Category Archives: Insurers and the Economy

How affordable is homeowners insurance?

The average homeowners insurance premium was $1,249 in 2018, up by 3.1 percent from the previous year, according to the latest data from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC).  In 2017 the average premium was up 1.6 percent.

To put this in context, the consumer price index, a measure of the price of goods and services in the United States, rose by 1.9 percent in 2018 and by 2.1 percent in 2017.

The average renters insurance premium fell 0.6 percent in 2018, marking the fourth consecutive annual decline. 

It’s important to note that the average homeowners or renters premium is an imperfect measure of the relative “price” of insurance, according to the NAIC. That’s because the ultimate cost of your policy will depend on a wide variety of factors such as the differences in hazards, economic conditions, and real estate values from state to state.

Insurers determine homeowners insurance premiums based on the amount of coverage purchased (generally based on the value of the insured property), the type of property covered, the types of perils covered, and the specific limits and deductibles a policyholder chooses.

Click here for a state-by-state graphic of average homeowners insurance premiums.

The financial burden of homeownership insurance
Americans generally don’t view the cost of homeowners insurance as a financial burden. Triple-I’s 2017 Consumer Insurance Survey found that only 31 percent of Americans consider homeowners insurance to be a financial burden. This is the lowest level in more than a decade and represents a significant drop from the 49 percent of people in 2009 who said the cost of homeowners insurance was a financial burden.

One reason homeowners insurance has not been considered a financial burden is that Americans’ income growth has consistently outpaced home insurance costs; however this trend may be temporarily interrupted by the pandemic-related recession of 2020. According to an analysis by Risk Information‘s Property Insurance Report (PIR), the trend was already apparent in 2018.

The PIR report suggests that the trend toward more affordable insurance appears to have continued in 2019, but acknowledges that in 2022, when the NAIC releases average homeowners premiums for 2019, the HURT Index may fall lower than 1.4 percent for the first time since 2010.

Customer service

“Homeowners insurance customers are the single-most-valuable group of personal lines customers for P&C insurers,” said Robert M. Lajdziak, senior consultant of insurance intelligence at J.D. Power.

“They have a significantly higher bundling rate, 38 percent higher product penetration beyond home and auto, and their tenure is twice the length of a monoline auto customer. The potential ‘lifetime customer value’ of homeowners makes meeting their needs and motivations to renew a critical task for the industry.”

Large, established insurers and insurtech startups are expected to compete for customers’ premium dollars by delivering great service and converting renters insurance clients into homeowners insurance clients, according to J.D. Powers.

Millennial customers in particular are more likely to select their homeowners insurer based on good service experience and are much more likely than Boomers to use insurer-provided tools to inventory their possessions, thereby increasing the level of engagement with their insurer and creating additional opportunities to develop loyalty through good customer service.

Echoing J.D. Powers’ findings, a Deloitte survey found that respondents aged 18 to 34 with $50k to $100k+ annual income who have purchased a house in the past three years, referred to as the “gadget group,” are more likely to purchase a ‘connected and preventative’ home insurance service than any other type of policy.

Homeowners have also expressed a strong demand for parametric type home insurance products, according to Deloitte. This type of insurance pays claims of a pre-agreed amount automatically when an event falls within set parameters, such as a level of rainfall or speed of wind.

Maritime Supply-Chain Vulnerabilities: Why This Won’t Be the Last Time
a Megaship Gets Stuck

By Loretta Worters, Vice President, Media Relations, Triple-I

(Photo by Mahmoud Khaled/Getty Images)

When mega containership Ever Given wedged herself across a one-way section of the Suez Canal during a sandstorm last month, it brought 10 percent of global trade to a halt for a week. The ship – owned by Taiwanese container transportation and shipping company Evergreen Marine Corp. – was finally refloated and traffic in the canal was able to resume.

