TWIA and the quiet matter of reinsurance attachment

Could there be anything duller than a long blog entry about reinsurance attachment points? I want to argue here that there could. In fact, I want to argue here that understanding reinsurance attachment is critical to understanding the problems facing the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association — and its policyholders.

But first I must warn you of a need for some rather extensive background. You can skip ahead to the “main point,” and then come back and read the background if you prefer. Or you can just read the one sentence summary here.

The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association has selected low attachment points for its reinsurance which places the interests of Texas insurers and non-TWIA coastal insureds above the interests of its policyholders in densely populated areas of the Texas coast such as Galveston and Brazoria counties.

The Background

The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association is a state-chartered and state-regulated insurer “of last resort” for property along the Texas coast. Unfortunately, the “last resort” part has become somewhat of a joke. I won’t discuss here why this might be the case, but TWIA has for many years been the largest insurer of homes and business property on the Texas Coast.  As of April 2012, TWIA insured about $72 billion worth of property under about 260,000 policies.

So, how is this governmental creation to pay for losses?  TWIA collected about $450 million in premiums in the most recent hurricane season. But, even in a year in which Texas suffered no hurricanes and only two minimally damaging tropical storms, various expenses meant that TWIA did not add greatly to its $250 million (ish) catastrophe reserve fund.  And so, $250 million is about all that is sitting in the TWIA piggy bank available immediately to pay claims.  It might grow a bit this year, but no matter how you slice it, the catastrophe fund will not have enough money for TWIA to pay losses following many storms hitting the Texas coast.

What kind of storm does it take to cause TWIA to run out of cash  To calibrate matters, TWIA suffered losses of more than $2 billion following Hurricane Ike in 2008, which though it hit Texas in a densely propertied spot, was only a Category 2 storm. Anyone still remember Hurricane Chantal in 1989?  Track of Hurricane ChantalThat was a category 1 storm.  Experts say that if Chantal hit today, it would like cause $290 million in damages, a good chunk of which would be insured by TWIA. Or going back further, how about Hurricane Fern?  Also just a category 1 storm.  If that hit today, it would cause $500 million in damages of which TWIA would insure a high proportion.  So, it doesn’t take a monster storm to cause TWIA to run out of cash.

Beyond something like $250 million, TWIA has four sources of funds it can use before it has to confess to devastated policyholders that there isn’t enough money to pay claims fully.  The sources are stacked. Except in unusual circumstances, TWIA can’t use a source higher on the stack until it has exhausted the lower sources.

The first source is basically to take out a loan from the public.  TWIA is authorized to issue up to $1 billion in “Class 1” securities.  The owners of these “post-event bonds” get paid back by TWIA raising premiums on its policyholders.  The extra premiums get used not to protect against future hurricanes, but to pay off debts TWIA incurred because it didn’t have enough saved up to pay for a past one.

Running insurance in reverse can cause serious problems.  Purchase of TWIA policies is, after all, largely voluntary, and there are often private market competitors. If, for example, TWIA had to sell $1 billion worth of these securities and could do so at 4% with an amortization period of 10 years, TWIA policyholders would see an increase in their premiums of about 25% just to repay the borrowings.  Matters might be even worse because (a) 4% might be a low estimate given that the securities are not backed by the full faith and credit of Texas; (b) some policyholders might drop out of TWIA with a 25% increase, which would mean the remaining policyholders would face a yet-higher increase; and (c) we are talking about just one policy year here — TWIA might have to borrow yet again and charge policyholders yet more if another significant storm hit before the original Class 1 securities were paid off.

Section 2210.615 of the Texas Insurance Code

Section 2210.616 of the Texas Insurance Code. Note: no full faith and credit.

Hurricane 5 Tracking Chart

Hurricane 5 Tracking Chart

But we’re not nearly done.  After all, as proven by Hurricane Ike, Texas can certainly face storms that cause more than $1.2 billion in damages.  In fact, my own reverse engineering of work done by the two hurricane modelers on which TWIA relies, AIR and RMS, suggests that they think the annual probability of such an event is about 5% and the ten-year probability of one or more such storms occurring is about 42%. What kind of hurricane are we talking about.  “Hurricane 5” in August 1945, which hit near Port Aransas and went up the coast towards Houston, would have caused about $2.1 billion in damages if it hit today. Again, TWIA would “own” a significant portion of those damages.

