Bigger Than the Big One
When it starts at 2:12 p.m. on an October Thursday, residents of California old enough to remember previous big quakes assure themselves that they’ve been through this before.
But in another 10 seconds or so, they see that they are profoundly wrong.
The shaking, stronger than anything ever measured in the United States, goes on and on, not for seconds, but for minutes. Panic builds to horror as people are thrown to the ground, stoned by debris from crumbling office buildings or crushed in their cars under collapsed freeway overpasses.
This is a quake even bigger than “The Big One,” which modelers tend to peg as something in the 7.6 to 8.0 range on the Richter scale. This is an 8.5 magnitude quake on the San Andreas Fault with an epicenter at Cape Mendocino in Humboldt County, about 250 miles north of San Francisco.
According to modeling firm EQECAT, a subsidiary of CoreLogic, the rupture in Humboldt County triggers a cascade of four contiguous San Andreas Fault segment ruptures that end in Southern California at Indio in the Salton Sea.
It was fire that destroyed much of San Francisco in the legendary 1906 earthquake, but it is salt water this time that plays a substantial role in the undoing of that great city and its bigger cousin, Los Angeles.
In Southern California, the quake provokes a submarine landslide, 100 miles or so in length and miles wide, that runs from the coastal waters of Santa Barbara down to San Luis Rey in San Diego County.
That immense shifting of underwater soil in turn pushes water toward land in a tsunami that runs a mile or so inland in places, damaging large oil refineries in El Segundo and Torrance, and creating an environmental disaster.
Hundreds of billions of dollars of Southern California’s high-priced residential and commercial real estate is erased in 10 minutes. Thousands die within that same time span.
The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, the two biggest U.S. container ports, are shut down, severely damaged by the shaking and the tsunami.
To the north, the “Achilles heel” of San Francisco, its bay-side seawall, ruptures in multiple places, spilling bay water into the city.
The four-mile seawall, which runs from Hyde Street and Fisherman’s Wharf in the north to Pier 54 and Channel Street in the south, was cobbled together in 21 sections from 1878 to 1924. The land mass filled in behind the seawall is composed of sand, clay and gravel in places and liquefies under a quake of this magnitude, undermining the city’s Embarcadero roadway and severing crucial utility and public transportation connections.
San Francisco is far better prepared for seismic activity than any U.S. city. But when the seawall fails, the surging bay water undermines downtown office buildings already weakened by the shaking, and several of them collapse.
The destruction of the seawall shuts down the Transbay Tube, the underwater Bay Area Rapid Transit rail connection between San Francisco and Oakland, stranding hundreds of thousands of commuters in the broken cities.
Damage to the Bay Bridge shuts down first-responder access from the east. Damage to the Golden Gate Bridge cuts off aid from the north.
With emergency responders in the rest of the state frantically working to save their own populations, the city is sealed off from help, stricken and flood ravaged. Its residents tend to the injured and dying as best they can as spiraling smoke obscures the sun and sirens wail unceasingly.
According to EQECAT, the insured losses from a cascading San Andreas rupture measuring 8.5 on the Richter scale would amount to $140 billion.
Before the Tohoku quake of March 2011, scientists thought that an 8.5 on the San Andreas was inconceivable, according to Mahmoud Khater, chief science and technology officer with EQECAT. But before Tohoku, no one thought that the fault in Japan could produce a 9.0. The most it was thought capable of was an 8.4.
Tragically, the world now knows better, after more than 16,000 Japanese deaths and more than $30 billion in insured losses.
“It is really Tohoku that has altered the scientific and actuarial thinking,” Khater said.
The importance of the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to trade with technology suppliers in Asia is just one piece of the extended business interruption and contingent business interruption aftermath of an 8.5 on the San Andreas that would lead to global economic losses of $1 trillion.
“We clearly agree that it would be a multi-year event,” said Jamie Miller, head of North American property for Swiss Re.
EQECAT estimates that there is $2.2 trillion in residential and commercial property exposure in California. The company said fatalities from the event we envision would run into the tens of thousands.
As gruesome as tens of thousands of deaths would be, and as daunting to the insurance industry as $140 billion in insured losses may appear, Miller and his colleagues at Swiss Re fear that even greater economic calamity awaits, should this event occur.
Alex Kaplan, vice president, global partnerships, public sector business with Swiss Re, points to the low take-up rate of personal lines earthquake insurance in California, the weak financial condition of the federal and local governments, and how that combination could balloon into a national economic calamity.
“You talk about firefighting and other ongoing expenses that aren’t passed on through insurance, coupled with less homeowners to pay for it. That to me is the black swan.” — Jamie Miller, head of North American property, Swiss Re
Consider, under Kaplan’s direction, that only 12 percent of homeowners in California carry earthquake insurance.
Modelers say 1 million homes would be severely damaged in the 8.5 quake.
