Category Archives: Risk

How Cash-Strapped Chicago Snagged a Triple-A Rating for Its New Bonds

Since the city of Chicago is apparently no longer considered to be insurable by the bond insurance industry (cf. https://www.wsj.com/articles/for-some-bond-investors-chicago-isnt-their-kind-of-town-1427926688), it has had to turn to other means for making its debt attractive to investors. The latest scheme involves issuing new bonds through a new (and separate) legal entity called the Sales Tax Securitization Corporation (STSC). The bonds offered by STSC are collateralized by a dedicated first claim to the city’s sales-tax revenue. Apparently similar strategies have been employed two years ago by the city of Detroit, throughout the past decade by Puerto Rico and 40-some years ago by New York City.

Interestingly, the bond rating agencies are somewhat split about the extent to which a so-called “dedicated first claim” to Chicago’s sales-tax revenues would obtain in the event of default; this divergence of opinion is reflected by the ratings given on these bonds; e.g., Fitch and Kroll gave STSC a AAA rating, whereas S&P scores it two grades lower.

Chicago has created a new company to sell the debt, offering a tempting pledge to investors: a dedicated first claim to the city’s sales taxes.

Clarification of expectations for and hints concerning Problem Set 9

A student asked me whether it’s okay to use an Excel spreadsheet to solve problem set 9.  While I  generally encourage students to use  Excel for the purpose of validating their work (especially for computationally challenging problem sets such as the present one), I also expect students to demonstrate understanding and knowledge of the logical framework upon which any given problem is based.  In other words, I expect you to show and explain your work on this problem set just as you would have to show and explain your work if this was an exam question.

As I am sure you are already well aware, you can obtain most of the “correct” answers for problem set 9 by simply downloading and opening up the Credit Risk Spreadsheet in Excel and performing the following steps:

  1. For part A, open the Firm 1 worksheet, replace the “.4” in cell B3 with “.3”.  Then the answers for the three questions are in cells F4, F3, and F5 respectively.
  2. For part B, open the Firm 2 worksheet, replace the “.4” in cell B3 with “.5”.  Then the answers for the three questions are in cells F4, F3, and F5 respectively.
  3. For part C, assuming that  you are able to follow the logic presented in my On the economics of financial guarantees blog post from yesterday afternoon, the fair insurance premiums appear on both of the worksheets, and presumably you also understand from our study of financial derivatives that the expected return on a default-free bond is the riskless rate of interest.

The problem with simply plugging and chugging the spreadsheet template is that one can mechanically follow the steps outlined above without necessarily understanding the credit risk problem.  The key takeaway from our study of credit risk is that limited liability causes prices of bonds issued by risky (poor credit quality) firms to be lower than prices of bonds issued by safe (good credit quality) firms.  In the case of this problem set, firms 1 and 2 are identical in all respects expect for asset risk, and because of limited liability, this implies that in the absence of a financial guarantee, firm 2’s bonds are riskier than firm 1’s bonds. Thus, firm 2’s bonds have a lower market value (and a correspondingly higher yield, or expected return) than firm 1’s bonds, and firm 2 can expect to have to pay more than firm 1 for a financial guarantee which transfers the default risk from investors over to a financial guarantor.  In a competitive market, the fair premium for such a guarantee is given by the value of the limited liability put option.

By all means, make use of the Credit Risk Spreadsheet to validate your answers for the problem set.  But start out by devising you own coherent computation strategy using a piece of paper, pen or pencil, and calculator. Since you know that the value of risky debt is equal to the value of safe debt minus the value of the limited liability put option, one approach to solving this problem set would be to start out by calculating the value of a riskless bond, and the value of the limited liability put option.  The value of a riskless bond is V(B) = B{e^{ - rT}}, where B corresponds to the promised payment to creditors.  The value of the option to default (V(put)) can be calculated by applying the BSM put equation (see the second bullet point on page 8 of http://fin4335.garven.com/fall2017/lecture16.pdf); this requires 1) calculating {d_1} and {d_2}, 2) using the Standard Normal Distribution Function (“z”) Table to find N({d_1}) and N({d_2}), and 3) inputting your N({d_1}) and N({d_2}) values into the BSM put equation, where the exercise price corresponds to the promised payment to creditors of $500,000, and the value of the underlying asset corresponds to the value of the firm, which is $1,000,000.  Once you obtain the value of the safe bond (V(B)) and the value of the option to default (V(put)) for each firm, then the fair value for each firm’s debt is simply the difference between these two values; i.e., V(D) = V(B) – V(put).  Upon finding V(D) for firm 1 and firm 2, then you can obtain these bonds’ yields to maturity (YTM ) by solving for YTM in the following equation: V(D) = B{e^{ - YTM(T)}}.

