The always observant readership of Going Private will have little difficulty sharing my frustration with prominent public figures who, in their often dangerous zeal to fulfill the promise of Lake Wobegon for all their constituents, somehow believe that they can fundamentally alter or suspend the laws of mathematics, obtain return with no risk and otherwise lower the expense of daily endeavors by merely legislating that it should be so. Of course, these efforts center around a particular type of moral hazard, namely, short-term political gain funded via the issuance of a big bond with a brutally compounding PIK tier and denominated in units of "later economic disaster." The hitch is that the debtors end up being someone other than the issuer. Examples, of course, abound, wherever public officials seek to deliver the long-term-impossible in the short-term. The most charitable interpretation of these goings on is that public officials are daft. I suspect the more likely reality is that some subset are quite cunning.
The 1996 California power markets, wherein a combination of fixed retail prices (below cost in some instances) to consumers, floating wholesale prices with resort to the spot market to resolve supply shortages, and strong disincentives to create more generation capacity, permitted our resident economic disaster bond issuers to promise (and for a time deliver) absurdly low electricity costs to the left coast population (who had grown quite endeared with low prices, to the point of badly abusing anyone who failed to keep them that way) for years. These prices were, of course, often funded by utility bonds during the "transition period" to "free markets" (or the left coast equivalent anyhow) meaning the costs weren't really "low," they were just concealed in taxpayer funded municipal bonds and the like.
I suspect, dear reader, that you might already be aware of how annoyed I am with the word "fair." This might be a good opportunity to introduce another one of my least favorites: "affordable." This one particularly annoys me when "affordable" actually means "distribute costs to the productive class via cost-laundering them into the tax base." It gets even more irritating when it means that compounded interest is added to the bill.
And once such a system is in place, surprise, horror, oh woe indeed, when, bound to service customers, power providers are forced into the spot market for electricity to make up shortfalls (helped along by the awfully convenient maintenance outages among some plants, but that's another issue).
Of course, because of the price capping, market actors happily bought up price-capped electricity in California from an impossibly naive market system (designed in the French tradition) to export to real markets where prices actually reflected reality. This had the effect of decreasing even further the already problematic supply in California. Wholesale prices quickly outstripped retail prices, an amusing turn of events, that is, if you aren't one of the debtors listed on the economic disaster bond that, day by day, grows ever closer to maturing.
Astute Going Private readers might be expected to have the same reaction of annoyance to this logic chain:
1. Health care prices are so high they border on un-affordable.
2. Everyone has a right to world-class (not merely sufficient) health care.
3. Since boundless health care is so expensive, and everyone has a right to the best, we are going to make it free for everyone.
More sophisticated versions of this basic yarn might alter the pitch somewhat by changing the "right" asserted to an inalienable right to (cheap) insurance. This is an improvement in so far as it introduces some risk pricing mechanism. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine that premiums will actually be risk based in a system where the goal is "universal coverage." How can they be? I have mused on what an old Lloyd's of London broker might have thought of the idea of insurance as a "right." (Predictably, Ben Stein was involved). Needless to say, I see a big bond issue on the horizon, dear readers.
Readers might recognize my continued attentions to these kinds of things in the Going Private category "Thermodynamics." Sufficiently carnivorous readers will already be wondering what information asymmetries and market flaws may be lurking underneath such poli-economic moral hazards, and how to take advantage of them. Fear not, there are many. By virtue of an odd confluence of events, one in particular has caught my attention.
One of the chief properties of these pseudo-market delusions is the conviction that the inevitable is preventable, and that, if not, it should be cheap to insure against. No one should stand in the way of every citizen's god given right to build on a 100 year flood plane (5.2 MB .pdf) (with cheap insurance, of course). In this connection, catastrophe risk has become a pet project of mine. Particularly where public officials get involved.