A Risk & Insurance cover story, published by Triple-I sister organization Risk & Insurance Group (RIG), describes how – in the context of a trend toward larger container vessels and a global supply chain already disrupted by COVID-19 – this incident should serve as a wake-up call for insurers.

Looking at the Ever Given grounding and disruption of canal traffic from a marine insurance perspective, RIG author Gregory DL Morris highlights the impact on cargo insurance claims and the potential for cargo spoilage. He also discusses compromised maneuverability of these massive vessels in high winds and references an increasing number of on-board fires, challenges surrounding salvage, and lack of suitable repair facilities, noting, “Underwriters need to be aware of this.”

Despite the likelihood that immediate property loss in this case will be minimal, megaships pose serious challenges to marine insurance and risk management. According to MDS Transmodal, a transport and logistics research firm, average vessels capacity grew 25 percent between 2014 and 2018, with ultra-large containerships accounting for 31 percent of the total capacity deployed in the second quarter of 2018. Transmodal attributes this trend to industry consolidation through mergers and acquisitions, as well as growing trade lane co-operation through alliances, slot sharing, and vessel-sharing agreements.

Even as traffic through the canal resumes, terminals will experience congestion. In addition, the severe drop in vessel arrival and container discharge in major terminals will aggravate existing shortages of empty containers available for exports. Delays in shipments, increased costs, and product shortages are therefore likely. 

“The fact is that an already heavily disrupted maritime supply chain has taken another hit that will further affect its fluidity, with long-term consequences related to congestions, lead times and predictability,” said Jens Roemer, chair of the Sea Transport Working Group of the International Federation of Freight Forwarders.

While traffic through the canal is now moving, the global supply chain’s vulnerabilities may only now be beginning to become clear.

“Whether a blizzard in Texas or a sandstorm in Egypt,” Morris writes, “the narrow focus on minimal inventories that rely upon just-in-time delivery leaves little allowance for weather or accident.”

“Lightning Round” Highlights Technologies Reopening the Economy

Public discussion about re-opening the economy after COVID-19 has mostly revolved around the safety, efficacy, and availability of various vaccines. But in the longer term, other measures and new technologies will be key to getting back to normal and being prepared for future public health emergencies.

Last week’s Lightning Round V: Reopening America in the Post-Pandemic Scenario – a collaboration between Triple-I’s Resilience Accelerator, ResilientH20 Partners, and The Cannon – featured three technologies that promise to help facilitate the recovery.

Workplace workflow

Tomer Mann, executive vice president of business development for 22 Miles, discussed his company’s “digital experience platform,” which incorporates temperature-scanning technology, touchless kiosks, virtual concierge, and other applications to provide social distance among customers and employees and early warning of possible infection in business settings.   

“In March, when we were seeing a lot of the temperature-scanning solutions coming out of China, we realized we could leverage our software to pivot and create a more secure solution, avoiding some of the sensors that are coming out of China that are blacklisted in the trade market and avoiding some of the data breach implications,” Mann said.

22 Miles’ “workplace workflow” starts at a building’s lobby, using facemask and temperature detection and including badge integration and access control for employees and guests. For companies using shared workspaces, the system tracks what spaces are being used to facilitate sanitization between uses. To minimize physical contact while maximizing interactivity, the system’s components can be activated using voice, gesture, or mobile device.

In addition to facilitating safe, hygienic use of these spaces, the system captures large amounts of data that can provide warnings of possible infections and inform modifications to the workflow.

Scrubbing the air

Santiago Mendoza, senior vice president with Integrated Viral Protection, spoke about his company’s indoor air protection system, which has been shown to capture and destroy coronavirus at a 99-plus percentage rate. The system has shown similar results when tested with anthrax spores and other airborne pathogens.

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are “super spreaders” of coronavirus and other pathogens, Mendoza said, adding that most filter systems only catch and don’t kill them. 

“Our system heats up to almost 400 degrees Fahrenheit and destroys the pathogens,” he said.

