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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Why are premium notices a source of stress?

Life is never fair. Just when you think you have hit rock bottom and things cannot get any worse, they get worse. You would have thought that a recession would mean premium rates would stay the same. In your dreams, you might have hoped for the rates to fall. After all, there's massive unemployment - it's the worst level of unemployment for more than sixty years.

With household incomes falling and no job security, this is not the time to find premium rates increasing. Yet when those premium notices drop into your mail boxes, the evidence is there. And it's not just you. Premiums are going up for most drivers. This is so unfair! All but three states in the union have mandatory liability insurance. For everyone who wants to stay legal on the roads, the price of driving is getting to deterrent levels. First it was the price of gas shooting up like a rocket. Now it's those premiums! What's going on?

There are two quite different problems coming together at the same time. One comes from the general downturn in the economy. The other is connected with the system of regulation for the insurance industry. On paper, the companies have an easy ride. They collect in the premiums, receive the claims, pay out on the claims and keep the balance as profit. Except the worst recession in decades caught them off guard. It all comes down to what insurers should do with the money they have collected in. Their answer was to invest most of it in the stock market. That way, they earned dividends and got capital growth until it was needed to pay out on the claims. But some invested in these new securitized bonds based on mortgages and other loans. So, when both the property and the capital markets were hit, insurers found themselves with big losses. Under normal circumstances, this would not have been a problem, but the insurance industry has to play by different rules. They are regulated by the insurance departments and commissioners for each state. To protect all you people who buy policies, the key rule is that the companies must have enough capital in reserve to pay out on the claims you make. When the stock and bond markets collapsed, many companies either broke the rule or were too close for comfort. So companies have been moving cash around between states to keep themselves legal and putting up the premiums to collect more.

It's ironic that a rule designed to protect consumers should be pushing up the premiums so fast. Who would have thought the auto insurance industry would lose so much of the money they had invested. After all, they employ all these clever people called actuaries to measure the risks for writing policies. You would think they would have seen the risks of some of the investments they were making. Yet, like most of the other investment managers, the insurers were taken by surprise. The result is that, overnight, many were close to not having enough money to pay out on your policies. That was and remains a serious problem. That's why the auto insurance industry is asking you all for more money.


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