Storm of money

To read previous coverage in the Storm of money occasional series, go to postandcourier.com/storm-of-money.

Premiums for wind insurance along the South Carolina coast are too high, and the state’s next insurance director needs to find out why, a coastal lawmaker said in an occasionally tense confirmation hearing Wednesday for Ray Farmer, Gov. Nikki Haley’s nominee to run the department.

Farmer, meanwhile, told state senators that he was uniquely qualified to run the agency because of his 33 years as a lobbyist and previous work as a regulator and adjuster in Georgia.

Confirmation hearings tend to be routine, but Wednesday’s meeting brought to the fore an issue that lawmakers have barely touched in five years — high home insurance rates, particularly for homeowners in the Lowcountry. In the end, this complex issue was too much to swallow in one hour, and senators decided to continue the hearing at a later date.

Some of the hardest questioning came from Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican who also was Gov. Mark Sanford’s chief of staff during the home insurance crisis of the mid-2000s. During that time, insurers jacked up rates along the coast and many pulled out altogether.

In response, the state relaxed regulations and enlarged the “wind pool,” an area where residents are guaranteed insurance by the S.C. Wind and Hail Association, the state-chartered “insurer of last resort.”

Citing studies that insurers in South Carolina have enjoyed a 20-plus-percent return on their investments in the state, Davis suggested that the insurance market is out of whack. He asked Farmer whether he thought “premiums right now on the coast accurately match up with the risk being assumed by those (insurance) companies?”

Farmer replied, “I think for the most part they do reflect the risk.” He added that the insurance market would be more competitive if companies thought they would make money in South Carolina, but that home insurance is not a “profit-making line. From the results I just saw yesterday, for every dollar invested, the homeowner company paid out a dollar and eight cents.”

Davis persisted, “I’m a little concerned by the default setting coming in on your part that premiums are not too high.”

Davis and Farmer were drawing on statistics compiled by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and used by industry and consumer groups.

Over the past 10 years, insurers in South Carolina made an average 20 percent profit on the value of the company’s investments in the state, the association said in a recent report. This profit measure includes data in 2011, a year South Carolina insurers suffered a negative 8 percent return because of severe hail, tornados and other storms.

Some of the most forceful language during the hearing came from Daryl Ferguson, a retired telecommunications executive from Beaufort who estimated that he spent 4,000 hours studying insurance issues.

“This is a catastrophe for the state,” he said. “We’re paying some of the highest rates and the insurance industry is making exorbitant profits.”

Ferguson told lawmakers that the state needs an insurance chief who is independent and an experienced negotiator and manager. He complimented Farmer on his “wonderful personality” and said in another context “he might be one of my best friends,” but “he doesn’t have the basic skills you need” to run the agency.

Ferguson was featured last year in a Post and Courier series, “Storm of Money,” which revealed that South Carolina has some of the highest home insurance rates in the nation, and that state regulators have done little to examine the industry’s secret black box computer programs and other arcane rules that make our rates so high.

After the hourlong hearing, it became clear that other senators and speakers wouldn’t have a chance to weigh in, and that Farmer needed more time to respond. Robert Hayes, R-Rock Hill, chairman of the powerful Senate and Banking Committee, said the nomination proceeding would continue at a later date.

That was unusual, said Luke Rankin, a Republican whose district covers Horry County and a 20-year veteran of the Senate.

“This is not something to schmooze through,” he said.

Rankin added that home insurance is a hot-button issue for many of his constituents. He said Haley’s nomination of an insurance lobbyist seemed like “asking a fox to guard the hen house.” He said it shows that the insurance chief should be an elected position.

It’s unclear whether Farmer’s nomination faces a serious threat. “It’s too early,” said Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville. After the meeting, Democrats invited Ferguson to continue his presentation in a more informal setting. And, as the hearing ended, Davis said, “This isn’t a rubber-stamp thing. I think this is just the beginning of an important conversation.”