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Some Insurers Face Problems In 2009

Written by Todd Clay. Posted in Related Stuff Last Updated: 03/18/2009

What S&P downgrades mean to auto insurance companies and what you should do about it

Will Some Insurance Companies Crash In 2009?

As we wrap up 2008, we look back at a horrendous year for the U.S. economy. The markets have suffered their worse declines in a generation. Unemployment is higher than any time since the early-Reagan Administration (and climbing), and businesses are folding left and right. Even gigantic insurance companies are struggling to keep business.

Economic Problems Will Affect Auto Insurance Companies

The insurance sector is not immune to economic turmoil. This year brought one of the worst hurricanes in recent memory when Hurricane Ike slammed into Texas. Insurance losses mounted for the major insurers. In addition, we’ve suffered through the most challenging market environment since the 1930s. Insurance companies are now looking forward to a dismal year in 2009.

Standard and Poors (S&P) rates financial services companies in the United States. They recently released their outlook for 2009. According to Insurance Journal,

“S&P notes in its report on North American insurers that in 2008 its outlook on several U.S. insurance sectors was revised to negative, meaning that over the next year to 18 months, more downgrades than upgrades are anticipated.”

These problems relate to the reserves held by insurance companies. Just like small businesses have cash in the bank for a rainy day, insurance companies exist for the rainy day. They must keep cash, bonds, and other securities on hand in case of claims. Most companies hold reserves in the stock market. As the market declined throughout the year, insurance companies’ reserves were depleted. This could pose some challenges for many insurers. Some could struggle – others could fail.

What Insurance Company Problems Mean To Consumers

These challenges are more pressing to those consumers who purchased annuities and other long-term insurance products. For instance, if an insurance company fails, the retiree who bought an annuity from them could lose everything. This is one risk many insurance agents don’t tell you about. According to Annuities for Dummies, 3rd Edition “If the company fails (a rare event, fortunately) and isn’t absorbed by another carrier, you can lose your money.” (p.137, 2008). That’s bad news for the person responsible for receiving benefits from the annuity, or annuitant.

However, I see a far less risk with a failed auto insurer. For one thing, you’re only out the money you paid in advance to the company. If you normally pay your premiums 6 months in advance, then the worst you could lose is 6 months of premium. Not painless, mind you, but still not as bad as losing $250,000 from a worthless annuity.

What To Do About Your Auto Policy

If you are concerned about the financial well-being of your car insurance company, then you should either switch to a monthly payment plan, or switch carriers. Don’t ignore the problem. At the end of 2008, we may not be through with the credit crisis. Keep an eye on the news to see if your carrier is having solvency issues.

Bear in mind: all of the bank failures in 2008 started out as rumors. We will see problems with more insurance companies in the coming months. The question is when and where they will arise. Thank you S&P for letting us know.

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Todd Clay

Todd Clay is a former insurance agent with the largest insurance company in the United States. He earned his Bachelor’s from the University of Texas. He's worked in several fields but has specialized in insurance, financial-related information, and technology. He blogs at Car Insurance Guidebook. Connect with Tood on Google+

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