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Anticipated hurricanes leaving consumers exposed
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As the 2009 hurricane season arrives, many homeowners are finding insurance is either more expensive, or harder to get.
Homeowners from New York to Florida and in the Gulf Coast region are again seeing premiums rise and coverage change. And more are being dropped completely by their carriers as insurers try to limit their exposure in high-risk areas.
"They just don't like being in the business ... too much risk," said Scott Hall of Market Street Advisers, a financial advisory firm in Wilmington, N.C.
Homeowners' insurance premiums are up about 3 percent nationwide and probably more in some coastal areas where the potential for damage is greater, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based industry group. The hurricane season starts Monday and runs until Nov. 30.
Several factors are affecting premiums and coverage, including the $26 billion insurers paid out on catastrophic losses last year and the impact of financial market turmoil on the companies' earnings. Changes in state regulations are also driving some premiums higher.
Late last year, Allstate Corp. and State Farm Insurance Cos., two of the nation's top home and auto insurers, raised premiums in states including Texas, saying the increase was needed to offset a rising number of claims. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit the U.S. in September.
Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate also implemented policy changes that raised deductibles and stopped offering coverage in high-risk coastal areas including downstate New York.
"We continually review all those items and make the necessary adjustments," said Allstate spokesman Mike Siemienas.
Meanwhile, State Farm Florida, a subsidiary of the Bloomington, Ill.-based insurer, is trying to pull out of the Florida market after the state denied the company's request for a 47 percent rate increase. Company officials have said they need the increase to remain financially viable. Discussions with regulators are continuing.
Shawna Ackerman, who co-chairs the American Academy of Actuaries' property and casualty extreme events committee, said she has not heard of any mass non-renewals or existing policy changes that are in the works for 2009. But insurers are continuing a process that began after they paid out $23.7 billion in claims -- a number adjusted for inflation as of 2008 -- on Hurricane Andrew in 1992, trying to limit their exposure, or vulnerability to losses, in coastal areas.
Hurricanes Ivan in 2004 and Katrina in 2005 forced several to pull back further, with many companies re-evaluating policy coverages and raising rates.
Ivan caused more than $8.1 billion in losses after adjusting for inflation, while Katrina was the most costly, with losses now calculated at $45.2 billion, according to Insurance Information Institute data.
"Over the last five years, where we've seen record catastrophe losses in coastal areas -- Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas -- the increases in [premiums in] those areas have outstripped what we have seen nationally," said Bob Hartwig, the Insurance Information Institute's president.
Insurers will raise premiums wherever state regulators allow them to, Hartwig said. "In areas where they are not given that opportunity, insurers are going to scale back their exposure."
In 2007, Florida ranked as the state with the greatest hurricane exposure, facing a potential $2.46 trillion in losses, according catastrophe risk-modeling firm AIR Worldwide Corp. A close second, New York had $2.38 trillion in exposure; and third was Texas with $895.1 billion of exposure.
Current forecasts suggest a less active season than was expected last year, encouraging news for anyone with property or investments that lie within hurricane-prone coastal areas.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted nine to 14 named tropical storms this year. The named storms are expected to include four to seven hurricanes, of which one to three are likely to be major storms.
"Even though the forecast for storms this year seems to be down, those of us who are worried about this stuff are concerned that the East Coast is due," said Charles Williamson, president of AIU Holdings' Private Client Group, a unit of New York-based American International Group Inc. that offers property casualty insurance. "The East Coast hurricane market, particularly Florida, is very volatile right now."
Rising prices and deductibles may lead some homeowners to question whether they're overpaying.
"It is very difficult for consumers to figure out if they are being gouged or not," said J. Robert Hunter, a former Texas State Insurance Commissioner who is now director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocacy group.
"You have to trust your state regulator," he said, referring to the fact that state officials limit how much insurers can charge.
The $26 billion casualty insurers paid out last year for catastrophe losses was substantially more than they expected. The companies also lost billions of dollars in the financial markets; they use investments to supplement their premium income and create a cushion for when they're hit by big claims.
For example, Allstate's catastrophic losses more than doubled in 2008 to $3.34 billion. This led the company to report a loss of $1.68 billion, or $3.07 per share, for the year, compared with net income of $4.64 billion, or $7.77 a share, in 2007.
During the first quarter of 2009, the insurer said, falling investment income contributed to a $274 million loss.
Industry leaders also say they are seeing pricing increases for reinsurance, or insurance that is sold to other insurers to protect against the risk of losses.
"Insurers are incurring more costs, which means they need to get more underwriting profits," said commercial property insurer FM Global chairman and chief executive Shivan Subramaniam.
"At some point in time they are going to have to charge clients more money."