No story of improper risk pricing would be complete without a government funded buffer fund to soak up undesirable pricing signals that might actually reflect risk. In the case of Florida, the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund is the central character cut from this cloth. In fact, it fits the bill perfectly. The FHCF is a political animal, subject to the whims of legislators and their annoyingly short-term, populist aspirations. This is a problem insofar as it provides artificially cheap re-insurance to the Florida market to keep insurers either from fleeing a circumstance where risk pricing is impossible, or quoting prices substantial enough to (gasp) prevent people from building in a spot where hurricanes are a (relatively) common occurrence. This all, of course, assumes that insurers will pass the savings on, and it is not at all clear they would.
Barely a year goes by at the FHCF without some arbitrary tinkering, and major revamps in the nature and costs of coverage are not infrequent. The impact is severe. One market participant pointed out to me that premiums bounce wildly in response to, for instance, a 3000 basis point change in reinsurance costs as legislative whims either permit or forbid a given insurer from taking advantage of the program's rates. Says this commentator: "I'm not surprised Florida homeowners feel like they are being jerked around with their premiums- they are."
One might be tempted to assign a high degree of confidence to such a fund, particularly given the level of public trust tied up in the confidence investors, insurers and homeowners have in the entity. Such a temptation would most certainly require an upstream battle against the formidable currents of historical experience. "Smart money," is not fooled. Many market participants discount recoveries from the FHCF by more than 12%. This snapshot balance sheet might shed some light on the deeper issues. Those who suspect this kind of a discount reflects the fear that there is something more than a vanishingly small risk that the FHCF won't be able to meet the such obligations to insurers as it has assumed, might be on to something. Never fear, dear readers, for Florida municipal bonds will be used to bolster the FHCF's obligations in the event of any concerns. What kind of confidence will Florida municipal bonds enjoy in such an eventuality? Wow, look at the time, how did it get so late? Well, we have a lot to cover today so let's move on to another topic, shall we?
Let's talk about FHCF's premiums, yes? That seems a safe topic. I suppose we should avoid in our discussions those premiums rates that fail to cover even the historical losses. I suppose we might also be better off leaving aside for a moment the fact that the FHCF tends to compute risks for the purposes of pegging premiums against the last calendar year of hurricane losses. Bit of a limited sample size, no? Luckily, 2006 and 2007 were boring years so reinsurers will enjoy minimal premiums for the next year to come. Says one commentator I corresponded with: "The FHCF isn't even matching their losses one for one, much less factoring in a risk premium, operating costs, or the like. If a reinsurer charged such rates, their investors would have them murdered."
In essence, Florida is short Hurricanes, short the industry risk models, short the historical loss records, and long their credit worthiness.
These risk models bear some scrutiny as a general matter, perhaps. Many reinsurers use their own models, or at least claim to, but three industry models tend to predominate, or at least represent the "baseline" risk model the industry seems to hinge on. RiskLink, Clasic/2 and WorldCat.
The basic division in modeling philosophies seems to fall into one of two buckets.
1. Frequency and intensity of hurricanes are increasing, making reliance on a long-term historical record problematic. (Cause is sort of beyond this discussion, but it bears mentioning that global warming is not the only potential culprit. An Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) warm cycle could create the same effect.
2. Stick with the historical record.
These two differences make for very dramatic differences in loss predictions, as you might imagine. You might also imagine that a model that results in lower loss predictions than either is either the product of some giant step forward in model accuracy by a quasi-governmental entity, or folly. I suspect Going Private readers will have their own guesses on this question.
Oh, I forgot one:
3. Adopt an average yearly loss model and use sample size n=1 after the two mildest Atlantic hurricane seasons in recent memory.
It is also worth noting that recently, "real" catastrophe models have "missed low" on loss prediction (Wilma, Katrina) with predictable consequences. So what does it mean when the FHCF isn't even matching loses before the risk premium?
