Auto insurers were already bracing for another bad year when the downpour started in Texas, producing potentially hundreds of thousands of new claims.
“We do know that approximately 100,000 claims have come in” as of Thursday, said Matt Stillwell, manager of governmental and regulatory communications at the Insurance Council of Texas, a trade association. He said the number was expected to climb as high as 500,000.
“It is looking to be a huge impact on the auto insurance market,” he said.
While homeowners’ insurance policies almost always exclude flood damage, comprehensive auto policies do cover flooding. The typical household in Houston has two cars, and Mayor Sylvester Turner urged residents to “hunker down” as Hurricane Harvey made landfall, hoping to avoid a replay of the tie-ups and crashes that killed about 100 people fleeing Hurricane Rita in 2005.
That means few people moved their cars out of harm’s way before the flooding started. Texas drivers are not required to have comprehensive auto insurance — the type that covers flood and other types of damage. People holding only the legally required insurance — liability coverage for damage done to other people’s cars — will not have valid claims, Mr. Stillwell said.
Those who have comprehensive insurance should get a payment based on replacement value minus depreciation, if their car is a total loss.
For insurers, the losses will affect some more than others. The big, household-name auto insurers “have sufficient geographic and product diversification to absorb the losses,” Standard & Poor’s said in a report on the impact of the storm and flooding on various parts of the insurance industry.
But “some of the regional and local players could face significant hits to their earnings, and possibly their capital,” the ratings firm added.
As a possible example, it cited Hochheim Prairie Insurance, a mutual insurer that does business solely in Texas, offering auto insurance and other personal lines. Mutual insurers are owned by their policyholders and do not issue stock in the public markets, so they cannot raise fresh capital by selling new shares.
Pam Lahodney, a vice president of marketing and underwriting at Hochheim, said in an email that it was too early for the company to assess the financial effects of the storm on its business. “At this time, our focus is to provide assistance to those members impacted by Hurricane Harvey,” she said.
State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance, Allstate Insurance, Farmers Insurance Exchange, National Indemnity Company (an affiliate of Geico), the Progressive Group, and Metropolitan Property and Casualty Insurance (a unit of MetLife) are among the big companies that write a large portion of their auto insurance business in Texas.
Representatives of Allstate, Progressive and MetLife said they were busy dealing with policyholders in the flooded region and it was too early to estimate the magnitude of the disaster.
Many auto insurers have been troubled in recent years by underwriting losses caused by factors unrelated to floods: texting and otherwise distracted drivers who cause accidents; increasingly complicated car components that cost more to repair; more miles driven, thanks to lower gasoline prices; and increasingly severe crashes that are raising the cost of treating the injured.
A few large insurers, including Geico, Allstate and Progressive, have managed to avoid losses on underwriting in recent years. But in March, Fitch Ratings said auto insurers in the aggregate were reporting their weakest performance in 15 years.
State Farm, the nation’s largest property and casualty insurer, is also the leading example of the negative underwriting trend. It reported in February that its 2016 underwriting losses on auto insurance had increased to $7 billion, from $4.4 billion in 2015. Its other lines of business were generally profitable.
State Farm is a mutual insurer, and therefore does not have any shares whose price would swing in response to the news. Nor does it have shareholders to pressure it to turn around its financial performance quickly. Like the other insurers, State Farm seeks to earn investment income that would offset its underwriting losses.
Fitch’s analyst, James B. Auden, said the auto insurers were already increasing their rates last year in response to their rising claim costs. He cited a 7.6 percent annual increase as of February, significantly higher than the overall rate of inflation. But state regulators often limit rate increases in a given year, so more increases are likely.
Mr. Auden said the losses in Texas could drive up rates in the state, but were unlikely to affect insurance premiums elsewhere, because rate-setting is handled state by state.
Kai Pan, an insurance equity analyst at Morgan Stanley, noted that insurance stocks generally decline immediately after a natural disaster, reflecting the possibility of big losses, then bounce back three to six months later “as losses become more defined and rates respond positively.”