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Black Swan

Bigger Than the Big One

The most-feared quake of all results in economic catastrophe.
By: | August 4, 2014 • 8 min read
Since the Tohoku quake in Japan, scientists have changed their thinking on how bad the big one could get.

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.

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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.

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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.

The Fallout

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.

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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.

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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.

Jamie Miller, head of North American Property, Swiss Re

Jamie Miller, head of North American Property, Swiss Re

“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.

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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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Additional 2014 black swan stories:

Toxic Tornado

When a nuclear reactor melts down due to a powerful tornado, deadly contamination rains down on a metropolitan area.

Sub-Zero Sucker Punch

A double dose of ice storms batter the Eastern seaboard, plunging 50 million people and three million businesses into a polar vortex of darkness and desperation.

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at dreynolds@lrp.com.
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Infographic: The Risk List

7 Emerging Technology Risks

Innovative technology presents unforeseen risk exposures. Presented by Travelers.
By: | August 26, 2014 • 1 min read
RiskList_August RiskList_August RiskList_August

The Risk List is presented by:

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The R&I Editorial Team may be reached at riskletters@lrp.com.
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Sponsored: Liberty Mutual Insurance

Passion for the Prize

Managing today’s complex energy risks requires that insurers match the industry’s dedication and expertise.
By: | December 10, 2014 • 6 min read

In his 1990 book, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, Pulitzer Prize winning author Daniel Yergin documented the passion that drove oil exploration from the first oil well sunk in Titusville, Penn. by Col. Edwin Drake in 1859, to the multinational crusades that enriched Saudi Arabia 100 years later.

Even with the recent decline in crude oil prices, the quest for oil and its sister substance, natural gas, is as fevered now as it was in 1859.

While lower product prices are causing some upstream oil and gas companies to cut back on exploration and production, they create opportunities for others. In fact, for many midstream oil and gas companies, lower prices create an opportunity to buy low, store product, and then sell high when the crude and gas markets rebound.

The current record supply of domestic crude oil and gas largely results from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing methods, which make it practical to extract product in formerly played-out or untapped formations, from the Panhandle to the Bakken.

But these technologies — and the current market they helped create — require underwriters that are as passionate, committed and knowledgeable about energy risk as the oil and gas explorers they insure.

Liability fears and incessant press coverage — from the Denton fracking ban to the Heckmann verdict — may cause some underwriters to regard fracking and horizontal drilling with a suppressed appetite. Other carriers, keen to generate premium revenue despite their limited industry knowledge, may try to buy their way into this high-stakes game with soft pricing.

For Matt Waters, the chief underwriting officer of Liberty Mutual Commercial Insurance Specialty – Energy, this is the time to employ a deep underwriting expertise to embrace the current energy market and extraction methods responsibly and profitably.

“In the oil and gas business right now, you have to have risk solutions for the new market, fracking and horizontal drilling, and it can’t be avoidance,” Waters said.

Matt Waters, chief underwriting officer of Liberty Mutual Commercial Insurance Specialty – Energy, reviews some risk management best practices for fracking and horizontal drilling.

Waters’ group underwrites upstream energy risks — those involved in all phases of onshore exploration and production of crude oil and natural gas from wells sunk into the earth — and midstream energy risks, those that involve the distribution or transportation of oil and gas to processing plants, refineries and consumers.

Risk in Motion

Seven to eight years ago, the technologies to horizontally drill and use fluids to fracture shale formations were barely in play. Now they are well established and have changed the domestic energy market, and consequently risk management for energy companies.

One of those changes is in the area of commercial auto and related coverages.

Fracking and horizontal drilling have dramatically altered oil and gas production, significantly increasing the number of vehicle trips to production and exploration sites. The new technologies require vehicles move water for drilling fluids and fracking, remove these fluids once they are used, bring hundreds of tons of chemicals and proppants, and transport all the specialty equipment required for these extraction methods.

