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.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.