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After the loss creep associated with Hurricane Irma in 2017, (re)insurers are keen to quantify how social inflation could exacerbate claims costs in the future. The challenge lies in eliminating the more persistent, longer-term trends, allowing these factors to be explicitly modeled and reducing the “surprise factor” the next time a major storm blows through. 

A few days after Hurricane Irma passed over Marco Island, Florida, on September 10, 2017, RMS® deployed a reconnaissance team to offer some initial feedback on the damage that was sustained. Most properties on the island had clay tile roofs and while the team noted some dislodged or broken tiles, damage did not appear to be severe.

A year later, when Peter Datin, senior director of modeling at RMS, decided to revisit the area, he was shocked by what he saw. “There were so many roofing contractors still on the island, and almost every house seemed to be getting a full roof replacement. We found out that US$900 million worth of roofing permits for repairs had been filed in Marco Island alone.”

Trying to find the exact shape and color for tile replacements was a challenge, forcing contractors to replace the entire roof for aesthetic reasons. Then there is Florida's “25 percent rule,” which previously applied to High-Velocity Hurricane Zones in South Florida (Miami-Dade and Broward Counties) before expanding statewide under the 2017 Florida Building Code. Under the rule, if a loss assessor or contractor determines that a quarter or more of the roof has been damaged in the last 12 months, it cannot simply be repaired, and 100 percent must be replaced.

This begins to explain why, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and to a lesser extent Hurricane Michael in 2018, claims severity and loss creep were such an issue. “We looked at some modeling aspects in terms of the physical meaning of this,” says Datin. “If we were to directly implement an engineering or physics-based approach, what does that mean? How does it impact the vulnerability curve?

"We went through this exercise last summer and found that if you hit that threshold of the 25 percent roof damage ratio, particularly for low wind speeds, that's a fourfold increase on your claims. At certain wind speeds, it can therefore have a very material increase on the losses being paid. It’s not quite that straightforward to implement on the vulnerability curve, but it is very significant.”

But issues such as the 25 percent rule do not tell the whole story, and in a highly litigious market such as Florida, determining whether a roof needs a complete replacement is not just down to physics. Increasingly, the confluence of additional factors that fall under the broad description of “social inflation” are also having a meaningful impact on the total cost of claims.

What Is Social Inflation?

Broadly, social inflation refers to all the ways in which insurers’ claims costs rise over and above general economic inflation (i.e., growth in wages and prices), which will influence the cost of repairs and/or replacing damaged property. It therefore captures the growth in costs connected to the following: unanticipated emerging perils associated with, for example, new materials or technologies, shifts in the legal environment, evolving social attitudes and preferences towards equitable risk absorption, and demographic and political developments.

(Source: Geneva Association)

Florida's “David and Goliath” Law

A major driver is the assertive strategies of the plaintiffs' bar, compounded by the three-year window in which to file a claim and the use and potential abuse of practices such as assignment of benefits (AOB). The use of public adjusters and broader societal attitudes towards insurance claiming also need to be taken into consideration. Meanwhile, the expansion of coverage terms and conditions in the loss-free years between 2005 and 2017 and generous policy interpretations play their part in driving up claims frequency and severity.

What Is Assignment of Benefits (AOB)?

An assignment of benefits, or AOB, is a document signed by a policyholder that allows a third party, such as a water extraction company, a roofer or a plumber to '”stand in the shoes” of the insured and seek payment directly from the policyholder's insurance company for the cost of repairs. AOBs have long been part of Florida’s insurance marketplace.

(Source: Florida Office of Insurance Regulation)

More recently, the effects of COVID-19 has impacted the cost of repairs, in turn increasing insurers' loss ratios. (Re)insurers naturally want to better understand how social inflation is likely to impact their cost of claims. But determining the impact of social inflation on the “claims signal” is far from simple.

