In this summer of weather extremes, workers comp is celebrating its 100th birthday in America. The weather forecast - along with the prognosis for workers comp - probably sound familiar: periodic storms, heavy rain, damaging winds. The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) has issued its "state of the line" report for workers comp: 2010 was a tough year and the outlook for 2011 carries a severe weather warning.
The key indicator for insurance health is the combined ratio: add up the accumulated losses and the expenses, subtract investment income and hope you end up somewhere around 1.0. The combined ratio for 2010 went up to 1.15, five points above the previous year. Despite improved returns on investment (otherwise known as the "jobless" recovery), pretax losses for the industry averaged one percent - the first such loss since 2001.
Insurers are suffering from a convergence of negative factors: poor underwriting results, a drop in premiums (due to reduced payrolls), and an increase in claims frequency, which is perhaps the most alarming trend of all. For a number of years the increase in severity (the average size of claims) has been balanced by a decrease in frequency. If frequency continues to trend upward, the warning flags for severe trouble will be flapping in a very stiff breeze.
Politics as Usual
Further complicating matters for insurers, state level politicians are single minded in their effort to keep the costs of comp insurance as low as possible. As part of their relentless struggle to stay competitive, state regulators are reluctant to increase rates. NCCI has applied for rate increases in 14 of the states which they directly manage, up from eight in the previous cycle. Any move toward higher rates may signal at least the beginning of the long-awaited end of the soft market that has endured for over a decade.
Finally, there has been a lot of turnover among the state officials who regulate workers comp: there are 24 new insurance commissioners across the country. As NCCI puts it:
The number of newly elected and appointed officials means that the industry will face a challenge in terms of education and information for next few months at least.
Time to polish up the Gucci's? The insurance industry hardly needs to crank up the lobbying apparatus - it's always operating full tilt.
Candles in the Wind
As workers comp turns 100, we note that longevity itself is not cause for celebration. Just as it's no fun to grow old, it's not much fun trying to make money in workers comp these days. Despite a decade of tightened eligibility requirements and cuts (some draconian) in benefits, we have seen a continued deterioration in the financial health of comp carriers. Perhaps it's my imagination, but I seem to detect a tone of anxiety as stakeholders gather to sing "Happy Birthday" to Workers Comp in America. The flames of the candles falter in the midst of a raging storm.