Since the value of equity corresponds to a call option written on the firm’s assets with exercise price equal to the promised payment to creditors, you could also solve this problem by first calculating the value of each firm’s equity (V(E)) using BSM call equation (see the second bullet point on page 7 of http://fin4335.garven.com/fall2017/lecture16.pdf and substitute the value of assets ($1,000,000) in place of S and the promised payment of $500,000 in place of K in that equation).  Once you know V(E) for each firm, then the value of risky debt (V(D)) is equal to the difference between the value of assets (V(F) = $1,000,000) and V(E).  Upon calculating V(D) in this manner, then obtain these these bonds’ yields to maturity (YTM ) by solving for YTM in the following equation: V(D) = B{e^{ - YTM(T)}}.

A Federal Guarantee that is Sure to Go Broke

See the (November 2014) Wall Street Journal article entitled “A Federal Guarantee Is Sure to Go Broke” and related article from November 2015 entitled “Moody’s Predicts PBGC Premiums Will Become Unaffordable“.

Think of PBGC as essentially the FDIC of private pensions. Thus, the analysis the flowchart shown at the bottom of my “On the economics of financial guarantees” blog post concerning how FDIC guarantees bank deposits applies here; in the diagram from that posting, simply replace “FDIC” in the diagram with “PBGC”, and in place of “Bank” and “Depositors”, substitute “Company offering private pension to Workers” and “Workers”.

Quoting from the above referenced WSJ article:

How is the PBGC insurance program doing on its 40th anniversary? Well, it is dead broke. Its net worth is negative $62 billion as of the end of September. That is even more broke than it was a year ago, when its net worth was negative $36 billion… The PBGC has total assets of $90 billion but total liabilities of $152 billion. So its assets are a mere 59% of its liabilities. Put another way, its capital-to-asset ratio is negative 69%.

Why does the government have such a pathetic record at guaranteeing other people’s debts? It isn’t that Washington wasn’t warned. “My son, if you have become surety for your neighbor, have given your pledge for a stranger, you are snared in the utterance of your lips,” reads Proverbs 6: 1-2.

Merton: Applications of Option-Pricing Theory (shameless self-promotion alert)…

Now that we have begun our study of the famous Black-Scholes-Merton option pricing formula, it’s time for me to shamelessly plug a journal article that I published early in my academic career which Robert C. Merton cites in his Nobel Prize lecture (Merton shared the Nobel Prize in economics in 1997 with Myron Scholes “for a new method to determine the value of derivatives”).

Here’s the citation (and link) to Merton’s lecture:

Merton, Robert C., 1998, Applications of Option-Pricing Theory: Twenty-Five Years Later, The American Economic Review, Vol. 88, No. 3 (Jun. 1998), pp. 323-349.

See page 337, footnote 11 of Merton’s paper for the reference to Neil A. Doherty and James R. Garven (1986)… (Doherty and I “pioneered” the application of a somewhat modified version of the Black-Scholes-Merton model to the pricing of insurance; thus Merton’s reference to our Journal of Finance paper in his Nobel Prize lecture)…

Federal Financial Guarantees: Problems and Solutions

Besides insuring bank and thrift deposits, the federal government guarantees a number of other financial transactions, including farm credits, home mortgages, student loans, small business loans, pensions, and export credits (to name a few).

In order to better understand the problems faced by federal financial guarantee programs, consider the conditions which give rise to a well-functioning private insurance market. In private markets, insurers segregate policyholders with similar exposures to risk into separate risk classifications, or pools. As long as the risks of the policyholders are not significantly correlated (that is, all policyholders do not suffer a loss at the same time), pooling reduces the risk of the average loss through the operation of a statistical principle known as the “law of large numbers”. Consequently, an insurer can cover its costs by charging a premium that is roughly proportional to the average loss. Such a premium is said to be actuarially fair.

By limiting membership in a risk pool to policyholders with similar risk exposures, the tendency of higher risk individuals to seek membership in the pool (commonly referred to as adverse selection) is controlled. This makes participation in a risk pool financially attractive to its members. Although an individual with a high chance of loss must consequently pay a higher premium than someone with a low chance of loss, both will insure if they are averse to risk and premiums are actuarially fair. By charging risk-sensitive premiums and limiting coverage through policy provisions such as deductibles, the tendency of individuals to seek greater exposure to risk once they have become insured (commonly referred to as moral hazard) is also controlled.