“That’s 880,000 homes that are uninsured and 660,000 of those homes have mortgages,” Kaplan said.
Not only will there be hundreds of billions of dollars in damage but as a result of the earthquake, the rate of mortgage defaults and credit losses in California will spike, he said.
“Keep in mind that California has one-sixth of all underwater mortgages,” he added.
In addition, the federal government will be unable to sufficiently bail out local governments in California, which will suffer greatly reduced property tax collections just as public services such as police and fire protection are stretched to the limit.
“FEMA’s current funding scheme is inadequate to handle something like this,” Kaplan said.
From 2005 through 2011, the agency’s average disaster appropriation was $1.75 billion per year, Kaplan said. But spending on supplemental appropriations amounted to an average of $4.6 billion per year.
“There is no probabilistic modeling that goes into how the federal government allocates funds,” Kaplan said.
“You talk about firefighting and other ongoing expenses that aren’t passed on through insurance, coupled with less homeowners to pay for it,” Miller said.
“That to me is the black swan.”
Mitigation and Recovery
For years — since the Loma Prieta quake that struck the Bay Area in 1989, and the Northridge quake that hit Los Angeles in 1994 — governments in California have taken aggressive measures to limit the damage that would occur in a major quake and to make California cities more resilient.
In April, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, San Francisco appointed the world’s first Chief Resiliency Officer, Patrick Otellini. The Rockefeller program will eventually fund 100 such positions worldwide.
“We have a mentality that we need to get over and that is we are the biggest country in the world with the deepest capital markets and The Big One wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I don’t think that’s true.” — Alex Kaplan, vice president, Swiss Re
In the new position, Otellini is putting to work his 10 years of experience in the private sector helping businesses negotiate the City of San Francisco’s permitting and code requirements process and his more recent job, which he still holds, as the director of the city’s Earthquake Implementation Program.
The host of initiatives he is working on include measuring the vulnerability of the city’s seawall and creating a plan to improve it, coordinating the various utilities whose services the city depends on to increase their post-disaster resiliency, and implementation of a program designed to speed up occupancy of hotels and other businesses post-quake provided they have been inspected by city-approved engineers.
Under Otellini’s direction, the city’s Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance last year that required owners to retrofit and make more earthquake-proof rental properties with wood frame construction, built before 1978, and having five or more residential units with two or more stories over a “soft story” — a story with large open spaces like a garage or retail space with large windows.
The city’s experience in 1989 told it that housing stock would be totally destroyed should The Big One hit.
Otellini said there are 60,000 residents living in rent-controlled housing who would lose that protection in a big quake had the city not taken action.
“Not to mention the impact on our city services and the fact that these buildings tend to be very defining of the architecture of San Francisco,” he said.
Although it’s not regulating a big piece of the city’s overall commercial and residential building stock, the measure is an example of how governments can begin to pick off lower hanging fruit and make their cities incrementally more resilient.
The Los Angeles City Council took note of the San Francisco measure and passed its own ordinance. The two city governments are now working together on a number of resiliency initiatives and to make state politicians more aware of what else needs to be done.
“I am very excited about that dialogue,” Otellini said.
The efforts of Otellini and others will lessen the cost of The Big One and bring businesses and communities back quicker, said Swiss Re’s Kaplan.
“I am very impressed with how public entities from the city level, to the state level, to the federal level are thinking about the physical resilience of a particular region,” Kaplan said.
“How do you retrofit the buildings, how do you communicate the risk, and they have done a tremendous job of enhancing that over the years,” he said.
“What I am still concerned about is the financial resilience, how are you going to fund these losses?” he asked.
Kaplan said he now sees U.S. cities taking a much more engaged approach to which insurance or insurance-linked securities solutions could help to remove the volatility from public sector balance sheets in the case of a disaster.
“The Mexican government is highly sophisticated in that regard and we see it is starting to happen in the U.S.,” Kaplan said.
“We have a mentality that we need to get over and that is we are the biggest country in the world with the deepest capital markets and The Big One wouldn’t be that big of a deal,” Kaplan said.
“I don’t think that’s true.”
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Buyers Beware: General Liability Outlook May be Shifting
The soothing drumbeat of “excess capital” and “soft market” to describe the general liability (GL) market is a familiar sound for brokers and buyers. Emerging GL trends, however, suggest the calm may not last.
Increasing severity of GL claims may hit some sectors like a light rain at first, if they have not already, but they could quickly feel like a pelting thunderstorm in others. A number of factors could contribute to the potential jump in GL prices for certain industry segments or exposures, possibly creating “micro” or niche hard markets in the short-term, and maybe even turning the broader market over the longer-term.
“There are trends we’re seeing that will play out slowly. Industries that carry more general liability exposure will and have been hit first and hardest, but it won’t apply across the board initially,” said David Perez, Senior Vice President and Chief Underwriting Officer, for Liberty Mutual Insurance’s National Insurance Specialty operation. “There is ample capital in the market today, which allows a poor performing account to move its policy frequently from carrier to carrier. Poorer performing classes, however, will likely face increased pricing for GL policies and a reduction in capacity.”
