Bert Ely once was considered an alarmist, but he turned out to have perhaps the most accurate voice in America in calling the turn on the savings-and-loan debacle. So when he warns us now that the next shoe to drop may be parts of the insurance industry, we'd be wise to give him a hearing.
"I'm increasingly concerned about some segments of the insurance industry," the outspoken chairman of Ely & Co., based in Alexandria, Va., tells me, "and I think you will hear growing cries that there may be a need for a federal bailout of some aspects of that industry."As Ely sees it, headlines about state regulatory takeovers of Executive Life, and the troubles of some of the country's major insurance companies such as Equitable Life (which has acknowledged that it needs massive new capital, and hopes to find it by converting to a stockholder-owned company), may be just the beginning of the story.
"Policyholders do need to worry," the financial consultant maintains - first, about the health of their insurers, and second, about the strength of the limited back-up protection offered by state guarantee funds (which ranges from nothing to $500,000, and is typically around $300,000). "There's a concern that the state systems are going to break under the burden, and that that's why the problem may go to the federal government."
Ely could be needlessly fretting this time, as many industry and government officials contend - but suppose he's right again, as he was about the S&L disaster? What, I asked, can individuals do to protect themselves now?
Check out the company's safety rating - but don't stop there.
The best-known rating service is A.M. Best Co., of Oldwick, N.J., which has been evaluating insurers since 1899. Its ratings are sometimes considered excessively lenient (half the companies it surveys get A- or better - so insist on A or A+); a tougher service is Weiss Research, of West Palm Beach, Fla. (most companies get a C - careful folks should look for at least a B+). Other sources for information on your company's viability include Standard & Poor's, Moody's and Duff & Phelps.
Be wary of single rosy reports; Best gave an A rating to Executive Life of California until February, when the junk bond-plagued company announced a heavy loss - and was downgraded only to a B+.
Find out what your life insurance company's capitalization level is.
This measure of a company's capital as a percent of its assets should be at least 5 percent, Ely believes. (In contrast, he says, Equitable's is between 3 and 4 percent - and declining.)
Take a close look at the company's investment portfolio.
Did it overreach in the 1980s, in the hope of squeezing out every last dollar of return, regardless of traditional risk standards? Did it go crazy in commercial real estate, the quicksand of so many investors in the past decade? Did it fall for the swan songs of the junk bond peddlers?
In the case of property and casualty insurers, use this "basic rule of thumb": Is its capital at least 50 percent of its net premium income?
The industry average at the end of 1990 was above 60 percent, he notes, while such ultraconservative managers as Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway keep close to a dollar of capital on hand for each dollar of premium income. They're the safest, Ely believes, while those who don't even maintain 50 cents on the dollar may be cause for concern.
Many believe that the current attention to the insurance industry's problems will head off any major disasters - that Equitable, for example, will cut a successful deal to raise capital, and that even most small and medium-sized insurers are unlikely to go the way of the Executive Life companies.
Even if they're right, though, wise policyholders may want to double-check on the behavior of the fellows who are writing their policies. Ely thinks this is beginning to happen, which gives him cause to be uncharacteristically upbeat. With warning signs like his being posted, he told me, "people are asking more and more questions about how strong their insurance company is. And that's good."