In contrast, federal financial guarantees often exaggerate the problems of adverse selection and moral hazard. Premiums are typically based upon the average loss of a risk pool whose members’ risk exposures may vary greatly. This makes participation financially unattractive for low risk members who end up subsidizing high risk members if they remain in the pool. In order to prevent low risk members from leaving, the government’s typical response has been to make participation mandatory. However, various avenues exist by which low risk members can leave “mandatory” risk pools. For example, prior to the reorganization of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) as part of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, a number of low risk thrifts became commercial banks. This change in corporate structure enabled these firms to switch insurance coverage to the FDIC, which at the time charged substantially lower premiums than did the FSLIC. Similarly, terminations of overfunded defined benefit pension plans enable firms to redeploy excess pension assets as well as drop out of the pension insurance pool operated by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC).

Although financial restructuring makes it possible to leave mandatory insurance pools, the costs of leaving may be sufficiently high for some low risk firms that they will remain. Unfortunately, the only way risk-insensitive insurance can possibly become a “good deal” for remaining members is by increasing exposure to risk; for example, by increasing the riskiness of investments or financial leverage. Furthermore, this problem is even more severe for high risk members of the pool, especially if they are financially distressed. The owners of these firms are entitled to all of the benefits of risky activities, while the insurance mechanism (in conjunction with limited liability if the firm is incorporated) minimizes the extent to which they must bear costs. Consequently, it is tempting to “go for broke” by making very risky investments which have substantial downside risk as well as potential for upside gain. The costs of this largely insurance-induced moral hazard problem can be staggering, both for the firm and the economy as a whole.

Ultimately, the key to restoring the financial viability of deposit insurance and other similarly troubled federal financial guarantee programs is to institute reforms which engender lower adverse selection and moral hazard costs. Policymakers would do well to consider how private insurers, who cannot rely upon taxpayer-financed bailouts, resolve these problems. The most common private market solution typically involves some combination of risk-sensitive premiums and economically meaningful limits on coverage. Federal financial guarantee programs should be similarly designed so that excessively risky behavior is penalized rather than rewarded.

A Summary of Portfolio and Capital Market Theory (source: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

During tomorrow’s Finance 4335 class meeting, we will complete our study of portfolio and capital market theory. The portfolio theory topic won Professor Harry Markowitz the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1990, and Professor William F. Sharpe shared the 1990 Nobel Prize with Markowitz for his work on capital market theory.

The very best summary of portfolio theory and capital market theory that I am aware of appears as part of an October 16, 1990 press release put out  by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in commemoration of the prizes won by Markowitz and Sharpe (see http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/1990/press.html).  I have included an appropriately edited version of that press release below (it is important to also note that University of Chicago Finance Professor Merton Miller was cited that same year along with Markowitz and Sharpe for his work on the theory of corporate finance; I include below only the sections of the Royal Swedish Academy press release pertaining to the work by Messrs. Markowitz and Sharpe on the topics of portfolio and capital market theory):

==========================

Financial markets serve a key purpose in a modern market economy by allocating productive resources among various areas of production. It is to a large extent through financial markets that saving in different sectors of the economy is transferred to firms for investments in buildings and machines. Financial markets also reflect firms’ expected prospects and risks, which implies that risks can be spread and that savers and investors can acquire valuable information for their investment decisions.

The first pioneering contribution in the field of financial economics was made in the 1950s by Harry Markowitz who developed a theory for households’ and firms’ allocation of financial assets under uncertainty, the so-called theory of portfolio choice. This theory analyzes how wealth can be optimally invested in assets which differ in regard to their expected return and risk, and thereby also how risks can be reduced.

A second significant contribution to the theory of financial economics occurred during the 1960s when a number of researchers, among whom William Sharpe was the leading figure, used Markowitz’s portfolio theory as a basis for developing a theory of price formation for financial assets, the so-called Capital Asset Pricing Model, or CAPM.

Harrv M. Markowitz
The contribution for which Harry Markowitz now receives his award was first published in an essay entitled “Portfolio Selection” (1952), and later, more extensively, in his book, Portfolio Selection: Efficient Diversification (1959). The so-called theory of portfolio selection that was developed in this early work was originally a normative theory for investment managers, i.e., a theory for optimal investment of wealth in assets which differ in regard to their expected return and risk. On a general level, of course, investment managers and academic economists have long been aware of the necessity of taking returns as well as risk into account: “all the eggs should not be placed in the same basket”. Markowitz’s primary contribution consisted of developing a rigorously formulated, operational theory for portfolio selection under uncertainty – a theory which evolved into a foundation for further research in financial economics.