From a modeling perspective, the first step is deselecting the different elements that contribute toward social inflation and understanding which trends are longer term in nature. The recently released Version 21 of the RMS North Atlantic Hurricane Models incorporates an alternative view of vulnerability for clients and reflects the changing market conditions applicable to Florida residential lines, including the 25 percent roof replacement rule.

However, the effects of social inflation are still largely considered non-modeled. They are removed from available data where possible, during the model development process. Any residual impacts are implicitly represented in the model.

“Quantifying the impacts of social inflation is a complex task, partly because of the uncertainty in how long these factors will persist,” says Jeff Waters, senior product manager at RMS. “The question is, going forward, how much of an issue is social inflation really going to be for the next three, five or 10 years? Should we start thinking more about ways in which to explicitly account for these social inflation factors or give model users the ability to manually fold in these different factors?

“One issue is that social inflation really ramped up over the last few years,” he continues. “It's especially true in Florida following events like Hurricanes Irma and Michael. At RMS, we have been working hard trying to determine which of these signals are caused by social inflation and which are caused by other things happening in Florida. Certainly, the view of vulnerability in Version 21 starts to reflect these elevated risk factors.”

AOB had a clear impact on claims from Irma and Michael. Florida's “David and Goliath” law was intended to level the playing field between policyholders and economically powerful insurers, notes the Insurance Information Institute's Jeff Dunsavage. Instead, the law offered an incentive for attorneys to file thousands of AOB-related suits. The ease with which unscrupulous contractors can “find” damage and make claims within three years of a catastrophe loss has further exacerbated the problem.

Waters points out that in 2006 there were only around 400 AOB lawsuits in the market. By 2018, that number had risen to over 135,000. In a decade that had seen very few storms, it was difficult to predict how significant an impact AOB would have on hurricane-related claims, until Irma struck.

Of the Irma and Michael claims investigated by RMS, roughly 20 percent were impacted by AOB. “From a claims severity standpoint, the cost of those claims increased up to threefold on average compared to claims that were not affected by AOB," says Waters.

Insurers on the Brink

Florida home with storm-damaged roof

The problem is not just limited to recent hurricane events. Due to the Sunshine State's increased litigation, insurers are continuing to face a barrage of AOB non-catastrophe claims, including losses relating to water and roof damage. Reforms introduced in 2019 initially helped rein in the more opportunistic claims, but notifications dialed back up again after attorneys were able to find and exploit loopholes.

Amid pressures on the court system due to COVID-19, reform efforts are continuing. In April 2021, the Florida Legislature passed a new law intended to curb market abuse of litigation and roofing contractor practices, among other reforms. Governor Ron DeSantis said the law had been a reaction to “mounting insurance costs” for homeowners. As loss ratios rose, carriers have been passing some of the additional costs back onto the policyholders in the form of additional premiums (around US$680 per family on average).

Meanwhile, some carriers have begun to offer policies with limited AOB rights, or none at all, in an effort to get more control over the spiraling situation. “There are some pushes in the legislature to try to curb some of the more litigious behavior on the part of the trial lawyers,” says Matthew Nielsen, senior director, regulatory affairs at RMS.

Nielsen thinks the 2021 hurricane season could be telling in terms of separating out some of the more permanent changes in the market where social inflation is concerned. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) still predicts another above-average season in the North Atlantic, but currently does not anticipate the historic level of storm activity seen in 2020. 

“What's going to happen when the next hurricane makes landfall, and which of these elements are actually going to still be here?” asks Nielsen. “What nobody wants to see again is the kind of chaos that came after 2004 and 2005, when there were questions about the health of the insurance market and what the roles of the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund (FHCF) and Florida Citizens Property Insurance Corporation were going to be.”

“Ultimately, we're trying to figure out which of these social inflation signals are going to stick around, and the difficulty is separating the long-term signals from the short-term ones,” he continues. “The 25 percent roof replacement rule is written into legislation, and so that is going to be the new reality going forward. On the other hand, we don't want to include something that is a temporary blip on the radar.”

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