Chris Folkman is a senior director of product management at RMS, where he is responsible for specialty lines including terrorism, casualty, wildfire, marine cargo, industrial facilities, and builders' risk. He has extensive experience on both the broker and carrier sides of insurance, where he has led many aspects of property and casualty operations including underwriting, pricing, predictive analytics, regulatory affairs, and third-party commercial coverage and claims.
Prior to RMS, he was a managing director at CompWest Insurance Company, a workers’ compensation start-up that was acquired by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Chris holds a bachelor's degree from Stanford University. He is a licensed insurance broker and a Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriter (CPCU).
Risk scoring is a fundamental part of the property and casualty underwriting process, allowing underwriters to sort and rank the quality of submissions. This process culminates in critical business decisions on quoting, declination, referral, and pricing, which taken together can make the difference between an insurer’s survival and its failure. The best insurers make these decisions in a manner that is disciplined, consistent, and data-driven. Those who fail to do this fall prey to adverse selection, pay high reinsurance costs, and suffer at the hands of disapproving rating agencies.
Given this high stakes game, why does the industry continue to rely on oversimplified, unproven, and outdated risk scores for natural catastrophe underwriting?
The recent allegations against General Electric (GE) read like a financial thriller: Bernie Madoff whistle-blower teams up with anonymous hedge fund to expose the alleged financial misdeeds of one of the most recognizable brands in American history.
But most people’s interest in this story ends abruptly when they hear about the crux of the allegations, which can be summarized in eight words: “… inadequate loss reserves for long term care (re)insurance.” This topic is esoteric at best, and sleep-inducing at worst. It’s impossible to spin into media clickbait. And it’s clear that media is struggling to describe exactly what Harry Markopolos, the whistle-blower, is alleging in his 175 page report.
A new wildfire season looms on the horizon across the United States, and as the last two years of huge wildfire insured losses and extensive devastation to lives and property clearly illustrates, wildfire is no longer an easily manageable loss for the (re)insurance industry – but a new peak peril.
So, what could be in store for the 2019 season? The industry is reeling from back-to-back seasons with losses over US$10 billion. This is unprecedented even during a period when average losses between 2011-2018 were at US$3.7 billion. And looking back, this is up 40x compared to 1964-1990, where losses were below US$100 million in today’s prices. What is changing with this peril, what are the risk drivers that we need to look out for?
On January 30, Judge William Alsup, district judge for the Northern District of California presided over a hearing to discuss the inclusion of wildfire prevention in a 2016 Probation Order mandated to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) in the aftermath of the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion that left eight dead.
An order to add conditions to their existing probation, filed on January 9, aimed to “…protect the public from further wrongs by the offender, to deter similar wrongs by other utilities, and to promote the rehabilitation of the offender…” The order included the determination from CAL FIRE that PG&E caused 18 wildfires in 2017, with CAL FIRE continuing its investigations into the causes of the more recent Camp Fire last year.
What will the 2019 wildfire season bring across the United States?
Across the United States, around eight and a half million acres burned in 2018, nearly three times the annual average during the 1980s and 1990s. That is the equivalent of the entire state of Maryland burning in one year. Last year’s Camp and Woolsey fires in California burned a total of 245,000 acres – these two fires alone burnt a combined area around three times the size of Detroit, destroyed more than 12,000 structures and killed 80 people.
It is getting hard to argue that the size and ferocity of the most recent wildfires across the U.S. are just anomalies, the evidence just does not support these events as being exceptional anymore.
As California’s then Governor Jerry Brown stated at a press conference as the Camp and Woolsey fires raged, these wildfire events are “… the new abnormal …” and that events may worsen over the next few decades. He added that “… the best science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they’re going to intensify.”
At the time of writing, the recent Camp and Woolsey Fires in California have burned a combined total of 245,000 acres (93,000 hectares) — an area about the size of Dallas. These fires have destroyed more than 12,000 homes and businesses, and killed 80 civilians. Ordinarily these would be called extreme events. But these are not ordinary times. After back-to-back record breaking wildfire seasons, including the Wine Country fires (US$11 billion) and Southern California Fires (US$2.3 billion) in 2017, and the Carr Fire (~US$1.2 billion) and Mendocino Complex fires (~US$200 million) this year in July, California Governor Jerry Brown perfectly summed up the current situation in his state: “This is the new abnormal.”
As firefighters make continuing progress on containment of both fires, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) is quickly assembling an inventory of each burned structure, to detail the extent of the damage. Based on this data, plus a simulated reconstruction of the event’s wind, moisture, fuel, and fire spread parameters, RMS estimates the insured damage at between US$7.5 billion and US$10 billion for the Camp Fire, and US$1.5 billion and US$3 billion for the Woolsey Fire. This estimate accounts for burn and smoke damage; structure, contents, business interruption (BI), and additional living expenses (ALE) payouts; damage to autos; and modest post loss amplification (PLA) that may result from surges in labor costs, ordinance and law endorsements, and related coverage extensions.
Chris Folkman, senior director of product management at RMS, was interviewed by Paula Newton on CNN’s Quest Means Business program on Monday, November 12, about the impact of the California wildfires.
Paula asked Chris about the range of factors that have made these wildfires so intense, and also about the potential causes of the fires. Chris explained how the fires could have started and how the almost perfect conditions for the fire produced such a rapid spread. For the Camp Fire in Northern California, deaths were caused by the fire’s sheer speed that had overwhelmed residents as they tried to escape from the path of the flames.
Describing the scale and savagery of the wildfires currently burning in California is difficult to do, but a simple recounting of the statistics is a good starting point. They are thus:
At the time of writing, fifteen wildfires are now burning more than 280,000 acres (~113,000 hectares) in California. Collectively, they have laid waste to almost 7,000 homes and businesses. 31 people have died in the fires. 300,000 more were evacuated. 12,000 firefighters are working the front lines, making admirable progress at containment.
The biggest of these events, the Camp Fire (named for the road of its point of origin) is the most destructive wildfire in history, with 6,700 structures burned. During a period of particularly intense wind, it spread at a rate of more than one football field per second. Entire towns in its path are effectively destroyed.
Unlike most U.S. property and casualty insurance, whose take-up rates range from ten percent (California residential earthquake) to greater than 90 percent (for fire insurance), workers’ compensation insurance is required by law. In California, nearly all of the 18.5 million employees across the state are covered by workers’ compensation, whether through an employer’s policy or self-insurance. This enormous exposure generates more than US$18 billion in premium annually, and because California is an “exclusive remedy” state, injuries arising out of and in the course of employment resulting from an earthquake are not excluded. But how can the cost of this obligatory, high risk exposure be measured?
As Hurricane Harvey barreled eastward from Houston, Port of Houston officials spoke of restarting operations by Labor Day (Monday, September 4) after its channels are checked for shoaling and obstructions. The eighth busiest container port in the U.S. reported no major damage to its terminals, warehouses or storage facilities, and traffic was diverted to other regional ports and processing facilities away from the storm’s path. Maritime officials, it seems, have learned lessons from Superstorm Sandy, where cargo was hastily unstacked in anticipation of high winds before a devastating storm surge caused extensive damage to cargo, chassis, and port warehouses.