S.C. to study catastrophe models to better understand black boxes, their effects on insurance rates
State insurance regulators will create a panel of experts to study “black box” catastrophe models — secret computer programs that have a huge impact on property insurance rates.
The S.C. Department of Insurance said the panel will include an engineer with expertise in the effects of high winds on structures, a meteorologist knowledgeable about hurricanes, and an insurance actuary who has analyzed catastrophe models.
In a recent report, The Post and Courier showed how a previous effort to examine catastrophe models in South Carolina fizzled after risk-modeling companies declined to share certain details about their work.
Ann Roberson, spokeswoman for the Insurance Department, said the agency is accepting proposals from experts. She said the department hopes to get the panel going soon, though she offered no timetable or cost estimates. She said the effort to form the panel has been in the works for months.
Catastrophe models came into vogue in the early 1990s after Hurricane Andrew caused much more damage in Florida than insurance companies had predicted. Companies, such as Risk Management Solutions and AIR Worldwide, combine data about hurricanes and other variables to predict how much an insurance company might lose in a hurricane strike.
The programs are complex and even include predictions about how costs of building supplies would rise after a storm, known as “demand surge” in insurance circles.
In recent years, these models have been predicting much higher potential losses, and insurance companies have been using this information to justify higher rate increases.
The catastrophe-modeling companies keep secret many details about their calculations, hence the name “black box,” a common term in insurance industry circles.
Some states, notably Florida, have set up panels to open these black boxes. The panels have rejected some aspects of these models, testimony shows.
Now, new versions of the black boxes are using data on warming trends in the ocean and other variables to forecast potential hurricane losses in a five-year period.
About six years ago, these models predicted a major increase in hurricane losses, and as a result, insurance companies sought rate increases and pulled out of coastal areas in South Carolina and elsewhere, triggering what was widely described as an “insurance crisis.”
But these models over- estimated losses by as much as $53 billion, according to Karen Clark, the architect of the original computer model. She said they remain useful but crude tools to predict loss.
Even newer models by Risk Management Solutions include information on how storms decay when they make landfall, said Michael Young, senior director of model product management. These new calculations suggest that losses inland would be greater than previously thought, both in Florida and South Carolina, he said.
Those calculations could have an impact on rates, he said, but that they likely would be minor in South Carolina.
Overall, he added, catastrophe models have given the insurance market more stability.
David Marlett, chairman of Appalachian State University’s Department of Banking, Finance and Insurance, said it’s natural that people “aren’t comfortable with the black box model,” but that risk-modeling companies “don’t want to give up their secret sauce because that’s where they make money. So it makes sense for our regulators to see what goes into them.”
The news about the panel comes as a group of civic and business leaders in Beaufort and Hilton Head are trying to find ways to lower rates.
The group includes Daryl Ferguson, a retired chief executive officer who says he has spent more than 2,000 hours researching hurricane risks and their relationship to home insurance rates. David Ames, a developer from Hilton Head, Andy Twisdale, a Hilton Head real estate agent, and Beaufort County Councilman Stu Rodman also are in the informal group.
Ferguson welcomed the news about the formation of the panel but said more needs to be done. He said insurance companies, emergency planners and even tourism officials too often engage in fear-mongering about hurricane risks in South Carolina.
Studies show that hurricanes come within 50 miles of South Carolina once every five years on average, but that the likelihood of a major hurricane affecting a specific place on the coast is much lower.
An analysis for The Post and Courier by WindRisk Tech LLC, a company founded by noted meteorologist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed that a catastrophic hurricane, one with at least 115 mph winds, would on average affect a spot in Charleston once every 370 years.
Ferguson said insurance rates don’t reflect this low risk. He said high rates harm the economy, while excessive fears about hurricanes scare off tourists, slowing one of the state’s most important economic engines.
Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554.