The IVP system is available for commercial and residential uses and has been installed in hospitality venues, health facilities, and schools across the United States, Mendoza said. It comes in multiple sizes, including a personal unit for travelers to use in hotel rooms and other closed spaces.

Early warning in water

Jennings Heussner, business development manager for BioBot Analytics, a wastewater epidemiology company, explained how BioBot went from testing for opioids to tracking coronavirus.

“We analyze wastewater coming into treatment plants for human health markers,” Heussner said. The company originally was focused on the opioid epidemic, helping communities better understand the nature of their local opioid problems to better inform their public health response.

When the pandemic hit, BioBot expanded its focus and became the first company in the United States to identify the presence of the virus in wastewater.

Leveraging existing wastewater sampling processes, BioBot analyzes the sample and reports back within one business day after receiving it, providing a quick, inexpensive, comprehensive early warning system.

Ready and resilient

Such technologies will be essential parts of building a pandemic-ready and resilient society. Anticipating and addressing outbreaks early can help alleviate health-related and business-interruption concerns and head off insurance claims.

Just as the insurance industry played a vital role in improving vehicle safety, infrastructure, building codes, and more, insurers and risk managers – partnering with policymakers, businesses, homeowners, and others – will help determine which of these emerging solutions will endure.

Triple-I/Milliman Groundhog Day Report Projects Insurer Growth, Profits In 2021

By Loretta Worters, Vice President, Media Relations, Triple-I

A pandemic, civil unrest, and weather-related catastrophes impacted the U.S. property/casualty (P/C) insurance industry in 2020, but not to the extent that was originally feared.

Few predict a repeat of the events of 2020, yet new projections from the Insurance Information Institute (Triple-I) and Milliman envision strong premium growth for 2021 with an underwriting result comparable to last year.

Despite myriad challenges, U.S. auto, homeowners, and commercial insurers are projected to realize a modest 1.9 percent growth in net premiums written and to book a combined ratio of 98.9 through year-end 2020, according to Triple-I and Milliman. This year, net premiums written will increase 6.1 percent, and the combined ratio will improve slightly, to 98.5, the two organizations project. Net premiums written are premiums written after reinsurance transactions. The combined ratio is the percentage of each premium dollar a P/C insurer spends on claims and expenses.

“We think the year ended surprisingly well, given the difficult circumstances the industry found itself in,” said James Lynch, FCAS, senior vice president and chief actuary, Triple-I.  “We project a slight underwriting profit in 2020, fairly similar to 2019. We project similar results over the next two years.”

The year-end 2020 projections, along with those for this year and next, were unveiled during a Triple-I members-only webinar on February 2, “Triple-I/Milliman Underwriting Projections 2021-2022: Groundhog Day Edition,” moderated by Triple-I CEO Sean Kevelighan.

P/C insurance industry premium growth will rebound in 2021, the Triple-I and Milliman projected, as the hard market in commercial lines will augment exposure growth from the economic recovery. Panelists also forecast continued underwriting profits through 2022, with projections for several major lines of business.

“Economists expect growth to improve this year and next, which will fuel growth in exposures in most lines,” said Jason B. Kurtz, FCAS, MAAA, a principal and consulting actuary at Milliman, an independent risk management, benefits, and technology firm.

Kurtz noted, however, that recent signs of slowdown are “concerning – retail sales fell in December, adjusted for the season and new jobless claims remain stubbornly high.  So that may delay growth, as might the spread of so-called variant coronaviruses, which the CDC is expecting will dominate the cases in the spring.”

During the webinar, Dr. Michel Léonard, CBE, vice president and senior economist, Triple-I, took a preliminary look at third-quarter 2020 P/C insurance industry financial results.

The U.S. P/C insurers turned in a profitable performance in 2020’s third quarter, even as the industry’s net income dropped 26 percent for the second quarter in a row, according to Dr. Léonard.  “While it was below the 10-year average, it was overall stronger than expected given the structurally low-rate environment yields and equity market volatility.”

