Monday, March 02, 2009

Farmers Insurance seeks 27.5% homeowners’ rate increase

Property insurance increases expected

Advocate business writer

Louisiana homeowners and businesses will see property insurance rates rise more this year than they have since 2006, in large part because of the financial meltdown, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said.

“I do not anticipate that it will result in double-digit increases,” Donelon said.

In 2008, Louisiana homeowners’ rates rose an average of less than 1 percent, Donelon said. In 2007, the rates were up by just over 3 percent.

This year the rates will rise somewhere between those low numbers and 10 percent, Donelon said. The same holds true for commercial property insurance and for automotive coverage.

Insurance companies’ ability to write coverage is affected by the amount of capital available, Donelon said. With investors dumping insurance sector stocks, those companies can’t write as much coverage.

Meanwhile, insurance companies are also seeing their investment portfolios take a beating, Donelon said. This also reduces the amount of coverage they can write.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, an industry-funded group in New York, investments are the principal source of declining profitability among insurers. During the first three quarters of 2008, the insurance industry’s investment gain was $28.3 billion. The fourth-quarter figures are not yet available, but even if the industry’s investments remained at that level, when stocks and interest rates continued to fall, the total would still be the lowest in 15 years.

Robert Hartwig, president of the institute, said bonds represent roughly two-thirds of insurance companies’ investments, with stocks accounting for 20 percent or less.

Low interest rates and returns on investments, in the United States and internationally, will ultimately affect the price of insurance, Hartwig said. That is because a certain part of the losses that insurers pay have always been financed by investment returns.

The effect varies by insurer, Hartwig said, “but there was no insurer that was not impacted by what happened on Wall Street last year.”

Still, the major factor influencing property insurance costs in Louisiana remains the threat of a major hurricane, Hartwig said. An active season is expected in 2009, and reinsurers are raising their rates to reflect that.

Donelon said that with less coverage available, the law of supply and demand kicks in and prices rise.

Already, State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., the largest insurer in Louisiana, has asked to increase homeowners’ rates an average of 14 percent statewide. Farmers Insurance Exchange, the sixth-largest firm in the state, is seeking a 27.5 percent increase in homeowners’ rates and the institution of a 5 percent hurricane deductible. Louisiana Farm Bureau, the fifth-largest company, is seeking a 10.2 percent increase.

The Insurance Department is reviewing those requests, but Donelon said his preliminary review is that neither State Farm nor Farmers will receive a double-digit increase.

Farm Bureau’s request has only recently been filed.

However, Brooke Cluse, a spokeswoman for State Farm, said the rate request is not directly related to the state of the economy or financial markets.

“We have had a tremendous amount of weather-related losses in the state over the past several years, and while many insurers have left the state, State Farm is here and committed to our policyholders in Louisiana. We have demonstrated our commitment by helping our customers recover from unexpected loss and they can expect nothing less in the future.”

Farmers Insurance officials could not be reached for comment Friday.


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