How a billion-dollar insurance industry protects Florida’s homeowners from disaster – for now

The Miami skyline, c2002. Image: Getty.

After dodging the worst of Hurricane Irma, Florida’s coastal real estate boom shows no signs of slowing. In Miami and nearby waterfront cities, a survey of local records show that more than 90 luxury high-rise apartment blocks are under construction or have been completed since 2015, increasingly financed by overseas investors looking for “safe” opportunities in a turbulent global economy.

Yet, since 1886, the Sunshine State has been hit with almost twice as many hurricanes as the next two states, Texas and Louisiana. Currently, 2.4m people and 1.3m homes sit just 1.2 metres above the high tide line and sea levels are expected to rise up to two metres by the end of the century.

What enables Florida’s staggering growth against environmental odds? The answer, in part, comes down to how property insurance protects the state’s real estate against disasters. In 2015, Floridians spent $10.8bn on homeowners’ insurance to protect more than 6m properties. The total insured value protected by the state’s homeowners’ market is a soaring $2.1trn, roughly equal to the annual economic output of India.

I have dedicated the past three years to researching how this massive market works – and whether it can really sustain Florida’s real estate boom in the long run.

From risk to reward

Property insurance balances Florida’s unusually high vulnerability to natural disasters against the growth pressures of the state’s real estate and construction industry. By requiring property insurance to protect loans, US mortgage lenders and investors have created a massive insurance market in Florida – and a costly necessity for property owners.

The global insurance-linked securities (ILS) industry plays an increasingly important part in this story, converting Florida’s hurricane risk into an attractive financial asset class.

The catastrophe bond – the most widely used ILS product – was created after Hurricane Andrew’s Miami landfall devastated Florida’s homeowners’ insurance industry in 1992. “Cat bonds” and other types of “alternative” insurance turn investment capital – from pension funds and other firms – into reinsurance, or insurance for insurers.

A perfect storm? Image: Lilith121/Flickr/creative commons.

Here’s how ILS works: insurance companies send a portion of the premium they collect from property owners to special trust companies in tax-friendly nations such as Bermuda, which then raise money from investors, who agree to repay a given range of losses if disaster strikes. And if not, investors walk away with the property owner’s premium, plus a tidy profit.

This complex financial market provides nearly $90bn of protection worldwide. Large institutions ranging from the World Bank to the Rockefeller Foundation celebrate ILS as a key financial solution to help humanity adapt to climate change, particularly in developing countries.


Meet the specialists

Despite these global prospects, Florida’s hurricane risk continues to be the bread and butter for ILS investors. According to one of the biggest cat bond investors, up to half of the ILS market’s capital is pooled in the Florida homeowners’ market. The concentration of ILS capital in Florida can partly be explained by changes to the homeowners’ insurance market, in the 25 years following Hurricane Andrew.

Once led by national firms offering multiple insurance products, the market is now dominated by smaller firms that specialise in Florida homeowners’ insurance. Unable to spread their risk over a nationwide portfolio of business, these Florida “specialists” have become highly dependent on global reinsurers.

Several Florida specialists have deep relationships with reinsurers, including direct ownership ties and their own private ILS “vehicles”, which enable them to directly transfer billions of dollars of Florida hurricane risk to buyers in dozens of countries.

Ultimately, Wall Street’s growing demand for insurance-based products may be changing the fundamental public purpose of property insurance, from one that aims to protect the wealth of communities, to one that sees insured risk as the fodder for financial speculation. Some experts have pointed out unsettling parallels between these new financial mechanisms and the lending model that led to the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.

A high price

The rise of ILS capital has made new financial resources available to Florida’s rocky property insurance market. But this service has come at a significant cost to homeowners. Floridians pay the highest homeowners’ insurance rates in the nation, while stagnant wages and skyrocketing house prices make south Florida cities among the most unequal in the country.

The billions of dollars that Floridians spend annually on homeowners’ insurance secures financial protection for those fortunate to be property owners. But it does little to fundamentally change the state’s exceptional exposure to disaster.

Florida’s state officials have taken a limited, piecemeal approach to minimising the state’s vulnerability to sea level rise, while continuing to encourage development in vulnerable areas and directly subsidising the state’s property insurance market.

Miami: alright if you’re wealthy. Image: Sky Noir/Flickr/creative commons.

The prospect of stronger and more destructive hurricanes, along with the potential for higher, risk-adjusted insurance rates, could put a massive strain on the affordability of Florida’s housing market in the future.

What’s more, the flow of global investment capital into Florida’s high-risk homeowners’ insurance sector may actually be making the state more vulnerable to hurricanes, by keeping insurers solvent and real estate markets in motion.

Indeed, Hurricane Irma appears unlikely to significantly upset the dynamics within the Florida homeowners’ insurance or global catastrophe reinsurance markets – even if at least one catastrophe bond may have to pay out. The ratings agency A.M. Best estimates that it would take a $75bn insured loss to do so – up to three times the expected US insured losses for Irma.

The ConversationSo the ultimate limits of the multi-billion-dollar ILS market remain untested. But for now, the storm clouds have cleared, and Florida’s real estate boom continues.

Zac Taylor is a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To fix the housing crisis, we need to decide what success would look like

Building houses in Ilford, 1947. Image: Getty.