Léonard concluded: “Prudent asset management and sound underwriting practices ensured the continued financial stability of the industry, even as we faced a uniquely challenging year, delivering on our contribution to systemic financial stability and commitment to policyholders.”

To learn about Triple-I membership, visit iiimembership.org

Virtual Triple-I Forum Reviews 2020, Looks Ahead at Risks, Opportunities

Sean Kevelighan, Triple-I CEO

Insurance is a business that promotes and demands resilience, and 2020 was a year-long case study in our industry’s ability to respond rapidly to new challenges from a firm financial foundation. Triple-I’s virtual Joint Industry Forum (JIF) provided many examples from a range of industry and academic leaders, along with insightful discussions about what the industry faces in the near and longer terms.

At the 2020 JIF in New York City, it was clear from our various panels that the industry had a full plate of priorities for the year ahead. Then came COVID-19, and a whole new set of public health and economic concerns was added to the existing exposure mix. The virus brought a strong economy nearly to a halt; while officials assessed and responded to these threats, civil unrest on a scale not seen since the 1990s broke out on the streets of many cities; historic and near-historic weather and wildfire activity descended on communities whose resources were already strained by the pandemic.

And all of the above took place amid the uncertainty created by the most contentious, chaotic election year in modern U.S. history.

Through it all, as this year’s JIF speakers described, the property/casualty insurance industry managed to shine.

“Look at how our companies performed” in the real-time shift to fully remote work, noted Chuck Chamness, President and CEO of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC). “Then look at the dynamic changes in our businesses caused in large part by the pandemic, where we gave back $14 billion in premiums to policyholders and contributed a couple of hundred million dollars-plus in charitable contributions. We really did our job this year.”

David Sampson, American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA) President and CEO, added that the “bulk of the industry came together to proactively work with agents and policymakers to create a solution that could work for all stakeholders to provide protection against widespread economic shutdown as a result of a viral outbreak.”

APCIA, NAMIC, and Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America proposed to Congress a Business Continuity Protection Plan (BCPP) that would allow businesses to buy revenue-replacement coverage for up to 80 percent of payroll and other expenses in the event of a pandemic through state-regulated insurance entities, with aid coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which would run the program.

Our industry also faced a literal existential threat in the form of efforts to require insurers to pay billions in business income (interruption) claims for which not one penny of premium had ever been paid. Thanks to industry leaders stepping up to educate policymakers and the media, much of this threat – though, by no means all of it – seems to have faded. Triple-I’s Future of American Insurance & Reinsurance (FAIR) campaign played a critical role in informing policy discussions on business interruption coverage, the uninsurability of pandemic risk, and the need for federal involvement to mitigate the financial impact of future pandemics.

Throughout this year’s virtual JIF, the emphasis on innovation is a consistent thread. Peter Miller, President and CEO of The Institutes, observed that the pandemic and its attendant operational and economic stresses forced the industry into innovation overdrive. He cited a member of The Institutes’ board saying 2020 “caused them to do 10 years of innovation in one,” adding that board members have told him work-from-home alone has saved their companies “one hundred-plus million dollars a year.”

Whether discussing the industry’s response to climate change and extreme weather or how to communicate the importance of risk-based pricing to policymakers, innovation is at the heart of solving every challenge (and seizing every opportunity) our industry faces. Peter emphasized the importance of using innovation strategically across the entire value chain – not just to solve specific problems as they emerge.

In addition to the panelists I mentioned above, the conversations featured a cross section of industry leaders, Triple-I subject-matter experts and non-resident scholars. If you weren’t able to attend, you can view and watch the panels here.

What property/casualty insurance industry
can expect from
Biden White House

On January 20, in a historic inauguration ceremony surrounded by U.S. soldiers guarding against domestic terrorism — before a field of 200,000 illuminated flags representing Americans who could not attend the ceremony because of the coronavirus pandemic — President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn into office.

