Smithee bill would require TWIA to tell policyholders the truth about its solvency

John Smithee photo

John Smithee

State Representative John Smithee (R-Amarillo) has filed a bill in the state legislature  (HB 2785) that would require the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA) to tell its policyholders on the declarations page of any policy it sells after January 1, 2014, about the limited resources available to pay claims in the event of a serious storm. The bill requires disclosure of the financial resources of TWIA, including the state of its catastrophic reserve fund and the marketability of bonds on which TWIA currently relies to pay claims for even modest tropical cyclones.  Critically, it also requires a prominent warning to policyholders right on the declarations page of the policy that the state of Texas is not obligated to come to their or TWIA’s rescue in the event that TWIA can not pay.

Needless to say, Catrisk is enthusiastic about this bill for several reasons.  First, it will enable potential insureds along the Texas coast to make intelligent decisions about the extent to which they want to try to obtain non-TWIA policies to protect them in the event of a serious storm even if those policies are more expensive.  As it stands, some TWIA policyholders may suffer from the incorrect assumption that the resources available to pay claims from policies purchased from TWIA, which currently relies on a paltry catastrophe reserve fund and a shaky structure of post-event bonds, are the same as those available from regulated private insurers, who would be put out of business if their reserves were anything near the inadequacy of TWIA’s. The misinformation suppresses demand for policies from regulated insurers and thus contributes to the self-fulfilling prophesy that the regulated market “can not do business on the coast.” Other prospective insureds, by the way, may actually have an exaggerated sense of TWIA’s instability and thus decline to purchase TWIA policies due to excessive fear. The bill, by providing the relevant facts, could help both groups of people make an informed choice.

Second, those contemplating migration or business expansion on the Texas coast will now be advised to think about whether they want to choose between going with a less expensive but flimsy insurer (TWIA), scrounging for difficult-to-obtain and often expensive wind insurance from a private insurer, or deciding that there may be better places in which to invest. This, of course, is precisely why some coastal interests, particularly those who benefit from immediate investment on the coast, oppose bills such as HR 2785. Telling people the truth about a risky product is indeed likely to drive down demand for the risky product while stimulating demand for the safer.  But getting demand for insurance products back to fair market levels, as opposed to levels inflated by subsidization and misinformation, is a good thing for Texas as a whole. Market distortion is not a zero sum game.

Third, this bill is a good idea regardless of the form in which TWIA goes forward.  Whether TWIA is transitioned out for residential policies, as proposed in the recent Carona bill, or strengthened through significant subsidies, as in the recent Hinojosa and Hunter bills, many policyholders are likely to remain in TWIA or potentially in TWIA for several years to come.  In that interim period, those policyholders should be warned of the remaining dangers posed during the transition to a system of greater solvency.  The faster and more forcefully that transition occurs, the less dire the warnings will need to be.  I am confident that Representative Smithee would be glad to include an amendment to his bill exempting TWIA from the disclosure requirements if it could show the Texas Insurance Commissioner that it would satisfy solvency requirements imposed on other Texas insurers.

At least one coastal legislator, Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, has voiced opposition to the Smithee bill.  He did so at a hearing last year (go to go to 1:57:50 to 2:02:18 of the recording) in cross examining me about ideas similar to those found in the Smithee bill.  And he is reported today in a Corpus Christi Caller article as asking, “Why should coastal residents be the only people subject to this Miranda warning from (the association)?” Hunter asked. “Why is it not required, statewide, for all carriers?”

The rejoinder to Representative Hunter’s opposition, however, is that other Texas carriers are subject to financial solvency regulations from which TWIA is exempt and as to which TWIA would be in serious violation were it ever required to follow them. The reason TWIA policies should be stamped with bold red warning labels is the same reason that we stamp surplus lines policies in Texas with similar warnings: they are not subject to the same regulatory structure that works pretty darned well in preventing insurer insolvencies. Coastal residents are mature enough to handle the truth. Just because TWIA and State Farm both have the word “insurance” in their names does not mean that the law should treat them the same.  We don’t exempt investments in junk bonds from disclosure regulations about the risks involved just because some other forms of “investment”, such as certificates of deposit in a federally insured bank,  are not subject to as strict disclosure rules.  And, again, if equality of treatment is really the objection of some coastal legislators, an amendment exempting TWIA from disclosure in the event its financial condition would satisfy otherwise applicable solvency regulations seems a better answer than keeping TWIA policyholders in the dark under the fiction of “equal treatment.”

Note 1. The Smithee bill closely follows Recommendation #10 posted on this blog on September 10, 2012.  In “Ten fixes for TWIA: What I’m planning to say in Austin this week” I wrote as follows.

10. Require prominent disclosure to TWIA policyholders created by the financing structure in place (as modified by the reforms suggested here or otherwise enacted). This disclosure should, at a minimum, advise policyholders of the approximate probability, computed using the best historical data and contemporary models, of the risk that TWIA will become insolvent, will be impelled to increase premiums to pay off Class 1 securities and will be impelled to impose surcharges to pay off Class 2 securities. Disclosure should be made (a) on a document signed by applicants for TWIA policies (new or renewal); (b) stamped (similar to surplus lines stamping) on policies issued by TWIA; and (c) on a web site one or fewer clicks from the main TWIA page.

 

Note 2. The bill also echoes thoughts expressed in this blog here:

Policyholders don’t need to be scared about every unlikely event, but they have a right as adults to know of a substantial risk.  Losing your house and facing an insolvent insurer qualifies. We warn holders of surplus lines policies of lesser protections against insurer insolvency with a great big stamp on the policy.  Why not the same for an equally unguaranteed and often far riskier insurer. And while we’re warning, let’s also warn them of the potential for post-event Class 1 assessments, for which the risk is yet far higher and uniform throughout the TWIA territory.

Note 3. Although I suspect many insurance agents will not immediately embrace the Smithee bill, enlightened ones should do so.  This is because the bill should provide some protection to insurance agents who now find themselves in a difficult position.  Right now, insurance agents who don’t warn their policyholders of TWIA risks may be setting themselves up for a lawsuit.  The dangers of TWIA are so palpable that a plausible claim of negligence or intentional non-disclosure is definitely something these agents need to be concerned about in the event TWIA either can not play claims or is highly delayed in paying claims.  It is wishful thinking and ostrich-like behavior to pretend this serious risk does not exist. On the other hand, insurance agents who do warn their policyholders of TWIA risks may find business going elsewhere. The bill probably saves agents the dilemma of whether or not to tell the truth by leaving disclosure to the policy itself.