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Why have automobile insurance premiums been rising?

by Christopher Bruce

According to the most recent Statistics Canada data, automobile insurance premiums in Alberta increased by 68.6 percent between 2001 and 2003 (29.9 percent per year), at a time when the consumer price index increased by only 8.0 percent (3.9 percent per year). Similarly, over the 10-year period 1994–2003, premiums increased by 97.8 percent (7.9 percent per year) while the consumer price index increased by only 26.4 percent (2.6 percent per year). (See Figure 1.)

Although the government has reacted to this increase by introducing wide-ranging legislative changes, no satisfactory explanation has been given for why premiums should have risen so dramatically. The purpose of this article is (i) to review eleven of the explanations that have been given for rising premiums and (ii) to investigate those explanations to determine whether they are consistent with the evidence.

Figure 1

1. Number of accidents

Everything else being equal, an increase in the number of accidents per driver must increase insurance companies’ average payouts and, therefore, their average premiums. However, statistics indicate that the number of accidents has not increased significantly in the last decade. Between 1994 and 2001, for example, the number of collisions increased only from 431.4 to 460.5 per 10,000 vehicles, an average rate of increase of less than one percent per year. This cannot explain the sizeable premium increases of the last few years.

2. Severity of accidents

Even if the number of accidents had declined, the costs of claims per driver might have increased if the average severity of accidents had risen. If fewer people had been injured than in the past, but each injury had been much more serious than previously, total costs of claims might have risen.

With respect to severity, it is known that whereas the number of collisions involving injuries or fatalities increased only slightly between 1994 and 2001 – from 72 to 83 per 10,000 registered vehicles – and the number of collisions involving property damage remained almost constant – at about 360 per 10,000 registered vehicles – the number of “bodily injury” claims almost doubled – from 65 to 112 per 10,000 registered vehicles – over the same period. As bodily injury claims are generally much more expensive than other types, this trend suggests that the average cost of claims should have risen over the 1994–2001 period. Indeed, the Insurance Bureau reports that the average cost of injury claims rose by 44.6 percent (4.2 percent per year) between 1993 and 2002.

What these statistics do not explain, however, is why automobile insurance premiums increased so dramatically in 2002 and 2003. The statistics indicate that whereas the dramatic rise in premiums has been a recent phenomenon, the number and severity of bodily injury claims per vehicle has increased steadily for almost ten years. This evidence suggests that the recent rise in premiums is not closely connected with the increase in severity of accidents.

3. Damages

Even if the number and severity of accidents had remained constant, it is possible that the average cost of accidents could have risen if the courts had become more liberal in their awards of damages to accident victims. With respect to serious personal injury and fatal accident claims, the evidence on this question is clear, however – in the last 20 years there has been virtually no change in the manner in which the courts assess damages. Although there are no definitive statistics on this issue, the principles of damage assessment, in major injury cases, have not changed in Alberta since the mid-1980s. If damages for major injury cases have increased, it is not because there has been a change in the attitude of the courts; it is because Albertans’ incomes have been rising – necessitating larger awards to compensate victims for their losses of income.

It is possible that damage awards for minor injuries have increased substantially. However, it is noteworthy that insurance companies, who have argued that this is one of the major causes of increased premiums, have not released any data to back this claim. It seems reasonable to draw an adverse inference from this failure. Surely if the data supported the insurance industry’s arguments, they would have made those data public.

4. Fraud

Insurance companies commonly argue that consumer fraud is a major source of inflationary pressure on insurance rates. There are two major problems with this argument. First, although insurance fraud undoubtedly occurs, insurance companies have been unable to provide any statistically reliable evidence to show that fraudulent claims amount to more than a small percentage of payouts.

Second, and more importantly, even if fraud was a major problem, no evidence has been put forward to suggest that fraudulent claims have increased substantially in the last two years. For an increase in fraud to explain a significant portion of the 69 percent increase in premiums that has been observed, fraudulent claims would have to have increased dramatically. There is no evidence at all that this has occurred.

5. Medical costs

A recent study by the Insurance Research Council (a U.S.-based agency) found that “escalating medical costs are the key factor behind” the growth in automobile insurance claims in the past five years. It seems unlikely that this source could account for a significant portion of the recent rise in premiums in Alberta, however, as a substantial portion of medical costs resulting from automobile accidents are covered by Alberta Health Care. Since 1996, those costs have been covered under an annual levy that has increased at a relatively steady rate, of approximately 12 percent per year. For this source to explain a significant portion of the 69 percent increase in premiums seen in the last two years, there would have to have been a dramatic increase in the annual levy, an increase that has not been observed.

6. Legal costs

An additional component of the cost of insurance is the fees charged by lawyers and other experts. Although a substantial portion of victims’ legal fees are paid by the victims out of their damages – and, therefore, do not contribute to insurance companies’ costs – insurers have to hire their own lawyers and may sometimes have to pay a portion of the victims’ legal fees. Nevertheless, any argument that these costs have contributed to the substantial increase that has been observed in automobile insurance premiums founders on a lack of evidence that these fees have increased substantially in the last few years. It is one thing to argue that legal fees may, or may not, be “too high,” it is another thing altogether to argue that they have risen as a percentage of insurance costs.