The increase in vehicle use comes at a time when professional drivers, especially those with energy skills, are in short supply. The unfortunate result is more accidents.

SponsoredContent_LM“In the oil and gas business right now, you have to have risk solutions for the new market, fracking and horizontal drilling, and it can’t be avoidance.”
— Matt Waters, chief underwriting officer, Liberty Mutual Commercial Insurance Specialty – Energy

For example, in Pennsylvania, home to the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, overall traffic fatalities across the state are down 19 percent, according to a recent analysis by the Associated Press. But in those Pennsylvania counties where natural gas and oil is being sought, the frequency of traffic fatalities is up 4 percent.

Increasing traffic volume and accidents is also driving frequency trends in workers compensation and general liability.

In the assessment and transfer of upstream and midstream energy risks, however, there simply isn’t enough claims history in the Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania or the Bakken formation in North Dakota for underwriters to rely on data to price environmental, general and third-party liability risks.

That’s where Liberty Mutual’s commitment, experience and ability to innovate come in. Liberty Mutual was the first carrier to put together a hydraulic fracking risk assessment that gives companies using this extraction method a blueprint to help protect against litigation down the road.

Liberty Mutual insures both lease operators and the contractors essential to extracting hydrocarbons. As in many underwriting areas, the name of the game is clarity around what the risk is, and who owns it.

When considering fracking contractors, Waters and his team work to make sure that any “down hole” risks, be that potential seismic activity, or the migration of methane into water tables, is born by the lease holder.

For the lease holders, Waters and his team of specialty underwriters recommend their clients hold both “sudden and accidental” pollution coverage — to protect against quick and clear accidental spills — and a stand-alone pollution policy, which covers more gradual exposure that unfolds over a much longer period of time, such as methane leaking into drinking water supplies.

Those are two different distinct coverages, both of which a lease holder needs.

Matt Waters discusses the need for stand-alone environmental coverage.

The Energy Cycle

Domestic oil and gas production has expanded so drastically in the past five years that the United States could now become a significant energy exporter. Billions of dollars are being invested to build pipelines, liquid natural gas processing plants and export terminals along our coasts.

While managing risk for energy companies requires deep expertise, developing insurance programs for pipeline and other energy-related construction projects demands even more experience. Such programs must manage and mitigate both construction and operation risks.

Matt Waters discusses future growth for midstream oil and gas companies.

In the short-term, domestic gas and oil production is being curtailed some as fuel prices have recently plummeted due to oversupply. In the long-term, those domestic prices are likely to go back up again, particularly if legislation allows the fuel harvested in the United States to be exported to energy deficient Europe.

Waters and his underwriting team are in this energy game for the long haul — with some customers being with the operation for more than 25 years — and have industry-leading tools to play in it.

Beyond Liberty Mutual’s hydraulic fracturing risk assessment sheet, Waters’ area created a commercial driver scorecard to help its midstream and upstream clients select and manage drivers, which are in such great demand in the industry. The safety and skill of those drivers play a big part in preventing commercial auto claims, Waters said.

Liberty Mutual’s commitment to the energy market is also seen in Waters sending every member of his underwriting team to the petroleum engineering program at the University of Texas and hiring underwriters that are passionate about this industry.

Matt Waters explains how his area can add value to oil and gas companies and their insurance brokers and agents.

For Waters, politics and the trends of the moment have little place in his long-term thinking.

“We’re committed to this business and to deeply understanding how to best manage its risks, and we have been for a long time,” Waters said.

And that holds true for the latest extraction technologies.

“We’ve had success writing fracking contractors and horizontal drillers, helping them better manage the total cost of risk,” Waters said.

To learn more about how Liberty Mutual Insurance can meet your upstream and midstream energy coverage needs, contact your broker, or Matt Waters at matthew.waters@libertymutual.com.

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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.


Liberty Mutual Insurance offers a wide range of insurance products and services, including general liability, property, commercial automobile, excess casualty, workers compensation and group benefits.
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