Sean Kevelighan, CEO, Insurance Information Institute (Triple-I), today released the following statement:

“Every four years—for more than two centuries—the United States has celebrated its Constitution, and that historic document’s invocation of “We, the People,” through the orderly and peaceful transfer of power atop the government’s executive branch. With today’s inauguration of President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, that solemn tradition continues in our nation’s capital only two weeks after unprecedented lawlessness descended upon Washington, D.C.

The U.S. economy is facing extraordinary challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the U.S.’s insurance industry will continue to provide essential financial protections to individuals and businesses while at the same time employing millions of Americans and paying billions of dollars in taxes to support crucial government services. The industry-supported Insurance Information Institute congratulates the Biden-Harris administration as it takes office. We also stand ready to provide its policymakers with the Triple-I’s unique, data-driven insights on insurance to inform public policy.”

The Biden administration has listed COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change among its top priorities.

In coming months, the property/casualty insurance industry is likely to encounter a frenetic pace of legislative activity on many issues affecting its operations. Here are just a few:

Climate Change –  Senator Dianne Feinstein’s proposed Addressing Climate Financial Risk Act, intended to help federal regulators understand and mitigate risks from climate change within the financial system, would require a Federal Insurance Office (FIO) report on how to modernize and improve climate risk insurance regulation.

“The insurance industry is more directly affected by climate risk than other areas of the financial system,” said Feinstein’s press release. The report would be modeled on FIO’s 2013 report on modernizing state insurance regulation.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney introduced the Pandemic Risk Insurance Act, which is modeled after the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act enacted after 9/11. However, the bill has yet to gain widespread support. The insurance industry has advanced several pandemic risk mitigation proposals of its own.

Congress could deliberate reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program, which was last done with the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012.

Full federal marijuana legalization remains daunting, with a slim Democratic majority, according to Politico, but piecemeal legislation with wider bipartisan support, such as banking access for cannabis businesses and medical marijuana research, may have a better chance to advance. Conflicting state and federal laws have discouraged insurers from participating in the cannabis-related business market.

An expected increase in the corporate tax rate would mean higher tax liabilities for property/casualty insurers.

Risk-based insurance pricing is an issue that’s expected to heat up, and insurers will have to explain to a new set of legislators that the business of insurance hinges on predicting the level of risk a policyholder represents and charging a premium that corresponds with that level of risk.

On January 28, at Triple-I’s virtual Joint Industry Forum, CEOs from five major insurance industry trade associations will share their perspectives and public policy priorities for 2021. Click here to register for the complimentary event.

Top Insurance Markets
to See 4.5 Percent GDP Decrease In 2020

The world’s 10 largest insurance markets are cumulatively expected to see their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decrease by 4.5 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 because of COVID-19, according to Triple-I’s Global Macro and Insurance Outlook: Q4 2020 report.

“All things being equal, higher economic activity drives premium growth higher while lower economic activity drags premium growth down. Going into Q4, economic activity, expressed as year-over-year change in GDP for the world’s 10 largest insurance markets, is expected to decrease by -4.5% in 2020,” writes the report’s author, Dr. Michel Léonard, CBE, Vice President & Senior Economist, Triple-I.

The world’s 10 largest insurance markets, in order, as defined by total premium written in 2018-2019, are: the United States, China, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Korea, Italy, Canada, and Taiwan. The Triple-I’s projection of a 4.5 percent GDP decrease in the world’s 10 largest insurance markets in 2020 as compared to 2019 was weighted based on the total premium written in each one.

“The extent of new lockdowns, the success of vaccine trials and the efficacy of vaccine distribution will determine the pace of economic recovery in 2021, with consensus pointing to Q3 or Q4 2020 as rounding the corner out of the pandemic part of the recession. However, economic activity will not heal and recover until well into 2021 and early 2022,” Dr. Léonard states, adding, “Under best scenarios, economic growth will not start to fully recover until Q2 and Q3 2021 in advanced economies and Q3 and Q4 in developing economies.”