Recent years have seen growing public and political recognition that there is a crisis in housing. This has led to a widening debate on the causes and potential solutions.

However, within this debate there has been little in the way of a consensus view of what constitutes the current housing crisis – or what a “crisis-free” housing system might look like. There seems little clear idea of any measurable goal. The nearest we have as a target to aim at has been a series of aspirational numbers for new-build homes, with limited clarity on what to expect if we were to hit those numbers.

Clarity about what success would look like is essential. Without a framework for what we need and want from housing, our ability to understand and fix it appropriately will be compromised. A lack of clarity also increases the risk of unintended consequences from misguided policy interventions.

The current housing debate is, to quote UCL’s Michael Edwards, “bedevilled by rival simplifications”. There are several, quite often competing explanations for why we have a housing crisis. For many it is our failure to build homes at the same rate as projected household formation. This failure might be assigned to the planning system, the greenbelt, housebuilder business models, the land market, or NIMBYs.

For others, the crisis is a result of falling interest rates, rising credit supply, low income growth, wealth and income inequality, tax incentives, or simply our fixation on house price growth. For some, there is no shortage of homes, rather a poor distribution. And for others there isn’t really a housing crisis.

Despite the apparent contradictions in this mix of positions, each of the arguments that support these various views may hold significant elements of truth. Housing is a complex and interconnected system within the economy and society. There is no simple single housing market: there are multiple markets defined by location, property type, tenure, and price. Therefore, there is no simple single housing crisis. Instead we have multiple overlapping issues affecting different parts of the country in different ways and to varying degrees.

There may be factors that influence all housing markets across the UK, indeed across much of the globe. There will be others that impact more locally and within specific housing sectors.

So, for instance, there is growing acceptance by many experts that the cost and availability of credit has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of increases in national house prices over the last twenty years.


But it is not the only factor. The growth in buy-to-let has contributed to the financialisation of housing, with homes increasingly thought of as an investment rather than a place for people to live. A lack of supply is predominantly an issue for London and its surrounds, but there are localised shortages elsewhere, particularly of specific types or tenure of homes.

Planning (including a lack of) and the land market limit the responsiveness of supply to rising demand. Housing is unevenly distributed, mostly across generations but also spatially and within generations. Some areas don’t need a net increase in housing but desperately need existing poor-quality homes improved or replaced. In many areas the biggest issue is low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity.

All these issues and others play a part in defining “the housing crisis”. Having a framework for what we need and want from housing, combined with an understanding of the complexities and interactions that run through the housing market, is essential to resolving the problems they create.

The problem with ‘households’

A misunderstanding of the complexities of housing can be found in one of the most frequently stated explanations for the crisis: a lack of new supply compared with household projections.

Unfortunately, this argument is flawed. Household projections are not a measure of housing demand. The effective demand for new housing is determined by the number of people or companies willing and financially able to buy property. Meanwhile new supply only accounts for around 12 per cent of total transactions and probably less of available homes for sale.

Importantly, even if some analysis may suggest there is no shortage of supply, that does not mean there is no need for new supply. Household projections are a statistical construct based on the past, not a direct measure of future housing demand. But they are still important if used appropriately within a framework for what we need and want from housing.

If we are more explicit about the role of household projections in measuring housing need and the assumptions they contain, then the ‘supply versus household projections’ argument might be recast as a debate on changing household sizes and the consumption of housing (both in terms of space and multiple properties).

This then implies that we should be clearer about the minimum acceptable amount of housing people need, while also accounting for what they want. Should younger people still expect to form households at the same rate and size as their parents? The assumptions and projections around future household sizes should be moved from the background, where they are typically only discussed by planners and researchers, to the centre of the debate.

They should be just one part of a framework for success that explicitly states what we need and want from housing – not just in terms of size but also cost, tenure, quality, security, and location – and better defines the minimum we are prepared to accept. That will provide a clearer understanding of where housing is failing to meet those requirements and help set objectives for how to fix it. These could then be applied appropriately across different markets.

“Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper”

If measurement against the framework shows that households are not able to form at an appropriate rate and size relative to what they need, then we probably need to increase supply while possibly encouraging older households to move out of larger homes. If rents are too expensive then we may need to reform the rental sectors and increase supply. If housing quality is poor, then we need to work harder at improving and replacing existing stock. If many areas are struggling due to low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity, then we probably need to look beyond just housing. It might even question whether we need to rebalance the economy and infrastructure investment away from London and its commuter zone.

Having a framework for success may even highlight which issues we can fix and which we can’t. For example, it looks likely that we are stuck with a low interest rate and hence high house price to income market. Under those conditions, prospective first-time buyers will continue to struggle to raise a deposit and access home-ownership irrespective of how much new supply can be realistically delivered.

Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper, higher quality, and more secure as a long-term home. Increasing new supply would be an important tool in achieving that outcome.

When we have a framework for what success could look like, our ability to understand and fix housing appropriately will be dramatically improved. It would be an important step towards making housing available, affordable, and appropriate for everyone that needs it. It would also be more useful than simply setting a nice round number national target for new homes.

Neal Hudson is an independent housing analyst, who tweets as @resi_analyst. This article originally appeared on his blog.