Workers Compensation Looking Up?

May 20th, 2013 by

Dennis Mealy, chief actuary for NCCI, has issued his state of the line report on workers compensation. There’s a lot of good news for insurers, along with a few little red flags that might well morph into big banners of bad news. Mealy’s presentation will soon be available as a webinar at the NCCI site, but for the moment, let’s glean the essence from his Powerpoint presentation.
There’s a lot of positive news (with apologies to those who are not up to speed in insurance jargon). Premium is up by $3.3B, about 9 percent in all. The all-important combined ratio has dropped from 115 to 109 (projected). Given suppressed interest rates, 109 is still high, but it puts profitability within reach. The calendar year loss ratio has dropped from the unacceptable – 70.8 percent – to 66 percent. Pre-tax operational gains are plus 5 percent.
There is (mostly) good news in the loss area: frequency of lost-time claims is down an average of five per cent across all sectors. Indemnity claim costs are up just slightly, as are severity costs. Even in assigned risk pools – insurers of last resort – results have improved, with combined ratios down to 112 percent, compared to 117 in the two prior years.
At the same time – and directly related to the improving results – discounting of premiums has diminished from -7.6 percent to a projected level of -4.5 percent. [Perhaps even the sceptical rate setters in Massachusetts will begin to see the relationship between (slightly) higher rates and a healthy market. If they continue their intransigence on rate increases, the Massachusetts miracle will soon collapse in a heap.]
Who Pays?
In all success stories – however modest – there are winners and losers. In workers comp, the winners are employers with low losses; the losers tend to be those with relatively high losses. NCCI has upped the ante by changing the way experience mods are calculated.
Beginning in January and rolling throughout this year, NCCI is implementing a new mod calculation, raising the split point of primary losses from $5,000 to $10,000. (See Tom Lynch’s detailed explanation beginning here.) For many experience rated risks, the change has been positive. Despite paying slightly higher rates in many states, the cost of insurance has remained stable or even dropped. Here is NCCI’s summary of the new rating plan impact:

– 12 percent of risks see premiums decreasing by 5 to 15 percent
– 76 percent see plus or minus changes within 5 percent
– 11.3 percent see increases in the 5 to 15 percent range
– less than 1 percent see increases above 15 percent (these are the folks who have been calling…)

The Big (Cloudy?) Picture
Mealy’s presentation offers a good news/bad news overview of workers comp. On the plus side, we have seen a slight increase in premiums, a reduction in frequency, stable severity and a good capital position for the industry in general.
On the negative side, the slow pace of economic recovery is troubling, as is the structural unemployment that threatens the livelihoods of aging, middle class workers. Underwriting is confronted with unprecedented instability in predicting risk: today’s low loss company might well be tomorrow’s catastrophe. Low interest rates impede profitability. Alternative markets – the new opt-out law in Oklahoma being a prime example – threaten to drain good risks from the market and leave higher risks in conventional coverage. Finally, it is too soon to know the impact of health care reform, though in the long run, it seems likely that virtually universal health care should reduce cost-shifting into workers comp.
Perhaps we should add the impact of global warming to the negative side. As storms increase in magnitude, the risks to those who are working when storms hit also increase exponentially.
As the Chinese curse would have it, we live in “interesting times.” For the moment, from the rather narrow perspective of the workers compensation market, things look cautiously and incrementally better. But as they say in New England, if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute. It was clear and warm a few moments ago. Suddenly, the wind picks up, the wind chills and the rain comes pouring down. Like a harried underwriter, we struggle to find shelter in the unexpected storm.