Dead in the Water
The federal flood insurance fiasco.
Jan 28, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 19 • By ELI LEHRER
By almost any analysis, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)—the recipient of a $9.7 billion bailout in the wake of Hurricane Sandy—doesn’t work. It is poorly conceived, it’s terribly mismanaged, and it encourages harmful behavior.
Of course, the same can be said for dozens of other federal efforts. What sets the NFIP apart is that, in looking to address what was at the time a clear market failure, Congress created a program that has so influenced the course of society these past four and a half decades that getting rid of it would be nearly impossible.
Before Congress set up the NFIP in 1968, only a handful of very small insurance companies wrote flood coverage as part of conventional homeowners’ policies. Although a demand for flood insurance clearly existed, nobody would sell it. This was a market failure as almost any economist would describe it. And it happened for several reasons.
Insurance works best when a large number of people who face similar but uncorrelated risks pool their risk together. But floods are heavily correlated. While they aren’t a serious concern in many parts of the country, they can be a constant menace in areas near river valleys or along coasts that face threats from tropical storms. In an era when small, local insurers that served one or two states provided most insurance, a single big flood could drive many of them out of business.
Not that the business of home insurance has ever been particularly lucrative. Over nearly any given 10-year period, the property and casualty insurance industry as a whole pays out in claims roughly as much as it takes in in premiums, and the home insurance business is one of the least attractive from an underwriting standpoint. Insurers earn their returns mostly by investing premium dollars in high quality, low-yield bonds. With very thin margins, in those years when the business is profitable at all, the main attraction to insurers of offering home insurance—required of everyone who has a mortgage—is the chance to cross-sell more lucrative products, like investments, life insurance, and automobile insurance. Indeed, no company of any size sells only homeowners’ insurance.
Most important, the data that insurers needed to make good underwriting decisions about flood risks didn’t really exist at the time Congress created NFIP. Before air conditioning and the near-elimination of malaria-carrying mosquitos made them pleasant places to live, wet areas were mostly the domain of poor “river rats” who couldn’t afford homeowners’ insurance. Because the flow of water continually changes the contours of flood-prone areas, mapping such areas remains inherently difficult and expensive and was nearly impossible given the technology of the time. And it follows that the paltry returns they expected to earn on flood insurance offered little incentive for insurers to invest in and improve these systems.
Government policy made things worse. Since the 1920s, nearly all states have passed laws to regulate how much insurers are allowed to charge. Although these laws have eased slightly since the 1960s—and vanished entirely in Illinois—they still make insurers very reluctant to take on new types of risks. They have a legitimate fear that state governments may not let them charge enough to cover their costs and, thus, face the no-win choice of either “nonrenewing” their customers or losing money.
Even worse, from the standpoint of any insurer contemplating entering the flood insurance business, Sen. Prescott Bush (father and grandfather of the Presidents Bush) succeeded in convincing his colleagues in Congress to pass a law creating a flood insurance program in 1956. While the program was never funded, its very existence in statute provided a powerful reminder that the federal government planned to nationalize flood insurance and thus was a disincentive for anyone who might otherwise have thought of investing in the market.
This combination of the nature of the flood risk, the insurance business, the limitations of technology, and the regulatory climate made it impossible to provide flood insurance in most of the country. Spurred on by the GI Bill, the new interstate highway system, and the FHA mortgage insurance created by the Housing Act of 1949, an exploding population began moving into brand new suburbs, many of them constructed in naturally flat flood-prone areas where building was easy.
Flood damages began to rise, and Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the first post-World War II storm to do more than $1 billion in damage, provided an additional potent incentive for the federal government to do something about flood insurance.