So, how does TWIA cobble together more than $1.2 billion in a year?  It can borrow another $1 billion via “Class 2 Securities.”  And how are these security holders to be paid back?  Under section 2210.613 of the Texas Insurance Code it’s a 30/70 split.  Thirty percent of the debt gets paid back by TWIA “member insurers” — basically meaning any insurance company selling property/casualty insurance in Texas.  Now, in the past, insurers just fronted TWIA assessment payments; they got “paid back” via a pretty full credit against premium taxes they otherwise owed the state.  Since 2009, however, insurers really have to pay.  No tax credit to soften the blow. Presumably, therefore, up to $300 million will come partly out of the hide of private insurer shareholders and partly out of the hide of its policyholders, particularly those in Texas.Texas Insurance Code 2210.613

The remaining 70% of Class 2 repayments will be paid for by a surcharge not just on TWIA policyholders, but on anyone with virtually any form of property or casualty insurance — including automobile insurance — living in the areas TWIA protects. Thus a renter in Corpus Christi could see her automobile insurance premiums go up following a hurricane in Freeport.  So too could a small business in Harlingen which had property and liability insurance with a non-TWIA insurer.  I don’t have the data to say what percentage increase in premiums this repayment obligation would entail, but I don’t think a 5% increase in premiums for ten years would be a bad guess. And for TWIA policyholders, this increase would come on top of that required to pay off the Class 1 securities. Basically, the risk is socialized 30% throughout Texas and 70% throughout the Texas coast.

Now we get into really scary hurricanes: those that cause more than $2.2 billion in damages to TWIA.  We don’t have to talk Galveston 1900 or Carla 1961 to get there. The “Surprise Hurricane of 1943” might fit the bill.  Experts estimate this hurricane — advance information about which was suppressed due to the war — would have caused over $4 billion in damages as its winds slowed from less than105 miles per hour beating a nasty path from the Bolivar Peninsula up through the Houston Ship Channel.Damage from Surprise Hurricane of 1943

Until we introduce the complication of reinsurance — I warned you this was a long piece of background — the top of the stack is the $500 million more that TWIA has access to.  These are “Class 3 Securities” that TWIA may issue following a storm.  TWIA member insurers have to repay this tier of borrowings, which again presumably means the real cost will be borne in part by shareholders of these insurers but significantly by insureds throughout Texas from El Paso to Amarillo to Texarkana to Beaumont to Harlingen. This tier of coastal risk is almost 100% socialized. After this stack is exhausted, unless there is reinsurance, TWIA is out of money and, however much we might wish to the contrary, has no legal claim on the state or the federal government.

The Main Point

So, it’s now time to get back to reinsurance.  Under section 2210.075 of the Texas Insurance Code, TWIA can increase the amount of money it has available following a major storm (and lessen the amount it can stuff into its catastrophe fund) by purchasing reinsurance each hurricane season. It can do this quietly without legislative approval or guidance. The way reinsurance works, TWIA pays a premium to some reinsurer and, in turn, the reinsurer reimburses TWIA for certain losses that TWIA incurs.  So, for example, TWIA might have spent money so that if TWIA incurs more than, say, $2.7 billion in losses from a tropical cyclone, the reinsurer pays for certain losses above that amount.  Reinsurance thus could protect TWIA policyholders from some large losses.

But reinsurance comes in many flavors and the Texas Insurance Code does not tell TWIA what kind of reinsurance (if any) it should obtain.  A key factor that defines a reinsurance arrangement is the “attachment point.”  This is a generally stated as a dollar figure.  It’s where reinsurance inserts itself into the stack of resources available to TWIA.  If the insurer (TWIA) incurs losses that are less than the attachment point, the reinsurer pays nothing. If the losses are above the attachment point, the reinsurer pays until either all the insurer’s damages are paid off or the limits of the reinsurance policy are exhausted.  Whichever comes first. Thus, if TWIA’s reinsurance of, say, $600 million “attached” at $2.7 billion and TWIA had losses of, say, $2.6 billion in a given year, TWIA’s reinsurers would owe nothing.  TWIA policyholders would instead be paid out of the proceeds from TWIA’s catastrophe fund and the issuance of Class 1, 2 and 3 securities.

On the other hand, if TWIA had reinsurance of up to $600 million “attach” lower in the stack, at, say, $1.25 billion, the other layers of protection (Class 2 and 3) move up in the protection stack. TWIA losses would be paid first by TWIA’s catastrophe fund ($250 million), then by Class 1 securities ($1 billion), then by the $600 million in reinsurance, and then by $750 million in Class 2 securities.  The insurance industry would be spared having to repay Class 3 securities.  The diagram below recapitulates how these two attachment points affect the financial burden from hurricanes.

Diagram comparing two stacks of protection

Comparison of reinsurance attachment at $2.7 billion v. $1.25 billion

What I hope this makes clear is that the point at which reinsurance attaches distributes the cost of hurricanes among different groups.  High attachment points means that the folks ultimately responsible for Class 1, 2 and 3 securities (TWIA policyholders, Texas insurers, and coastal insureds) end up paying one way or the other for most serious tropical cyclones.  Lower attachment points tend to protect Texas insurers and coastal insureds from assessments and surcharges but do so substantially at the expense of TWIA policyholders. Thus, TWIA has the discretion under the law to decide whether it wants to place the interests of its policyholders first, the interests of the coast first, or the interests of Texas insurers first.  Not an easy choice.