Markowitz showed that under certain given conditions, an investor’s portfolio choice can be reduced to balancing two dimensions, i.e., the expected return on the portfolio and its variance. Due to the possibility of reducing risk through diversification, the risk of the portfolio, measured as its variance, will depend not only on the individual variances of the return on different assets, but also on the pairwise covariances of all assets.

Hence, the essential aspect pertaining to the risk of an asset is not the risk of each asset in isolation, but the contribution of each asset to the risk of the aggregate portfolio. However, the “law of large numbers” is not wholly applicable to the diversification of risks in portfolio choice because the returns on different assets are correlated in practice. Thus, in general, risk cannot be totally eliminated, regardless of how many types of securities are represented in a portfolio.

In this way, the complicated and multidimensional problem of portfolio choice with respect to a large number of different assets, each with varying properties, is reduced to a conceptually simple two-dimensional problem – known as mean-variance analysis. In an essay in 1956, Markowitz also showed how the problem of actually calculating the optimal portfolio could be solved. (In technical terms, this means that the analysis is formulated as a quadratic programming problem; the building blocks are a quadratic utility function, expected returns on the different assets, the variance and covariance of the assets and the investor’s budget restrictions.) The model has won wide acclaim due to its algebraic simplicity and suitability for empirical applications.

Generally speaking, Markowitz’s work on portfolio theory may be regarded as having established financial micro analysis as a respectable research area in economic analysis.

William F. Sharpe

With the formulation of the so-called Capital Asset Pricing Model, or CAPM, which used Markowitz’s model as a “positive” (explanatory) theory, the step was taken from micro analysis to market analysis of price formation for financial assets. In the mid-1960s, several researchers – independently of one another – contributed to this development. William Sharpe’s pioneering achievement in this field was contained in his essay entitled, Capital Asset Prices: A Theory of Market Equilibrium under Conditions of Risk (1964).

The basis of the CAPM is that an individual investor can choose exposure to risk through a combination of lending-borrowing and a suitably composed (optimal) portfolio of risky securities. According to the CAPM, the composition of this optimal risk portfolio depends on the investor’s assessment of the future prospects of different securities, and not on the investors’ own attitudes towards risk. The latter is reflected solely in the choice of a combination of a risk portfolio and risk-free investment (for instance treasury bills) or borrowing. In the case of an investor who does not have any special information, i.e., better information than other investors, there is no reason to hold a different portfolio of shares than other investors, i.e., a so-called market portfolio of shares.

What is known as the “beta value” of a specific share indicates its marginal contribution to the risk of the entire market portfolio of risky securities. Shares with a beta coefficient greater than 1 have an above-average effect on the risk of the aggregate portfolio, whereas shares with a beta coefficient of less than 1 have a lower than average effect on the risk of the aggregate portfolio. According to the CAPM, in an efficient capital market, the risk premium and thus also the expected return on an asset, will vary in direct proportion to the beta value. These relations are generated by equilibrium price formation on efficient capital markets.

An important result is that the expected return on an asset is determined by the beta coefficient on the asset, which also measures the covariance between the return on the asset and the return on the market portfolio. The CAPM shows that risks can be shifted to the capital market, where risks can be bought, sold and evaluated. In this way, the prices of risky assets are adjusted so that portfolio decisions become consistent.

The CAPM is considered the backbone of modern price theory for financial markets. It is also widely used in empirical analysis, so that the abundance of financial statistical data can be utilized systematically and efficiently. Moreover, the model is applied extensively in practical research and has thus become an important basis for decision-making in different areas. This is related to the fact that such studies require information about firms’ costs of capital, where the risk premium is an essential component. Risk premiums which are specific to an industry can thus be determined using information on the beta value of the industry in question.

Important examples of areas where the CAPM and its beta coefficients are used routinely, include calculations of costs of capital associated with investment and takeover decisions (in order to arrive at a discount factor); estimates of costs of capital as a basis for pricing in regulated public utilities; and judicial inquiries related to court decisions regarding compensation to expropriated firms whose shares are not listed on the stock market. The CAPM is also applied in comparative analyses of the success of different investors.

Along with Markowitz’ portfolio model, the CAPM has also become the framework in textbooks on financial economics throughout the world.

