Steady improvement for U.S. personal auto insurance companies has culminated in the sector’s best underwriting performance in 10 years, according to a report from Fitch Ratings.
The market improvement was driven by the three biggest auto insurers.
The U.S. personal auto insurance market has shown continued fundamental improvement that is pointing to full-year statutory underwriting profit for the first time since 2007, according to Fitch. Material premium rate increases over successive renewal periods and a return to more favorable claims frequency experience are key contributors to this result. An industry aggregate statutory direct loss ratio of 65 in private passenger auto liability and auto physical damage combined through the first nine months of 2018 represents an improvement of more than five points from full-year 2017.
According to the report, “U.S. Personal Auto Insurance Market: Underwriting Recovery in Full Swing,” favorable statutory results have been supported by improved profitability for nine publicly held U.S. insurers that provide detailed personal auto segment results. This group reported a combined ratio of 92.2 for the first nine months of 2018 versus 98.1 for full-year 2017 and 98.8 for full-year 2016. All nine companies reported better results in 2018.
Strong performance of the group was driven by the three largest insurers in the group: The Allstate Corp., GEICO Corp. and Progressive Corp. Specifically, these insurers benefit most from size and scale advantages that allow for investment in technology to gain pricing and risk selection sophistication, as well as branding through marketing and advertising. GEICO rebounded from a rare auto insurance underwriting loss in 2017 to a 92 combined ratio interim 2018 calendar-year result. Interim statutory results from perennial market leader State Farm also indicate strong year-over-year improvement in automobile underwriting results.
Strong performance aside, Fitch warns that the auto market is beginning to show signs of rate increase fatigue following several years of larger price increases. Premium rates continue to rise and motor vehicle insurance costs increased by 6.7 percent year-over-year as of October 2018, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Fitch said it expects flatter price changes going forward given competitive forces and recognition of recent better underwriting performance.
Fitch also said that claims frequency experience has resumed its longer-term historical downward trend, driven in part by improvements in vehicle safety from technology enhancements, including antilock brakes, backup cameras and blind spot sensors.
However, technology advances are also a contributor to loss severity increases as vehicles with more sophisticated parts and components cost more to repair and replace, the report notes. Bodily injury claims severity remains a prime source of future personal auto profit uncertainty as signs of medical inflation rising above general inflation and heightened litigation activity and settlement costs in the auto segment become more evident.