But reinsurance attachment points are more important still.  This is so because the amount of reinsurance one can purchase depends heavily on the point at which reinsurance attaches.  And from a policyholder’s perspective –TWIA policyholders in Galveston, Brazoria and other heavily populated areas, take special note! — what matters is the overall height of the protection stack. Reinsurance purchased with a low attachment point buys a smaller layer (or costs more) than reinsurance purchased with a high attachment point.  You can buy more reinsurance when it has a higher attachment point because the most damaging sorts of hurricanes occur less frequently than hurricanes that cause intermediate damage.  Thus, if TWIA buys reinsurance with a lower attachment point, it provides less protection of TWIA policyholders and creates a greater risk of insolvency than when it buys reinsurance “at the top of the stack” with a higher attachment point.

To put matters as simply as possible, the higher the attachment point, the taller the stack. The taller the stack, the less TWIA policyholders (and their lenders!) in densely populated areas need worry.

To be sure, the precise relationship between the amount of reinsurance protection that can be purchased and the attachment point is a complex.  It’s tricky because the cost of reinsurance includes not just the expected losses the reinsurer faces (average loss) and some profit but also reflects the amount of money the reinsurer has to set aside to cover the worst cases.  Economically it’s almost as if there was a special tax on reinsurance purchases. Still, I believe it is reasonable to assume that the relationship looks something like the graphic below. The bottom line is that higher attachment points means significantly more reinsurance protection can be purchased for the same amount of money.

Graph showing reinsurance attachment point v. layer size

Graph showing reinsurance attachment point v. layer size

And what did TWIA do in 2011-12?  It did not purchase a reinsurance policy at “the top of the stack.”  Instead, without a lot of fanfare it purchased a policy with an intermediate $1.6 billion attachment point and got $636 million worth of protection. (I’ll have another post on why it may TWIA paid an awful lot for this policy).  TWIA thus decided, implicitly or explicitly, that saving Texas member insurers and non-TWIA coastal residents from the expense of having to pay back Class 2 and Class 3 securities was more important than providing TWIA policyholders with maximum protection.  In particular, it compromised the interests of its policyholders in the most densely populated counties: Galveston, Brazoria (and to a lesser extent Nueces and Harris) because they are the ones who could most use the extra protection high-attachment reinsurance could have purchased.

On the one hand, I understand this decision:  I have argued before that TWIA policyholders should bear most of the risk they accept by owning property or running a business on the coast.  Yes, the coast provides benefits to the rest of Texas, but, frankly so does Lubbock and so does El Paso.  But Lubbock and El Paso and most of the rest of Texas do not get to socialize their property risk onto the rest of Texas. I fully understand wanting to protect middle class Larry in Lubbock from having to subsidize insurance risk created by Gary in Galveston who owns a million dollar beach home there.

texas constitution section 3

On the other hand, I have doubts that this balancing of interests against each is one that TWIA should be undertaking.  I have doubts that coastal Brownsville in Cameron County is more important than coastal Galveston. And yet, the current scheme protects Brownsville well and Galveston less so. No one elected TWIA board members or technocrats to make this choice.  Fundamentally, then, the issue of reinsurance attachment strikes me not as a matter of “expertise” but as a matter for legislative judgment.

Balancing the interests of different parts of the coast against each other and balancing the interests of TWIA policyholders against Texas insurers and other coastal insurers is also an issue for the voters.  The voters should be able to decide through their election of representatives if they like the regime we have ended up with.  The current regime gives TWIA policyholders in sparsely populated Refugio, Kennedy and other more rural Texas counties far greater protection against hurricane risk.  There will never be a TWIA-busting $3 billion hurricane limited to Kleberg County because TWIA insures less than $500 million of property there. Moreover, partly because of the current reinsurance attachment point chosen by TWIA, the current regime insulates Texas insurers and non-TWIA coastal insureds from what would be a higher risk of assessments and surcharges. Many Texas voters might actually like that.

Subject to Texas and federal constitutional dictates about equal protection of the laws, the voters should also decide, however, through election of representatives whether they like the downside of the legal and financial regime that now exists.  The current statutory regime and its implementation should create massive insomnia among TWIA policyholders in Galveston and other densely populated counties every time their fate from a serious tropical cyclone depends on the vicissitudes of Gulf steering currents. And, while I would hate to emphasize the point, the inadequacy of coverage should make many current and future lenders in the densely populated counties anxious as well. Their collateral is at risk of being impaired following a major storm. Many voters might find it unacceptable that TWIA has gotten to choose low reinsurance attachment points that place the finances of Texas insurance companies above that of some TWIA policyholders.

It is probably too late to fix any of this for the 2012-13 hurricane season.  But tropical cyclones will not stop after this season is over.  There are plenty of storms ahead against which Texas can better and more transparently protect.

Note: I have attached here a PDF export of a Mathematica notebook exposing the calculations and diagrams underlying this post.