Drop down Class 3 bonds: a bandaid for TWIA

A lot of ink has been spilled on this blog about fixing TWIA in the long run.  Having attended the hearing this past week in Austin and looking at my calendar, which shows 41 days until hurricane season, I am becoming less hopeful that a good long-run fix is in the works.  Moreover, two of the leading bills (S.B. 18 and H.B. 2352) do nothing to address the desperate situation for 2013.  I thus offer up the following as a minimalist bandaid for TWIA.  It will not by any means solve TWIA’s problems.  If, however, a solid solution can not be found, what I offer here may at least provide some assistance and, in my naive view, should be politically feasible. The Executive Summary is that the legislature needs to repeal the provisions prohibiting the Class 3 bonds from dropping down and instead permit them to drop down in the event the Class 2 Alternative bonds fail to sell, offering insurers a premium tax credit to the extent the drop down Class 3 bonds increase their subsidization of tropical cyclone losses along the Texas Gulf Coast.

History

I start with some history to explain the current problem.

In 2011, the legislature recognized that the system of post-event bonds it had established in 2009 as the means of recapitalizing TWIA following a significant storm was extremely vulnerable to a cascade of failures. Lenders could refuse to purchase the Class 1 bonds on whose sale higher levels of bonds legally depended and thus leave TWIA with only the money it had in its Catastrophe Reserve Trust Fund to pay the claims of its policyholders. And lenders might very well refuse because repayment of the Class 1 bonds depended on TWIA policyholders remaining with TWIA even after it raised its premiums (perhaps 25%) to pay off the bonds. So, the legislature developed this complex scheme now codified in section 2210.6136 of the Insurance Code.

Unfortunately, the fix, which appears to have been developed deep into the legislative session, suffers a risk of the same infirmity as the legislative provisions it attempted to supplement. Class 1 bonds remained theoretically available but a contingency plan was developed: the Class 2 Alternative Bond (my name). This Class 2 Alternative Bond could be sold in the event that the entire $1 billion authorized in Class 1 bonds failed to sell in whole or in part. But, as with the Class 1 bonds, the Class 2 Alternative Bonds contained in the fix depend for their repayment in significant part in extracting large sums of money from a TWIA pool of insureds (a) after a significant hurricane has struck and (b) who can and may leave the pool if insurance premiums get too high. And while coastal residents and insurers share partial responsibility for the repayment and thus reduce the size of the TWIA premium increase, it is unclear if that contribution will be enough to persuade lenders that TWIA policyholders will remain in the pool and pay enough to amortize the bonds. Moreover, the legislation provided that Class 3 bonds, which provide an additional $500 million of borrowing capacity to pay for windstorm damages, can not be sold — repeat, can not be sold — unless every dime of borrowing capacity under the Class 2 Alternative Bonds is exhausted.

The current situation

The result of all this is a potential catastrophe. If, as many observers, including the Texas Insurance Commissioner expect, the Class 1 bonds fail in whole or in part because the market won’t accept them, the Class 2 Alternative Bonds may fail too. Why? Because their repayment source is infected — not as badly, but still infected — with the same problem as the Class 1 bonds. And if the Class 2 bonds fail even a little bit, the Class 3 bonds fail. And if the Class 3 bonds fail, there may well not even be any reinsurance protection. This is so because, if TWIA is not careful and does not purchase reinsurance — at a higher price — that drops down in the event the Class 2 and/or 3 bonds don’t sell, the reinsurer isn’t obligated to pay a dime. The $100 million of policyholder money dumped into reinsurance will have been 100% wasted. (I sure hope TWIA’s lawyers and reinsurance brokers understand this last point.). And so, TWIA will have only the $180 million or so in its Ike-depleted, failure-to-properly-assess-depleted Catastrophe Reserve Trust Fund to pay claims. As my friend David Crump has pointed out, it may not even take a named tropical storm to generate damages of that magnitude to the $72 billion TWIA pool.

We thus end up with a short run problem in addition to a long run problem with TWIA. The long run problem is that the system of post-event bonds on top of a thin Catastrophe Reserve Trust Fund is extremely unstable and potentially depends on massive subsidization by people other than policyholders to prop it all up. That is a hard problem to fix. Perhaps, as been suggested here, an assigned risk plan would be a better alternative. Perhaps, as others believe, the funding structure can be made more stable with yet greater subsidization. Those are hard and politically contentious issues. I am not certain they will be ironed out this legislative session before hurricane season begins in 41 days. And, sorry to say to, but it is a bit irksome to have to bail TWIA out yet again when doing so also rescues from humiliation the legislators who have shortsightedly engineered a system that beautifully served the short run interests of their constituents by underfunding their insurer but that has predictably betrayed those same constituents long run interests. Still, one can not help feeling a bit sorry for those on the coast who may have been fooled, perhaps eagerly so, by these false heroes.

The bandaid

What to do? Triple the minimum amount available for this summer. How?

1. Permit the Class 3 bonds to drop down. Repeal section 2210.6136(c), which currently prohibits the issuance of Class 3 bonds until all the Class 2 or Class 2 Alternative Bonds are sold. Instead, permit the Texas Insurance Commissioner to authorize sale of Class 3 bonds notwithstanding the failure of all Class 2 or Class 2 Alternative Bonds to sell if, in the opinion of the Commissioner, the failure to do so would reduce the amount available to pay claims of TWIA policyholders.

2. To the extent that Class 3 bonds drop down, make the assessments that are required to repay them simply a no-interest loan from insurers to the state rather than an outright payment. This can and has been done by making providing a premium tax credit for the assessments.  I dislike this philosophically because it is less transparent than simply taxing Texans and potentially reduces the amount available for government programs, but it is one way to raise money. To do this will require repeal of section 2210.6135(c) of the Insurance Code and perhaps some other statutory tinkering. The idea, however, is that to the extent an extra obligation has been imposed on the insurers of the state, it is one they should bear only as a vehicle for fronting money rather than in any ultimate sense. I believe sensible insurers should be willing to go along with this alteration. Moreover, as the state bears actual responsibility for up to $500 million, the costs of having the rest of the state subsidize TWIA will be more apparent to the electorate. It will thus be a great — albeit costly — learning opportunity.

Will this solve the TWIA problem for 2013. Absolutely not. This is a bandaid on a gaping wound. $680 million ($180 million in CRTF plus $500 million in dropped down Class 3) is not nearly enough to protect TWIA policyholders from even a minor tropical cyclone. Even $1.68 billion ($180 million in CRTF plus $500 million in Class 2 Alternative plus $500 million in dropped down Class 3 plus maybe $500 million in incredibly costly reinsurance) is not enough. At its current $72 biliion girth, TWIA at a minimum needs a $5 billion stack. But if you don’t have the time, will or ability to do major surgery, a bandaid is better than watching the patient bleed dry in front of you.  So, if the long run problem can not be solved before the start of hurricane season, or if the long run fix starts only in 2014, this extra money this bandaid creates for 2013 should be sorely appreciated when the wind and water starts roiling in the Gulf.