together, the two countries make up just over half the $158 billion in auto parts imported.

Even before tariffs, the rising cost of repairs is already an issue for auto insurers. A headlight assembly can easily top $1,000; a bumper with anti-crash sensors can cost $4,000 to replace, as we discuss in this presentation on auto costs.

Insurers bear the immediate impact of the tariffs. If the tariffs remain, they will have to raise rates to cover the increased cost. Tariffs on Mexico would also increase the cost of new cars, as the higher cost of components is passed through to consumers. This could slow the economy, and – since new cars generally cost more to insure than used ones – retard growth in personal auto premiums.

A specialty insurance line, political risk, provides coverage and protection against some government actions such as expropriation, regulatory risk, and restrictions on cross border trade. U.S. companies routinely use this coverage to protect against actions by foreign governments such as the impositions of import and export tariffs sizable enough to be debilitating to their operations and profitability. However, this coverage is not yet available in the domestic U.S. market.

There could be implications for the larger economy. On August 1 the economy will likely set a record for the longest continuation expansion ever recorded in the United States, but it may be is limping across that finish line. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta forecasts just 1.2 percent growth in the seasonally adjusted annual rate of real GDP for second quarter, down from 3.1 percent last quarter. Higher tariffs place a drag on the economy, the same way any tax increase would. Rescinding the tariffs could help rekindle the economy, the same way a tax decrease would.

 

 

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).

Making sense of the dip in property/casualty carrier employment

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

 

On a seasonally-adjusted basis, the number of people working for property/casualty (p/c) insurers has been dropping continually for two years (since February 2017), from 551,200 to 520,700 (the preliminary estimate for February 2019).

Seasonal adjustment plays a small part in determining these numbers. The not-seasonally-adjusted p/c carrier employment for February 2017 was 549,500, and the February 2019 preliminary estimate was 518,600.

What’s going on? Is this a trend? Based on the numbers alone, it’s hard to tell. Consider the following graph of seasonally-adjusted p/c carrier employment since January 2011 — 18 months after the official end of the Great Recession:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Don’t be misled by the spike in March 2015-March 2016. This is how the Bureau of Labor Statistics incorporates a change in classification—that is, in this case, some people who were previously not considered employed by p/c carriers were, as of March 2015, now considered as employed in this industry. Rather than an instant change, the adjustment is made over twelve months beginning and ending in March.

Since the data that begin in March 2016 also show a downtrend, it is easy to infer that, if there had been no reclassification in 2015-16, the downward trend that started (on the graph) in 2011 would in 2019 probably show p/c carrier employment at or below 500,000.

Although we don’t readily have policy counts over that span, it is reasonable to assume that, with growth in the population and the economy, p/c carriers are growing, and doing so with fewer employees. It is likely that at least some of this is due to the use of digital methods for activities that humans previously did. P/C carriers are becoming more productive.

Federal Reserve’s Randal K. Quarles and the I.I.I.’s Sean Kevelighan talk resilience – financial and otherwise

 

By Lucian McMahon

“It’s a mistake to try and think of resilience from the point of view of trying to predict what can happen and then to respond to a predicted event, because you won’t know what’s going to happen,” said vice chairman for supervision and member of the Board of Governors, Federal Reserve System Randal K. Quarles at the Insurance Information Institute’s (I.I.I.) 2019 Joint Industry Forum. “The important thing is to ensure that you have measures in effect […] that promote resiliency no matter what might happen.”

Left to right: Sean Kevelighan and Randal Quarles

Resilience is more than prevention

In his conversation with the I.I.I. CEO Sean Kevelighan, Quarles stressed that financial stability depends on resilience, the ability to absorb system shocks no matter their source. “Wherever the shock might come from, it’s important that the institution or system is resilient to shock,” he said.

Cyberrisk is a perfect example. Quarles noted that a lot of the discussion around cyberrisks is about prevention. But he argued that prevention is only one part of cyberrisk resilience. “A key element to resilience is to assume that something will happen, and then determine how you have constructed a system that can stand back up, withstand, and respond to that shock.”

The U.S. economy appears to remain resilient during recent events

Quarles noted that the data on the real economy remains strong. Job creation continues. There’s been an uptick in the labor force participation. The economy is growing without unconstrained inflation.