Insurance death spiral in the news…

It turns out that the so-called “insurance death spiral” which we modeled in class this past Tuesday (see page 21 of the Moral Hazard and Adverse Selection lecture note for a verbal description and the Dynamic Adverse Selection Spreadsheet for a numerical illustration of the problem) is very much in the news these days; e.g., see the editorial entitled Salvaging Private Health Insurance in today’s Wall Street Journal and yesterday’s page 1 WSJ article entitled In Start to Unwinding the Health Law, Trump to Ease Insurance Rules.  Quoting from today’s WSJ editorial,

“ObamaCare’s defenders are calling all of this “sabotage” and warning about “adverse selection,” in which a more robust individual market will siphon off the healthy customers that prop up ObamaCare’s exchanges. They predict a death spiral of higher premiums for the sick or elderly left on the exchanges.”

Sound familiar?  As we discussed in class last Tuesday, since the implementation of combined premium schemes effectively force good risks to pay too much whereas bad risks pay too little, the good risks opt out.  When this occurs,  expected cost of claims (and correspondingly higher premiums) are in store for those who remain in the risk pool.

Some observations concerning the Rothschild-Stiglitz numerical example from today’s class…

Today, we considered the following problem in class:

  • Assume that consumers are identical in all respects expect for their loss probabilities; some are high risk, and others are low risk.
    • Members of the high-risk group have loss probability pH = 65%, whereas members of the low risk group have loss probability pL = 35%.
  • Each consumer has initial wealth of $100 and utility U(W)=W.5.
  • There are only two possible states of the world, loss and no loss.  If a loss occurs, then consumers lose their initial wealth of $100.
  • Insurance contract offerings include the following:
    • Policy A provides full coverage for a price of $65.
    • Policy B provides full coverage for a price of $45.50.
    • Policy C provides 60% coverage for a price of $39.
    • Policy D provides 30% coverage for a price of $13.65.

The objective here is to identify the set of contract offerings that would prevent adverse selection.  If you consider the pricing of these 4 insurance contracts, Policy A involves full insurance that is actuarially fair for high-risk consumers.  We know from the Bernoulli principle that these consumers would like to purchase this contract.  The challenge is to identify contracts that are favorable for the low-risk consumers but not for the high-risk consumers.  Clearly we would not want to offer contract B, since everyone would select this contract and we would lose $19.50 on every high-risk consumer who purchased it (while breaking even on every low-risk consumer).  High-risk consumers won’t want Policy C because it offers actuarially fair partial coverage, which provides lower expected utility than actuarially fair full coverage.  However, low-risk consumers would be willing to purchase Policy C, so if A and C were offered, the insurer would break even on A and make $18 in profit from low-risk consumers who purchase Policy C.  Given a choice between being uninsured, buying Policy A, or buying Policy C, low-risk consumers would purchase Policy C since it would offer higher expected utility than the other alternatives.  Policy D would also be an acceptable alternative; if high-risk consumers purchased this contract, the insurer would lose $5.85 per high-risk consumer.  However, if Policy A was also offered, none of the high-risk consumers would purchase Policy D.  But low-risk consumers would prefer Policy D since it would offer higher expected utility than the other alternatives.

Here’s a spreadsheet consisting of expected utility calculations:

Rs_spreadsheet

Adverse Selection – a definition, some examples, and some solutions

During last Thursday’s Finance 4335 class meeting, I introduced the topic of adverse selection. Adverse selection is often referred to as the “hidden information” problem. This concept is particularly easy to understand in an insurance market setting; if you are an insurer, you have to be concerned that the worst possible risks are the ones that want to purchase insurance. However, it is important to note that adverse selection occurs in many market settings other than insurance markets. Adverse selection occurs whenever one party to a contract has superior information compared with his or her counter-party. When this occurs, often the party with the information advantage is tempted to take advantage of the uninformed party.

In an insurance setting, adverse selection is an issue whenever insurers know less about the actual risk characteristics of their policyholders than the policyholders themselves. In lending markets, banks have limited information about their clients’ willingness and ability to pay back on their loan commitments. In the used car market, the seller of a used car has more information about the car that is for sale than potential buyers. In the labor market, employers typically know less than the worker does about his or her abilities. In product markets, the product’s manufacturer often knows more about product failure rates than the consumer, and so forth…

