Leading Question

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2009

It looks like commercial insurance rates for property and liability—especially for renewal policies—will start trending upward, anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent, starting in March, because of worldwide market conditions, according to local insurance agents.

“The insurance market is going up, not because of losses in Florida, but because reinsurance for the worldwide market has been going up,” says Ron Reagan, a longtime Lakewood Ranch insurance agent and the state representative for District 67, which includes parts of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties. Reagan says commercial rates are down about 15 percent to 20 percent compared to 2005, but they are up about 25 percent compared to 2000.

Experts say reinsurance rates are climbing for two reasons: above-average losses for global fire and flood catastrophes and losses from investments. “Many insurers and reinsurers had their reserves invested in mortgage-backed securities that are now under water, and you can’t even trade them,” says John Laurie, vice president and agency manager for Bradenton-based BB&T-Wyman Green & Blalock. He says insurers and reinsurers also have been hard hit by the credit crunch: “They need to borrow money when they have to pay above-anticipated losses, but those lines of credit have been either reduced or revoked.”

In a normal market, these combined pressures would have sent policyholder premiums soaring, Laurie says. But these are not normal times. In fact, the Florida insurance market has improved for policyholders in recent months, with more companies offering coverage. “Overall, the market right now is competitive,” Reagan says.

Explains Laurie: “We are in a severe recession, business is down and insurers are hungry for cash; they need to get cash to make the engine run and may even be pricing inappropriately just to get business on their books.” He says this period of good deals is just starting to change, and he predicts that premiums will begin climbing 5 percent to 15 percent in June, if not before. “The soft market, with companies competing for market share, is coming to a close,” he says. “We are entering an era where prices begin to firm.”

Meantime, there may be lower rates available for those who shop around. Reagan’s advice:  Talk to your insurance agent, and encourage him or her to find the best deal for your business.

Next up: Look for the Florida Legislature to revisit property insurance when the regular session opens March 10. “We have to do something about rates for Citizens Property Insurance Corporation,” Reagan says, “or they could go up 30 percent next year for commercial and residential policies.”

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