Global GDP is expected to contract between -5.5% and -6.5% in 2020, the report said, citing benchmark forecasts such as the ones issued recently by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

GDP represents the value of the total goods and services an economy produces in a single year whereas premium is the price paid for an insurance policy. Beyond premiums, insurers also generate revenue through investment income.

No Surprises: How Insurers and Their Customers Benefit from Financial Education

By Sean Kevelighan, CEO, Insurance Information Institute

Sean Kevelighan

Insurers have responded quickly and effectively to 2020’s extraordinary volume of hurricanes, wildfires, and civil unrest. These events are resulting cumulatively in billions of dollars in insured claim payouts.  

Yet a recent Forbes article stated that the owners of one of the largest Broadway theater chains were “shocked to learn that its insurance companies would not cover most of its losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Making people more prepared and resilient is our fundamental goal at the Insurance Information Institute (Triple-I). We seek every opportunity to educate customers about how their insurance works before they suffer an insured loss. Part of this mission is to explain how pandemics are uninsurable. That’s because, unlike covered events, which are limited in time and geography, pandemics simultaneously affect everybody. This is something we’ve explained in briefings to legislators, legal experts and consumer and trade media.

Large-Scale Solutions to Large-Scale Problems

As a result, a consensus is forming around the idea that the federal government is the only entity with the reach and financial resources to help businesses recover from an event the magnitude of a global pandemic. It’s in this spirit that we help inform public discussions about the need for a federal governmental role in protecting the U.S. against future pandemics.

Still, while insurers, regulators and the U.S. government work to deliver relief to business financially affected by future pandemics, we need to stay focused on the present. And to do this, we need to take a quick look into the past:

Insurance has been around for 350 years as a way for households, businesses and communities to recover and rebound after wildfires, hurricanes and other catastrophes. Time and again insurers have been there for their customers because that’s what they do. For example, in the months after 9/11, insurers paid out tens of billions of dollars to keep affected businesses afloat while New York and Washington, DC rebuilt from the rubble.

In 2020, insurers continue to perform their vital societal role, covering insured losses from record hurricane and wildfire seasons, as well as the most destructive civil demonstrations in more than a quarter-century. Insurance simplifies a rather complex risk management process and creates products that deliver simpler ways for people to be more prepared and resilient. Covering these hazards demands immense capital resources.

Questions? Your Policy Documents Have the Answers

Insurance is heavily regulated, and as the Triple-I reaffirmed at September’s annual summit of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), the industry we represent relies on a strong working partnership with regulators and government agencies across America to help make insurance work better for everybody.

One of the tangible results of this partnership is something that anybody can literally hold in their hands: insurance policy documents. Reading these documents to understand what you’re purchasing is an essential part of preparedness.

Business income (interruption) or BI insurance losses caused by a pandemic are not covered because direct physical damage, such as that caused by a hurricane or a fire, is what triggers a standard BI policy. As many courts and academics around the country have stated, neither a virus nor bacteria leads to the direct physical damage of a business’s structure. This contract language is well-established; moreover, every policy is approved by individual states before they are issued to BI policy holders.

We view it as a success when nobody is shocked by what’s covered, and what’s not, under their insurance policies. This is why the Triple-I regularly urges business owners to become familiar with their insurance documents and have regular conversations with their agent or broker to discuss anything they don’t understand.

In an age when we’re all accustomed to just clicking the “terms and conditions” box, ignoring agreements, paradoxically, has become something everybody can agree with. Social scientists consider this to be a form of cognitive dissonance: We know we should read our insurance policies, and yet few of us do. This is a behavioral pattern we’re all guilty of and the Triple-I understands there are many demands on a customer’s time.