The problem with adverse selection is that if left unchecked, it can undermine the ability of firms and consumers to enter into contractual relationships, and in extreme cases, may even give rise to so-called market failures. For example, in the used car market, since the seller has more information than the buyer about the condition of the vehicle, the buyer cannot help but be naturally suspicious concerning product quality. Consequently, he or she may not be willing to pay as much for the car as it is worth (assuming that it is not a lemon). Similarly, insurers may be reticent about selling policies to bad risks, banks may be worried about loaning money to poor credit risks, employers may be concerned about hiring poor quality workers, consumers may be worried about buying poor quality products, and so forth…

A number of different strategies exist for mitigating adverse selection. In financial services markets, risk classification represents an important strategy. The reason insurers and banks want to know your credit score is because consumers with bad credit not only often lack the willingness and ability to pay their debts, but they also tend to have more accidents than consumers with good credit. Signaling is used in various settings; for example, one solution to the “lemons” problem in the market for used cars is for the seller to “signal” by providing credible third party certification; e.g., by paying for Carfax reports or vehicle inspections by an independent third party. Students “signal” their quality by selecting a high-quality university (e.g., like Baylor! :-)). Here the university provides potential employers with credible third-party certification concerning the quality of human capital. In product markets, if a manufacturer provides a long-term warranty, this may indicate that quality is better than average.

Sometimes it’s not possible to fully mitigate adverse selection via the methods described above. Thus, insurers commonly employ pricing and contract design strategies which incentivize policyholders to reveal their actual risk characteristics according to their contract choices. Thus, we obtain a “separating” (AKA Rothschild-Stiglitz) equilibrium in which high-risk insureds select full coverage “high-risk” contracts whereas low-risk insureds select partial coverage “low risk” contracts:

Rothschild-Stiglitz

The Rothschild-Stiglitz equilibrium cleverly restricts the menu of available choices in such a way that the insurer induces self-selection. Here, the insurer offers contract L, which involves partial coverage at an actuarially fair price (based upon the loss probability of the low risk insured), and contract H, which provides full coverage at an actuarially fair price (based upon the loss probability of the high risk insured). The differences in the shapes of the indifference curves are due to the different accident probabilities, with a lower accident probability resulting in a more steeply sloped indifference curve. Here, the high-risk policyholder optimally chooses contract H and the low-risk policyholder optimally chooses contract L. The high-risk policyholder prefers H to L because L would represent a point of intersection with a marginally lower indifference curve (here, the Ih curve lies slightly above contract L, which implies that contract H provides the high-risk policyholder with higher expected utility than contract L). The low-risk policyholder will prefer L, but would prefer a full coverage contract at the point of intersection of APl line with the full insurance (45 degrees) line. However, such a contract is not offered since both the low and high-risk policyholders would choose it, and this would cause the insurer to lose money. Thus, one of the inefficiencies related to adverse selection is that insurance opportunities available to low-risk policyholders are limited compared with the world where there is no adverse selection.

There is a very practical implication of this model. If you are a good risk, you owe it to yourself to select high-deductible insurance. The problem with a low deductible is that you will unnecessarily bear adverse selection costs if you follow this strategy.

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

During last week’s class meetings, we discussed how contract designs and pricing strategies can “fix” the moral hazard that insurance might otherwise create. Insurance is “good” to the extent that it enables firms and individuals to manage the risks that they face. However, we also saw insurance has 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 still have incentives to mitigate risk. Furthermore, real world insurance markets are characterized by pricing strategies such as loss-sensitive premiums (commonly referred to as “experience rated” premiums), as well as 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 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 are not able to cover capital costs and would, therefore, have incentives not to supply such a market.

Which brings us to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The NFIP is a federal government insurance program managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (AKA “FEMA”). According to Cato senior fellow Doug Bandow’s 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 us with a fascinating case study concerning how subsidized flood insurance exacerbates moral hazard (i.e., makes moral hazard even worse) rather than mitigates moral hazard. It does this by encouraging property owners to take risks (in this case, building on environmentally fragile lands that tend to flood) that they otherwise might not take if they had to pay the full expected cost of these 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. According to this Bloomberg article, the effective premium loading on federally provided crop insurance is more than -60%, thus putting crop insurance on a similar footing to flood insurance (in terms of its cost compared to its actuarially fair value). Once again, incorrect pricing encourages moral hazard. As the Bloomberg article notes,

“…subsidies give farmers an incentive to buy “Cadillac” policies that over-insure their holdings and drive up costs. Some policies protect as much as 85 percent of a farm’s average yield.”

Just as mis-priced flood insurance effectively encourages property owners to build in flood plains, mis-priced crop insurance incentivizes farmers to cultivate acreage that may or may not even be fertile.

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