Never fear, dear readers, Citizens Property Insurance Corporation has for many years been the "state run insurer of 'last resort.'" Well, until 2006. True, Citizens enjoys significant tax breaks and doesn't bear the burdens of normal, private insurers, but, as of 2007 they have been tapped to be a "competitive player" in the "overpriced markets." How surprising will it be for the astute Going Private reader to discover that the "wind premium" Citizens charges often doesn't even cover the historical average loss from hurricanes, tornado and hail? Closer to the coast, Citizen's premiums start to look absurdly low. One might imagine the impact on any insurer in the Florida market with a reasonable risk model. (Or at least one that's not insane). Clearly, they cannot compete with absurdly low premiums driven by major state subsidies and a rather... well... unique approach to risk modeling.
Now consider that Citizens is effectively obligated to offer policies to potential insured that the major private insurers in the market will drop as too risky, and it becomes fairly easy to see that Citizens portfolio is probably highly acidic. Says one commentator: "Even a severely conservative 100 year storm model would tag Citizens with $10 billion in losses."
The most naive of Going Private readers will be able to construct the basic principles of insurance premium generation. Premiums should cover all expected losses from all insured risks. Premiums must at least match payouts over the long term. Add in operating expenses, risk of ruin margin and you have the beginnings of a premium model.
Coming full circle, it seems clear that Florida either is not possessed of sufficient sophistication to grasp these concepts, or, perhaps more insidiously, someone is (someones are) making a huge bet, realizing short-term political gains by keeping premiums artificially low and hoping to be off and away before the poli-economic disaster bond matures. This is never more apparent than when watching officials deal with insurers. Rate increases are denied routinely, rate decreases are often forced, even as they dip below the levels any sane actuary would tolerate. "Look at all those profits your company is making in Illinois, we aren't going to let you steal from our homeowners here in Florida, I tell you boy-o."
The result is that many insurers in Florida are structuring losses in the property markets and trying to make up the difference with e.g., auto premiums. It is amusing that the state which "composes over half of the hurricane risk in the United States, somehow believes that its share of premium (which is already far below that), is way too high and unfair."
As one might expect, the major insurers (coincidentally the ones best able to provide stability and reduce volatility) are pulling out of the market. "Mitigating Florida exposure," has become a required corporate strategy. As I explored this issue a little bird whispered to me that at least one of the big three is considering removing any Florida exposure whatsoever from their portfolio. (Similar things have happened in OB/GYN malpractice insurance in some states).
So what if (when) a catastrophe loss is around the corner? Well, don't worry dear citizens, Florida has a plan composed of several layered defenses to such an unlikely eventuality:
1. Issue bonds. (Read: Charge the taxpayers).
2. Raise taxes and real estate assessments. (Read: Charge the taxpayers).
3. Insurance company assessments with consummate cost passthroughs. (Read: Charge the insurance companies and taxpayers).
Long ago I was privileged enough to take a fascinating graduate class on low intensity conflict and asymmetric warfare. I still giggle at the optics of that. Me, at least five years the junior of the next youngest student, sitting in a class filled with Naval Intelligence officers, a pair of FBI agents, these three guys from "SAIC," who never spoke a word beyond "We're from SAIC," some State Department folk and an attorney who specialized in National Security Law.
My favorite part of the class (and a major portion of it) was the discussion of the destabilization of systems and institutions, which eventually took the form of fifteen key goals an irregular actor could employ to cause the most problems for larger and more resourced adversaries.
Three of these relevant to my discussion here include:
A. Disrupt basic communications in order to force reliance on more vulnerable channels.
B. Employ "area denial" strategies to prevent effective operations and require substantial resources for defense.
C. Make it expensive (literally and politically) for allies (foreign and domestic) to continue their support.
One might think that Florida had waged such a campaign against insurers.
1. They are unable to use risk pricing models or enjoy the efficiencies of the market because of the stranglehold on rate changes.
2. They are increasingly priced out of the market both by the rate restrictions and the presence of a subsidized non-market constrained actor having the effect of denying the market to any insurer who wants to actually be profitable.
3. Relations with major insurers have been so damaged as to make their cooperation in times of difficulty nearly impossible. (Calling senior insurance executives "vipers," for instance).
I suppose one might call the circumstances in this connection, "interesting."