The good news for buyers is that they can take action today to lessen the impact these trends and the evolving market may have on their GL programs.
David Perez on the state of the GL market.
Medical and Litigation Trends Drive Severity
One factor increasing claim severity is the rising cost of health care, driven both by greater demand and by medical inflation that is growing faster than the Consumer Price index.
The impact of rising medical costs on commercial auto is well-known. Businesses with heavy transportation exposures are finding it more difficult to obtain coverage, or are paying more for it.
That same trend will impact general liability, just on a slower and more fragmented basis.
“In light of these trends, brokers and buyers should seek to understand how effectively their current or potential insurers defend GL claims, particular in using evidence-based medicine to assess and value the medical portion of a claim, and how they can provide necessary care to claimants while still helping clients control their total cost of risk.”
— David Perez, Senior Vice President & Chief Underwriting Officer, National Insurance Specialty, Liberty Mutual Insurance
“It takes longer for medical inflation to register through the tort system in general liability than it does in auto liability (AL) because auto claims are generally resolved more quickly,” Perez said. “But the same factors affecting severity in AL also exist in GL and as a result, it’s foreseeable that we will not only see similar severity trends in GL, but they may in fact be worse than we’ve seen in commercial auto.”
Industries with greater exposure to severity in general liability claims should be the first wave of companies to notice the impact of medical inflation.
“Medical inflation will drive up costs across the board, but sectors like construction and product manufacturing have a higher relative exposure for personal injury lawsuits.”
The impact of medical inflation on the GL market.
Beyond medical inflation, two litigation trends are increasing GL damages. First, plaintiffs’ lawyers are seeking to migrate the use of life care plans—traditionally employed only for truly catastrophic injuries—to more routine claims. Perez recalled one claimant with a broken thumb and torn ligaments who sought as much as $1 million in care for the injury for the rest of his life.
Second, the number of allegations of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in GL claims is growing. It can be difficult to predict TBI outcomes initially and poor outcomes can be expensive and long tailed.
“In light of these trends, brokers and buyers should seek to understand how effectively their current or potential insurers defend GL claims, particular in using evidence-based medicine to assess and value the medical portion of a claim, and how they can provide necessary care to claimants while still helping clients control their total cost of risk,” notes Perez.
Changing Legal Landscape
Medical inflation and litigation trends are not the only issues impacting general liability.
Unanticipated changes in court interpretations of policy language can throw unexpected pressure on GL pricing and capacity.
Courts sometimes issue rulings interpreting policy language in a manner that expands coverage well beyond the underwriter’s original intent. Such opinions may sometimes have a retroactive effect, resulting in an immediate impact on not only open, but also closed cases in some circumstances.
Shifts in the Marketplace
In addition to facing price increases, GL brokers and buyers will be challenged by slightly shrinking capacity due to consolidation and repositioning among carriers in the marketplace. “Some major carriers have scaled back their GL writing, resulting in a migration of experienced senior management. As these executives leave, they take their GL expertise and relationships with them, resulting in fewer market leaders and less innovation,” Perez said.
“Additionally, there are new carriers coming into the business that may not have the historical GL loss data to proactively identify trends or the financial strength and experience to effectively service their GL customers and brokers. Both trends make it important for brokers and buyers to work with an insurer that is committed to the GL market and has the understanding and resources to help better manage risks impacting customers.”
Last year saw a high level of mergers and acquisitions in the insurance industry. Buyers should take advantage of that disruption to re-evaluate their needs and whether their insurers are meeting them. Or better yet, anticipating them.
What’s a Buyer to Do?
Buyers—and their brokers— should look to partner with insurers that can spot emerging trends and offer creative solutions to address them proactively.
What should buyers and brokers do, given the trends facing the GL market?
“Brokers and buyers should value insurers that have not only durability and a long history in the general liability business, but also a strong risk management infrastructure,” Perez said. “Your insurer should be able to help you mitigate your specific risks, and complement that with coverage that works for you.”
Beyond robust GL claims and legal management, Liberty Mutual also provides access to one of the insurance industry’s largest risk control departments to help improve safety and mitigate both claim frequency and severity.
In addition, notes Perez, “Even if a company has a less than optimal loss history in general liability, there can be options to provide adequate coverage for that company. The key is to partner with an insurer that has the best-in-class expertise, creativity, and flexibility to make it happen.”
By working closely with their insurers to understand trends and their potential impacts, brokers and buyers can better prepare for the possible GL storm on the horizon.
To learn more about Liberty Mutual’s general liability offering, visit https://business.libertymutualgroup.com/business-insurance/coverages/general-liability-insurance-policy.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty Mutual Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.