Which brings us back to an essential point, that insurance companies prioritize their efforts and resources into making sure that everybody knows about the coverage they have and need.

Pandemics are uninsurable because insurers don’t collect premiums to cover business losses due to viruses and other pathogens. There are products available for this purpose, but an overwhelming majority of businesses decline to purchase them. These exclusions and the availability of pandemic insurance is a fact well known by many experienced professionals—notably risk managers and trial attorneys. The Triple-I is willing to work with anybody to make the public better aware of the risks and how to prepare for them.

The next pandemic surely will come. How insurers, their customers, and the federal government respond now will ensure our resources and energies are devoted to saving lives from all the threats the U.S. faces.  

Economic Data
in the Age of COVID-19

Dr. Steven N. Weisbart, CLU, Triple-I Senior Vice President and Chief Economist

COVID-19 pandemic has not only disrupted our economy – it has complicated the data we routinely use to understand economic developments. This is a bit like finding out the thermometer you use to tell if you have a fever is unreliable.

Here are two examples of why it’s hard to know what’s happening.

 What is the correct unemployment rate?

The April 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employment report said the U-3 rate – just one of six unemployment measures BLS reports – was 14.75 percent. This number is derived by dividing the number of people counted as unemployed (23.078 million) by the civilian labor force (156.481 million), which is everyone who is either working or unemployed and looking for work.

But when the virus was recognized as a major public health threat in mid-March and April and many businesses and organizations were shut down, throwing many millions out of work, some who were affected decided to retire. This means they were no longer counted as part of the civilian labor force. This is most vividly seen by comparing the civilian labor force in February (164.6 million) with its count in April (156.5 million)—a drop of 8.1 million.

The large number of retirees affected the unemployment rate: if they had not retired, most would likely have been counted as unemployed. To keep the math in our example simple, let’s say 7 million of the retirees had remained in the labor force and been counted as unemployed (maybe the other 1 million would have retired then anyway—virus or no virus). The unemployment count would have been 30 million (23 million counted plus 7 million un-retirees) and the civilian labor force would have been 163.5 million (156.5 counted plus 7 million un-retirees).

The unemployment rate would have been announced as 30 million divided by 163.5 million, or 18.35 percent, instead of 14.75 percent.

So, which one is correct?

Are seasonal adjustments still correct?

Macroeconomists have long recognized that many economic data have seasonal patterns. For example, retail sales often spike in the last quarter of the year because of the holidays. Sales for some items, such as those bought for “back to school,” spike at other times. So, to see what’s really happening, economic data are often adjusted to account for the seasonal effects and reported after these adjustments are made.

To see the effect of seasonal adjustments, look at the following two graphs. The first is employment in the construction industry that is not seasonally adjusted. The second is the same industry and time; the only difference is that its data are seasonally adjusted.

Construction employment obviously dips in the cold months, and the drop shown in the first graph doesn’t represent any significant economic change, so the seasonal adjustment in the lower graph lets us see only changes beyond the seasonal adjustment, such as what happened in 2020.

The problem, from an economic analysis viewpoint, is that the amount of seasonal adjusting to apply is a judgment call, and it is often based on a historical period in which conditions were much as they are now. But what’s happening now has no satisfactory historical precedent.

So should we keep using the seasonal adjustment factors from before, or do they not apply to the current economic situation?

These are just two examples of datasets or analytical approaches whose relevance can be called into question in light of COVID-19 – further complicating the already complex and nuanced endeavor of attempting to understand and anticipate economic developments.   

Fed’s Rate Move Portends Long-Term Challenges for P/C Insurers

Dr. Steven N. Weisbart, CLU, Triple-I Senior Vice President and Chief Economist

“The FOMC’s action will likely keep longer-term rates exceptionally low for several years more.”

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the Federal Reserve Board  recently spelled out its objectives and strategies for at least the next several years—describing a financial framework they will maintain longer than the timeframe they typically describe. The length and parameters of this framework will have significant impact on the property/casualty industry.

