Monday, 1 October 2018

The most surprising thing I learned about home insurance this year

Home insurance markets are subject to adverse selection problems. When a homeowner approaches an insurer about getting home insurance, the insurer doesn't know whether the house is low-risk or high-risk. [*] The riskiness of the house is private information. In fact, the riskiness of the house is probably not known even to the homeowner, but let's assume for the moment that they have at least some idea. To minimise the risk to themselves of engaging in an unfavourable market transaction, it makes sense for the insurer to assume that every house is high-risk. This leads to a pooling equilibrium - low-risk houses are grouped together with the high-risk houses and owners of both types of house pay the same premium, because they can't easily differentiate themselves. This creates a problem if it causes the market to fail.

The market failure may arise as follows (this explanation follows Stephen Landsburg's excellent book The Armchair Economist). Let's say you could rank every house from 1 to 10 in terms of risk (the least risky are 1's, and the most risky are 10's). The insurance company doesn't know who is high-risk or low-risk. Say that they price the premiums based on the 'average' risk ('5' perhaps). The low risk homeowners (1's and 2's) would be paying too much for insurance relative to their risk, so they choose not to buy insurance. This raises the average risk of the homes of those who do buy insurance (to '6' perhaps). So, the insurance company has to raise premiums to compensate. This causes some of the medium risk homeowners (3's and 4's) to drop out of the market. The average risk has gone up again, and so do the premiums. Eventually, either only highest risk homeowners (10's) buy insurance, or no one buys it at all. This is why we call the problem adverse selection - the insurance company would prefer to insure low-risk homes, but it's the homeowners with high-risk homes who are most likely to buy.

Of course, insurers are not stupid. They've found ways to deal with this adverse selection problem. When the uninformed party (the insurer in this case) tries to reveal the private information (about the riskiness of the house), we refer to this as screening. Screening involves the insurer collecting information about the house and the homeowner in order to work out how risky the house is. With the private information revealed, the insurer can then price accordingly - higher-risk houses attract higher premiums, while lower-risk houses attract lower premiums. We have a separating equilibrium (the high-risk and low-risk houses are separated from each other in the market).

With all this in mind, this story from April surprised me greatly:
Other insurers are likely to follow NZX-listed Tower's lead and increase their focus on risk-based pricing for natural hazards, says an insurance expert...
Thousands of home-owners who live in high-risk earthquake-prone areas and insure via Tower are set to face hikes in their premiums while those in low-risk areas like Auckland will get a cut.
The insurance company, which is New Zealand's third largest general insurer, said it would stop cross-subsidising its policy-holders from April 1 in a bid to send a clearer message to home-owners about the risks of where they lived.
Tower chief executive Richard Harding said at the moment six Auckland households were paying more to subsidise insurance premiums for every one high-risk house in Wellington, Canterbury or Gisborne.
In other words, insurers previously weren't screening for all available private information before pricing their insurance for a given house. Essentially, owners of low-risk houses have been paying premiums that are too high, and owners of high-risk houses have been paying premiums that are too low. It took a little while, but eventually other insurers have also started to use risk assessments in determining insurance premiums, so this discrepancy is disappearing.

Why didn't the market break down due to adverse selection? The issue here is something I noted earlier in the post - the riskiness of a house is private information to both the insurer and the homeowner. If the homeowner doesn't know how risky their house is, owners of low-risk houses can't tell if the insurer is pricing their insurance too high relative to the risk of natural hazard damage. So, the owners of low-risk houses have no reason to drop out of the market. And, if the owners of low-risk houses don't drop out of the market, insurers have no reason to raise premiums.

However, that leaves the market open to disruption. As noted in the April article:
Jeremy Holmes, a principal at actuarial consulting firm Melville Jessup Weaver, said it was hard to say how long this would take. Insurers needed to be as good as their competitors at distinguishing risk.
"Otherwise they risk having their competitors target the lower-risk policyholders whilst they are left with only the higher risks ..."
An entrepreneurial insurer that was able to distinguish the low-risk houses from high-risk houses could start approaching owners of low-risk houses and offering them lower premiums. The remaining insurers would be left with higher-risk houses on average, and would have to raise premiums. This would increase the number of homeowners dropping out of the market (or rather, going to the insurer that was pricing according to risk). Tower was the first insurer to shift to risk-based premiums, so presumably they recognised this issue before any of the other insurers and acted exactly as you would expect - by moving to risk-based premiums before any potential disruptor could enter the market.

Still, it's a little surprising (to me, at least) that pricing based on natural hazard risk wasn't already happening.


[*] For simplicity, I'm going to refer to low-risk houses and high-risk houses, when risk is probably as much a function of location as of the house itself. So, if you must, read 'low-risk house' as 'house with a low risk of damage in an earthquake', and 'high-risk house' as 'house with a high risk of damage in an earthquake'.

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