Insurance Complexities: The Myth of State Farm’s Financial Insolvency and Conflicts of Interests.

I occasionally run across “fans” of Nassim Taleb, a philosopher/visionary who is changing the way people view world events. His black swan concept, which is the name sake for his latest book, is understood and often repeated as the totality of his theory when in reality it is just a small part of his body of work. Russell and I share an interest in Taleb’s work, an interest that derives from actually reading his two books rather than simply embracing the pop culture lite version repeated in the popular media.

This subject of insurance is akin to understanding Taleb and his theories; one can get a slight flavor for the concepts of subjects like wind claims dumping from the media but the nuance and complexities of the subject escape the vast majority of the popular reporting just as Taleb’s theories are revealed completely only by reading his books. Taleb’s Black Swan is an important concept but his central thesis is far more involved. Taleb’s website, named for his first book gives a better clue the larger theory he espouses.

Such is the case with the recently issued GAO report and the concepts surrounding the inherent conflicts of interest possessed by the Write-Your-Own insurer and the possible impacts of that conflict manifested in concepts like wind claims dumping following a multi peril flood event such as a Hurricane. David Rossmiller penned a particularly insightful piece on the GAO report tackling the conflicts of interest conclusions of the GAO head on.

“One, this “inherent conflict of interest” certainly exists, just as it exists whenever you file a first-party property claim. This is not very startling, because it has been said — wait while my computer comes up with the final tally — 3,456 kajillion times before in insurance literature. For many of you the following explanation will be something you know already, but many don’t know it, so I am going to set it down in writing here. As you may or may not know, when someone makes a liability claim against you, say you ran into them with your car, your insurer owes you a fiduciary duty, assuming a duty to defend arises out of the allegations and the language of the insurance policy. A fiduciary duty is the highest duty imposed by law, and requires one to treat another’s interests like one’s own, resolving all conflicts of interest in favor or the insured. These type of liability claims are called third-party claims. In contrast, claims you file with your own insurer for damage to your house or other property are called first-party claims. An adversary relationship is assumed to exist between the insurer and insured from the time the claim is filed, and generally speaking, no fiduciary duty arises on the part of the insurer.”

Mr. Rossmiller gave his readers a great lesson in the law but also his post implied a great lesson in dealing with an insurer. When a consumer files a first party insurance claim and the adjuster is sent, the insurance company knows a great bit of information in advance of the first visit, including a good idea how the insurance company plans on adjusting the claim. The unsuspecting consumer, who was promised good hands treatment by a good neighbor, has no clue their friendly claims adjuster is actually an adversary, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

As I pointed out in a post on the concepts of economic transparency and insurance in December this condition is known as Information Asymmetry, “A situation in which one party in a transaction has more or superior information compared to another. This often happens in transactions where the seller knows more than the buyer, although the reverse can happen as well. Potentially, this could be a harmful situation because one party can take advantage of the other party’s lack of knowledge.”

There are public policy implications in these conflicts of interests, both those noted by the GAO and those that are an accepted part of insurance law as explained by Mr Rossmiller. These public policy battles are being played out real time in places like Olympia Washington and Washington DC by people, including politicians who have the ability to see past the law to a greater collective good.

Is State Farm Overextended?

I have read remarks like this one several times in the blogosphere and am again reminded of Taleb and his theories:

(My independent insurance agent) “talked me out of using State Farm (who had the lowest quote), because he said that the opinion of a lot of insurance brokers was that State Farm had overextended itself, and might not be able to pay all of their claims in a widespread disaster. He directed me to a company that was about 20 per cent Higher than State Farm.”

The luck involved with that scenario is stunning. Though I don’t think it is possible to buy State Farm insurance from an independent insurance agent lets assume this statement is true. What were the motivations of that independent agent? To maximize their own commission a la commissioned retail stock brokers? Assuming this poster had combination wind-water damage and their WYO insurer paid them under both wind and flood there is also a large element of luck that the damage was distinguishable as appears the case with McIntosh.

As a group we do not recognize the influence of pure chance at work in our daily lives as we are far more suited to pat ourselves on the back and stroke our egos than see true reality. A central part of Taleb’s observations that deal with how we humans make sense of events was best summed up by Taleb himself when he wrote:

“It is high time to recognize that we humans are far better at doing than understanding, and better at tinkering than inventing. But we don’t know it. We truly live under the illusion of order believing that planning and forecasting are possible…..(we) are too bathed in enlightenment-style (notion of) cause-and-effect and cannot accept that skills and payoffs may have nothing to do with one another.”

So while we try to make sense of how State Farm adjusted their multi peril claims here after Katrina in terms of misguided notions like “they had to commit fraud or they would have gone bankrupt”, it would help to arm ourselves with some facts including basic financial facts such as after paying almost $4 billion dollars in claims, State Farm’s Property and Casualty Subsidiary still had over $3.5 billion dollars of “unassigned surplus” while posting over $2 billion dollars of profits in the two years ended December 31, 2006. That’s right, State Farm actually made money despite paying those Katrina related claims.

For those interested in State Farm’s financial condition the last audit of their P&C subsidiary can be found here.

Next up: Differing views on the problems with NFIP and some suggested solutions.


One thought on “Insurance Complexities: The Myth of State Farm’s Financial Insolvency and Conflicts of Interests.”

  1. Look at page 19: the foot note to the table.

    They have $5.1 million of flood losses that are not included in the table that they ceded (100%) to the Federal Government. That
    s 36% more than their direct losses (SF and Affiliates).

    The $5.1 is lower then I would have thought, but then so is their direct losses of $3.8MM. If you add in their self-insurance loss (SFMAIC) you get a larger number of $6.6MM you get a much healthier number, but still much lower than a multi-billion dollar loss hurricane would seem to indicate.

    What is also interesting is that if you put back the SFMAIC amount, they only covered 3% (217,293/6,640,687) of their losses with external coverage. Talking about living life dangerously.

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