Case studies of how (poorly designed) insurance creates moral hazard

In my moral hazard lecture, I discuss how contract designs and pricing strategies can “fix” the moral hazard that insurance might otherwise create. Insurance is socially valuable if it enables firms and individuals to manage properly the risks that they face. However, insurance can also have a potential “dark side.” The dark side is that too much insurance and/or incorrectly priced insurance can create moral hazard by insulating firms and individuals from the financial consequences of their decision-making. Thus, in real-world insurance markets, we commonly observe partial rather than full insurance coverage. Partial insurance ensures that policyholders have incentives to mitigate risk. Real-world insurance markets are characterized by pricing strategies such as loss-sensitive premiums (commonly referred to as “experience-rated” premiums), and premiums that are contingent upon the extent to which policyholders invest in safety.

In competitively structured private insurance markets, we expect that the market price for insurance will (on average) be greater than or equal to its actuarially fair value. Under normal circumstances, one does not expect to observe negative premium loadings in the real world. Negative premium loadings are incompatible with the survival of a private insurance market since this would imply that insurers cannot cover capital costs and would, therefore, have incentives not to supply such a market.

This brings us to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The NFIP is a federal government insurance program managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (also known as “FEMA”). According to Cato senior fellow Doug Bandow’s (admittedly dated, but still quite accurate) blog posting entitled “Congress against Budget Reform: Voting to Hike Subsidies for People Who Build in Flood Plains”,

“… the federal government keeps insurance premiums low for people who choose to build where they otherwise wouldn’t. The Congressional Research Service figured that the government charges about one-third of the market rate for flood insurance. The second cost is environmental: Washington essentially pays participants to build on environmentally fragile lands that tend to flood.”

Thus, the NFIP provides a fascinating case study concerning how subsidized flood insurance exacerbates rather than mitigates moral hazard. It does this by encouraging property owners to take risks (in this case, building on environmentally fragile lands with high flood risk) which they otherwise would not be inclined to take if they had to pay the full expected cost of such risks.

There are many other examples of moral hazard created by insurance subsidies. Consider the case of crop insurance provided to farmers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The effective premium loading on federally provided crop insurance is typically quite negative (often -60% or more), thus putting crop insurance on a similar footing to flood insurance in terms of cost compared with actuarially fair value. Just as mis-priced flood insurance effectively encourages property owners to build in floodplains, mis-priced crop insurance motivates farmers to cultivate acreage which may not even be all that fertile.

I could go on (probably for several hundred more pages–there are many other egregious examples which I could cite), but I think I will stop for now…

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