Column: As state leaders push for higher rates, property insurers enjoy robust year

Apr 26, 2011

The following article was published in the St. Petersburg Times on April 26, 2011:

As state leaders push for higher rates, property insurers enjoy a robust year

By Rob Trigaux

In keeping with his mantra that smaller government is better government, Florida Gov. Rick Scott reportedly wants to do away with state-backed Citizens Property Insurance.

Scott and the Legislature already want Citizens to aggressively raise the rates it charges more than 1.3 million Florida policyholders. Only by getting rid of Citizens do Tallahassee free-marketers believe insurance premiums can spike high enough to attract new insurers and new capital to Florida.

And that might be smart — if the insurance sky was falling. The industry wastes no opportunity to bemoan its inadequate rate increases and the next coming threat, five weeks before the start of Florida’s hurricane season. This, insurers insist, will surely be the year of the Big One, the Mother of Category 5’s.

It’s great theater. We’ve been watching the same play for decades. The show has an admiring audience in many of our lawmakers who swallow pretty much what a rich and connected insurance industry feeds them.

There’s just one problem. Insurers that cover people’s homes and property in the United States are doing quite well financially.

The industry’s own number crunchers — ISO and the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America — this month report that private U.S. property/casualty insurers netted $34.7 billion in 2010, up from $28.7 billion the year before. And that’s after paying taxes.

They say insurers’ rate of return on their net worth — a key profitability measure — increased to 6.5 percent from 5.9 percent.

Let’s recap. Insurance industry profits rose by double digits last year. Does that sound like the sky is falling?

“Property/casualty insurers’ positive results for 2010 show that insurers are well positioned to meet the needs of consumers and business owners as the economy recovers from the Great Recession.” That’s what David Sampson, Property Casualty Insurers Association CEO, said when announcing his industry’s strong 2010 showing.

It is true that many insurers in Florida are small, weakly capitalized and in poor shape to sustain a major storm compared to those in other states. But that’s a result, in many cases, of big insurers applying corporate tourniquets to their businesses in Florida, all but severing the parents from little state subsidiaries. That way, if a big storm hits Florida, a parent company would be legally distant from huge claims.

Which brings us full circle to Tallahassee’s keen obsession today to let the insurance industry have its way here.

State leaders are supposed to operate for the benefit of Floridians. So it’s a bizarre argument from Tallahassee that Floridians will be saved by dissolving Citizens Property and letting rates soar.

That won’t aid struggling residents. It won’t help revive the state housing market. It might create jobs, but at the cost of others. It will make employers considering expanding here think twice if their work force faces sky-high insurance rates.

One thing for sure, it will empower insurers to keep asking for more.

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