The FOMC says it will hold short-term interest rates near zero, likely for several years—perhaps to 2023, quite possibly longer. Insurers don’t invest much in short-term instruments – to the extent that they do, it’s to have cash available to pay claims. They primarily invest in intermediate- and longer-term bonds and similar fixed-rate interest-paying instruments that provide steady income, which, together with premiums, covers claims and operating expenses. Insurers raise and lower premiums – partly in response to changes in investment income – to sustain profitable operations.

Because yields on these investments generally track short-term rates, the FOMC’s action will likely keep longer-term rates exceptionally low for several years more.

One signpost the Fed will use to decide when to raise rates is when inflation, as measured by the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) deflator, is sustained at over 2 percent such that the average inflation rate including recent years equals 2 percent. To appreciate what this means, consider Figure 1. It shows that, since 2012, the PCE deflator has been below 2% (vs. same month, prior year) most of the time. The average over this span was 1.40%. But the Fed might not go back that far to calculate its long-run average. For example, since 2017 the PCE deflator averaged 1.69%. If the deflator averages 2.4% from now through 2023, the average from 2017 through 2023 will be 2.01%.

Figure 1

Rates falling since the 1980s

Based on the FOMC’s new framework, intermediate- and longer-term interest rates will, at best, remain at their current historically depressed levels for several years. One consequence of this is that bonds insurers hold to maturity and roll over will be reinvested at lower rates than they currently yield.

Prevailing interest rates have been generally falling since the early 1980s. Figure 2 shows this decline since 2002, as proxied by the yield on constant-maturity 10-year U.S. Treasury notes (the blue line), and its effect on the portfolio yield for the P/C insurance industry over the last two decades (the gold bars).

Figure 2

P/C insurers invest mainly in bonds, but not just U.S. Treasury securities. They also invest in corporate and municipal bonds, both of which generally yield higher rates than U.S. Treasury bonds because they are riskier. Yields on corporate and municipal bonds will likely loosely track Treasury yields.

P/C insurers also receive investment income from dividends on common and preferred stock they hold. These dividends are likely to be affected by corporate profits, which might be depressed for at least as long as the current recession lasts.

A shift to shorter maturities?

How will the insurers respond to these persistent conditions? If recent behavior is any guide, they are likely to shift to shorter-maturity bonds to retain the flexibility to switch back to longer-term, higher-yielding investments when rates eventually rise again. Figure 3 shows this pattern of shortening maturities during the years since 2009 as prevailing rates fell. From 2009 to 2019, the percent of bonds with one-to-five-year maturities rose from 36% to 41%, but those with 10 or more years of maturity fell from 19% to 11%.

Figure 3

What’s notable about this strategy is that – since shorter-term bonds yield less than longer-term bonds – the shift results in an even lower portfolio yield than the industry would have achieved if maturities were unchanged over this time span. It sacrifices near-term opportunities for the flexibility to eventually seize longer-term gains.

If the insurers continue this strategy, the shift to shorter-term bonds, combined with continued low interest rates, could lead to a scenario over the next five years that looks like Figure 4, which includes 2015-2019 yields for historical context.

Figure 4

Of course, future portfolio yields might be different from this scenario. For example, insurers might realize significant capital gains or losses. The portfolio yield in 2012, for example, was nearly two percentage points above the U.S. Treasury 10-year yield that year due to realized capital gains.

On the other hand, if interest rates rise, low-yielding bonds that are available for sale would suffer unrealized capital losses, which would be a direct reduction in policyholder’s surplus.

In a typical year the industry posts capital gains of $5 billion to $10 billion, but any number outside this range would affect the portfolio yield for that year. Capital losses also could result from investments affected by bankruptcies or other business setbacks caused by the recession. Impaired bonds would have to be accounted for on the balance sheet.