7. Return on investment

To a certain extent the costs of operating an insurance company are offset by the company’s ability to invest the premiums it has received until drivers make their claims. The higher is the interest on those investments, the less does the company have to charge in the form of premiums. Some commentators have argued recently that the observed increase in premium costs has resulted from the decline in the average rate of return on investments.

This is not a compelling argument, however, as this decline cannot explain more than a small portion of the dramatic increases in premiums. If insurance companies hold premiums for half a year on average (that is, if premiums are collected at the beginning of the year and then spent at a constant rate over the year), and if the rate of return on investments is, say, 8 percent, then the interest that is collected will (on an annual basis) equal 4 percent of premiums. If the rate of return then declines to 5 percent, the effective return on the investment of premiums will fall to 2.5 percent, a drop of only 1.5 percent. As this is roughly the order of magnitude of recent declines in rates of return, this factor cannot explain a significant percentage of the recent increases in premiums.

8. Administrative costs

Approximately 25 to 30 percent of an insurance company’s costs are for administration – salaries of salespeople and adjusters, rent, cost of supplies, advertising expenses, etc. There is no evidence to suggest that these costs have risen significantly in the last few years.

9. Re-insurance

Insurance companies have argued that one of the most important sources of increased costs in the last two years has been the increase in premiums that they have had to pay to re-insurance companies since September 11, 2001. This argument is implausible. Figure 1 illustrates the increases in both automobile and homeowners’ insurance premiums in Alberta in recent years. If re-insurers had raised their rates in response to the perceived increase in terrorism, they would have raised those rates by at least as much for homeowners’ insurance as for automobile insurance. But it is seen clearly in Figure 1 that homeowners’ insurance premiums rose by far less than did automobile insurance premiums. This provides compelling evidence that increases in re-insurance premiums have not been a major source of the reported increase in automobile insurance premiums.

10. Collusion

Some critics of the insurance industry have argued that the recent increases in automobile insurance premiums have resulted from collusive behaviour among insurance companies. This argument is suspect for two reasons. First, it is difficult to explain why insurance companies would have raised premiums for automobile insurance and not for homeowners insurance. Second, there are more than 100 automobile insurance companies operating in Alberta. Over a century of experience suggests that it is extremely difficult even for an industry of only three or four firms to maintain a collusive stance. It is unlikely that 100 firms could do so.

11. Statistical interpretation

There is some concern that the dramatic increases that have been observed in automobile insurance premiums in the last few years have resulted from the way that statistics are collected and reported rather than from “real,” underlying factors. Two arguments have been made in this respect.

First, the Insurance Bureau argues that the manner in which Statistics Canada collects information about automobile insurance premiums produces misleading results. Nevertheless, the Bureau’s own data (published in the December 2003 issue of their newsletter Perspective) indicate that automobile insurance premiums in Alberta rose by approximately 63 percent (5 percent per year) between 1993 and 2003 and by approximately 30 percent (14 percent per year) between 2001 and 2003. Although these numbers are much lower than those produced by Statistics Canada, they are still substantially higher than the overall consumer price inflation figures for those periods. (Also, whereas Statistics Canada’s data measure changes in the price of a fixed “basket” of insurance policies, the IBC data measure changes in the costs of actual insurance policies that have been purchased. Thus, if, as premiums rise, consumers purchase less comprehensive policies, the IBC data will underestimate the rate of increase of given policies.)

Second, it is well known to observers of the automobile insurance industry that premiums move in a cyclical manner. When premiums are relatively low, insurers’ profits fall and many firms leave the market. This reduces competition and allows premiums to rise. But as that happens, profits also rise, attracting new firms, and driving down premiums again. Typically, this cycle takes approximately 10 years. The data in Figure 1 show, for example, that there were significant increases in premiums in the early 1980s, early 1990s, and early 2000s; and stagnation of premiums in the mid-1980s and mid-1990s.

This observation suggests that the recent, dramatic increases are simply part of a larger, cyclical movement in automobile premiums. Even if this is true, however, the average increase over the last 10 years – even when calculated on the basis of the IBC figures (5 percent per year) – has been more than double the average rate of consumer price inflation. Clearly, cyclical and statistical factors alone cannot account for this substantial increase.

Table 1

Conclusion

The information that has been reviewed in this paper suggests that two factors are primarily responsible for the pattern of premium changes that have been observed in Alberta in the last decade. First, the dramatic increases in the last two years represent a “natural” upturn in a long term cycle in premiums. Past patterns suggest that these increases will be followed by stagnation of premiums for the next six or seven years.

Second, there is some evidence to suggest that the average severity of personal injury claims has been rising. As I find no evidence that this increase has been due to fraud, to an increase in the number of accidents, or to changes in the criteria employed by the courts to calculate damages, it appears that the most plausible explanation is that the losses suffered by plaintiffs have been increasing in value.

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A large number of individuals were kind enough to provide me with assistance in the preparation of this article. I would particularly like to thank Don Higa, Jim Rivait, Walter Kubitz, Derek Aldridge, and Harris Hanson.

Christopher Bruce is the President of Economica and a Professor of Economics at the University of Calgary. He is also the author of Assessment of Personal Injury Damages (Butterworths, 2004).

Overview

This article attempts to identify the causes of the dramatic increases in automobile insurance premiums that have been reported over the last two years.

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