But what about the recent stock market fluctuations and the ominous financial news coming out of Europe and Asia? “I think recently financial markets have been reacting to a few things,” Quarles said. “Mostly it’s doubt in the strength of continuing global growth. Some of the data that’s come out of China and Europe would suggest a little bit of less growth in the near term.”

Nonetheless, Quarles pointed out that markets might be more attuned to downside risks. He is confident that the core fundamentals of the economy remain strong. “The fundamental fact is that the financial sector is much more highly capitalized, has more liquidity, than it had before the crisis. Our assessment of risk to stability in the current environment is moderate.”

Quarles acknowledged that certain global events (particularly recent threats to trade openness) could impact the financial sector. The Fed, however, is alert to it. Quarles remains optimistic. “The hope is that a lot of these current events, current issues, will be way stations on the way to a more stable, more politically-supported open economy. It’s in everyone’s long term interest.”

In other words, the hope is that the economy is more resilient to shocks than it had been in the past.

Insurance Labor Outlook 2018 Q3

The U.S. insurance industry continues its hiring spree in 2018, with 63 percent of companies saying that they plan to increase staff during the next 12 months, according to a new Jacobson and Ward Group survey.

The primary reason cited for hiring is the expectation of an increase in business volume – 66 percent of companies listed this as the primary reason-to-hire. Business expansion and/or entry into new markets was listed as the second most popular reason for hiring (43 percent).

The most difficult to fill positions are executive, technology, and actuarial, while the biggest growth is expected in technology, claims and underwriting roles.

“The insurance industry is coming face to face with an unprecedented talent reality,” says Gregory P. Jacobson, co-chief executive officer of Jacobson. “Virtually non-existent unemployment, an emerging skills gap and impending mass retirements of the industry’s continually aging workforce are challenging insurers to reevaluate their current staffing strategies. This survey will provide a baseline from which insurers can make necessary adjustments to build a successful workforce.”

When it came to reducing staff, 11 percent of companies reported that automation will be the primary reason for reductions in staff during the next 12 months followed by reorganization at 9 percent.

The Jacobson Group and Ward Group conducted a webinar to review the trends uncovered by the survey. The webinar can be viewed here.

 

The I.I.I. tracks insurance industry employment trends here.

A world without insurance? Not if these University of Alabama students can help it!

By Steven Weisbart, Chief Economist, Insurance Information Institute

Bill Rabel, a professor at the University of Alabama (and a long-time friend of mine and of the I.I.I.), has sent an email to all students who are enrolled in his fall Intro to Insurance class. Here is the opening of his email:

Dear FI 341/597 Principles of Risk Management & Insurance students,

 I’m looking forward to seeing you in class on Thursday, August 23!  The purpose of this message is to give you a head start on the fall semester—which will be here before we know it.

A major objective of the course is understanding insurance; in order to give you an idea about the important role it plays, I invite you to check out the following video: A World Without Insurance?  It’s short (about four minutes) and will give you important insights that will help you to appreciate the course, and why insurance is essential to all of us.

 

 

 

Discover “How Insurance Drives Economic Growth”

By Sean M. Kevelighan,
CEO, Insurance Information Institute

Most people understand insurance as their first line of defense against financial losses. However, the insurance industry’s commitment to a strong economy goes much deeper.

Insurers and reinsurers in many ways are the very foundation of growth and progress for the modern economy. For individuals and businesses of all sizes faced with managing risk amid increasingly complex challenges, insurance is there to ease uncertainties. It’s the safety net that lets families, businesses, and communities plan for future success, confident that they will be able to bounce back no matter what lies ahead.

In a new research study from the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.), “How Insurance Drives Economic Growth,” the I.I.I.’s chief economist, Steven Weisbart, lists 10 ways which insurers and reinsurers create value and drive economic growth by serving as “financial “first responders,” risk mitigators, partners in social policy, job-creators, and as a leading investor in innovation.

Through statistics, analysis and insights this publication tells a story that we’re proud of: How insurers not only make individuals and communities more productive and resilient, but also how the industry provides stability to financial markets and the overall economy, and helps to effectuate civic and social change to help promote the common good.

