Commercial auto insurance continues to be a sore spot as loss ratios for this line have increased nearly 17% since 2006, its lowest point in the past 16 years.
This increase was nearly twice that of the overall P&C industry loss ratio during the same time period.
The progressive loss increase kicked in following the end of the Great Recession. As the economy picked up, so did commercial activity on the road. In fact, such activity, as captured by the truck tonnage and freight transportation services indices, has been continuously rising, exceeding levels seen in the early 2000s, and leading to more accidents.
Trends driving loss ratios
While this has been one of several factors spurring claims growth, payouts also have surged, triggered by nuclear verdicts. A recent study indicates that between 2012 and 2015, 12 commercial auto verdicts cost the industry close to a billion dollars. In addition to increasing claim severity, these verdicts tend to be precursors for larger settlements coming down the pike.
The loss experience across the various regions and states is quite varied. Though the Midwest was struggling with climbing losses before the recession, the situation did not change as drastically as it did for the West. For the Western region as a whole, between 2010 and 2016, the loss ratio increased by 30%, exceeding the national average increase of 25%. Changes in the loss ratio for the Southern region, which writes the most commercial auto business, were on par with the national average.
How uniform is this Western experience?
Nearly half of the states have experienced loss deterioration. Colorado, California, New Mexico and Nevada feature prominently with an increase of more than 50% in their loss ratio.
Persistent losses in a large state like California, which writes the most commercial auto premiums in the West, have stark effects on the health of auto insurers who operate there.
Compare and contrast this with the Midwest, where 3 of the top states in terms of losses- Kansas, Ohio and Indiana, have still performed better than their Western counterparts.
Some portion of the contrast in the loss experience could be explained by the pace of regional economic growth. Among the four U.S. regions, the West recorded the highest economic growth as captured by real GDP growth from 2010, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Across the Western states, California’s and Colorado’s GDP grew at approximately twice the pace at the rest of the region, and this growth spurs commercial vehicle activity- more construction work, more deliveries of goods and people, in general, eventually leading to more accidents, and more losses.
The Midwest, on other hand, grew less than the national average- implying lower commercial vehicle activity. But there, it is not the most fast-paced ones that had the highest losses- an example of this is the economy of North Dakota, which grew at four times the rate of the Midwest but had a below-average loss experience for commercial auto. Thus, while the economy is strongly linked to commercial auto losses, especially loss frequency, other factors like the persistent and growing commercial driver shortage, landmark court judgments or higher medical costs are equally important in determining overall loss trends.
The road ahead
The industry’s reaction to the years of losses has been to increase rates, but commercial auto is still hurting. Mere rate increases, generally applied using mostly traditional, and often too indiscriminate insurance methods, have not affected a turnaround for this line.
To be effective, and not create adverse selection, they need to be implemented with laser-sharp accuracy, in a timely manner so as to avoid playing catch-up all the time.
The conventional insurance approach has been unable to forecast losses adequately, leading to this continuing morass. To get out of this, the industry needs to scientifically assess and integrate into internal processes the relevant economic, legal, demographic and societal factors that drive losses.
Failure to do so, in a timely manner, will lead to further deterioration of commercial auto carriers’ top and bottom lines.
Dr. Renu Ann Joseph is an entrepreneur who has co-founded Luminant Analytics, which offers targeted analytics for insurers. An economist from the University of Illinois at Chicago, she has work experience in the financial services industry and in public health. She is passionate about using data insights to unravel the big picture. Connect to her on LinkedIn or reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the second in a three series article providing an overview of key developments in the US auto insurance industry and US roads in the past decade.