The challenge of population projections: future strain on Medicare and Social Security may be even greater than Census figures would suggest

By Steven Weisbart, Chief Economist, Insurance Information Institute

A few days ago, the Census Bureau made news based on its latest projection of the population of the United States over the next 40 years. One observation that the Bureau made was that the number of people over age 65 would soon outstrip the number under age 18—the first time that has happened in our history.

But one sharp-eyed economist/demographer quickly questioned the underlying projections, at least for the near term. Tom Lawler noted that one of the assumptions in the Census Bureau projections is expected deaths by age group which, for seven 10-year age groups from 15 to 85, were far below recent data published by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). For example, in the 35-44 age group, the Census Bureau projection for the July 1, 2016-June 30, 2017 year was for 62,599 deaths, whereas for the 2016 calendar year the NCHS reported 77,792 deaths.

The Census Bureau was also off in the other direction, according to Lawler’s citing of the NCHS data, in over-projecting deaths for the under-1-year age group (39,741 for the Census Bureau, 23,161 for NCHS) and for the 85-and-over age group (909,723 for the Census Bureau, 854,462 for NCHS).

There are several reasons why getting the level and trend of population projections right is important. From any business viewpoint (including insurance), the number and life-stage of customers, as well as potential workers, can have a significant effect on plans for growth. More specifically, using the NCHS numbers implies a smaller “prime working age” population (ages 25-54) than the Census Bureau projects, coupled with a larger 85-and-older population—suggesting greater strain on Social Security and Medicare than would otherwise be expected.

The “After Glow” of Tax Reform Politics Too Good to Pass Up for Anti-Insurance Crowd

By Sean Kevelighan, CEO, ‎Insurance Information Institute

After the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 passed late last year, the Insurance Information Institute received numerous queries about the impact on property/casualty insurers. Given our mission at I.I.I. is not rooted in direct lobbying advocacy, we consciously refrained from engaging in what was sure to be (and was, in fact) a political battleground in some areas during the legislative process. That said, the industry deserves credit for coming together in many ways to ensure insurance receives fair treatment — a lesson learned from 1986 when the industry was sidelined.

While the anti-insurance crowd (most often misleading themselves as “pro consumer” groups) has been quick to add political rhetoric in the form of baseless and wildly exaggerated claims the industry will receive a “windfall” of income, the I.I.I. will, once again, adhere to facts that are based on actuarial and economic soundness.

Objectively, the I.I.I. sees the overall benefits to tax reform for the insurance industry to be well under 1 cent for every premium dollar.

How do we get that estimate?

Equity analysts at J.P. Morgan estimate tax reform would be about 5 percent of industry earnings, which seems reasonable based on what we know. In 2016 – 2017 industrywide results aren’t out yet – net income was $42.6 billion. Five percent of that would be a bit over $2 billion – more than I have in my pocket, but only about one-third of 1 percent of the $600 billion the industry wrote that year.

Here are a couple of other things to consider about insurers and taxes:

  • Insurance companies pay a wide variety of rates. They pay one rate on underwriting profits, another on dividends from preferred stock, another on bond payments and yet another on municipal bond payments which are almost, but not quite, tax-free. The headline rate fell considerably, but many of the other rates didn’t change at all.
  • Some companies may get a tax increase. Foreign-based groups that have historically ceded a portion of their U.S. business to an offshore affiliate based outside the U.S. are now subject to the Base Erosion and Anti-Abuse Tax – call it BEAT. However, the reduction in the overall tax rate may offset the other changes, depending on each company’s circumstances.

It is important to understand that insurance costs will quickly adjust to the new tax reality. Insurers in the largest lines – personal auto and homeowners – adjust their rates annually – sometimes more frequently. The rate – by law – explicitly reflects every cost an insurer incurs, including taxes. When the tax law changes, insurers build the new rate into their models.

Much like any business in America, insurance will use some of the benefits to invest — in its employees, products and services — so as to improve and grow. Given the industry is the second largest financial services contributor to our economy (2.8% of GDP), employing nearly 3 million Americans, it is critical that insurers make their own decisions.  If not, then where does the line get drawn? Next, the anti-business crowd would (or perhaps already has) call on other industries to make uneconomic pricing decisions.

Update: This blog post has been changed to clarify information regarding the BEAT tax.