High Net Worth

Own a House on the Beach? Chances Are You’re Underinsured.

Whether high net worth homeowners take up sufficient excess flood coverage is a point of concern.
By: | April 9, 2018 • 5 min read

From the Hamptons and Malibu to Miami and Palm Beach, America’s high net worth class likes building lavish homes on the water.

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Yet these multi-million dollar estates are exposed to growing risk from sea level rise and increasingly powerful storms.

The fact that these structures are generally non-primary residences makes them even more vulnerable, and their big price tags can make them expensive to fully insure. Many of these homeowners are turning to excess flood insurance policies while others are carrying bare-bones coverage and keeping their fingers crossed.

Flood Risk on the Rise

Coastal areas have always been at a greater risk of flood. Those risks are rising. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea levels rise at a rate of an inch every eight years.

This pushes storm surges farther inland than they once did and is creating more frequent nuisance flooding. Research from Zillow estimates that 1.9 million homes worth more than $800 billion are at risk of being underwater by 2100 due to climate change. The biggest risks are in Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, South Carolina, Hawaii and North Carolina.

Lisa Lindsay, executive director, PRMA

The Private Risk Management Association (PRMA) surveyed agent and broker members in 2017 about their high net worth clients and found nearly 54 percent were unprepared for flooding.

And while more than 60 percent said catastrophic weather events like hurricanes and floods kept their clients up at night in 2017, nearly three-quarters said they wouldn’t increase their preparedness levels.

“Many still think it’s not going to happen to them. It’s just a mindset that people continue to have,” said Lisa Lindsay, executive director, PRMA.

In recent years, weather events have flooded areas previously not considered high risk. The U.S. has now experienced more than two dozen 500-year flood events since 2010, including Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which caused $125 billion in damages and catastrophic flooding in Houston.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded thousands of homes in the Northeast that previously were never considered at risk for flooding.

Going strictly off FEMA flood maps to gauge risk is an “outdated way of thinking,” Lindsay said. A study in Environmental Research Letters found more than 41 million Americans live in a 100-year flood zone, more than three times as many as the FEMA estimate.

Some FEMA flood maps are years outdated and don’t account for how buildings are constructed, rapid rain accumulation and population growth. Larry Larson, senior policy adviser and director emeritus, the Association of State Floodplain Managers, told Bloomberg the maps “will always be obsolete the day they come out.”

Moving to Excess Flood Insurance

PRMA is working with the industry and high net worth homeowners to promote better ways to assess individual risk exposure. The PRMA survey found half of homeowners living in high-hazard areas didn’t take steps beyond purchasing basic flood insurance, and less than 20 percent purchased excess flood insurance.

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This often leaves a big gap in coverage for high net worth homeowners because NFIP limits are only $250,000 for structures and $100,000 for contents.

“That’s obviously not going to cut it if you have a $10 million house,” said Will Van Den Heuvel, senior vice president, personal lines, Cincinnati Insurance Companies.

Excess flood insurance is available in most areas, Van Den Heuval said. Cincinnati offers high value home insurance customized for high-end properties with deductible options up to $500,000. Many excess policies cover flood and multiple risks for primary and vacation homes with coverages up to $5 million for structures and $2 million for contents.

Despite the availability of coverage, high premiums and low perceived risks can still leave some questioning the value of their policies, said Charles Williamson, CEO, Vault Insurance. High net worth individuals can be just as price sensitive as general consumers, and many have raised their deductibles, lowered coverage or even gone without coverage at all.

“The discussions are the same, the numbers are just larger. They might wonder why they’re paying $100,000 per year for hurricane insurance when they haven’t had one in years,” Williamson said.

Moving Beyond Insurance

Many municipalities update building codes after major events to reduce the risk of damage in the future. Dade County in Florida imposed significant building codes in 1994 after Hurricane Andrew, and the rest of the state followed suit between then and 2002.

While those codes are some of the most rigid in the country, they’ve been credited with reducing damage in subsequent storms. Yet in parts of the Northeast, such as Long Island, there aren’t any particular hurricane building codes.

“Ultimately, the closer you are to the water, the more expensive it becomes to the point where customers may do the calculation that it’s just not worth it,” — Will Van Den Heuvel, senior vice president, personal lines, Cincinnati Insurance Companies

“It’s very much market by market depending on elevation and how the home is built,” Williamson said.

Flood policies are usually based strictly on flood zones and elevation of the home, but other variables can come into play in the private market. Most high net worth homeowners buy a FEMA policy first and then purchase excess coverage in place to fill the gap, Williamson said.

Increasingly sophisticated mapping and pricing technology is enabling excess coverage carriers to better price risks depending on elevation and design, meaning many policies can be priced on a house-by-house basis.

“But ultimately, the closer you are to the water, the more expensive it becomes to the point where customers may do the calculation that it’s just not worth it,” Van Den Heuvel said.

High net worth homeowners are also taking measures beyond flood insurance.

New construction is putting homes higher above sea level. Mechanical equipment, such as HVAC units and hot water heaters, are being placed on higher floors. And in Florida, many beachfront coastal homes now have “floodable” first floors used for parking and patio space with livable space placed high enough that most storm surges can run beneath the home.

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There are also inflatable water barriers that can be used to keep out floodwaters up to three feet high. Innovative yet expensive designs can also reduce risk. In “dry floodproofing,” walls, doors and windows are made watertight to keep water entirely out of the building.

With “wet floodproofing,” the building is designed to let water flow through the building and minimize damage by moving power outlets up the wall. Whereas flood risks can’t be fully eliminated, homeowners can reduce the cost of potential damages.

“There are so many things that people can do. We’re trying to change the mindset that all they can do is buy insurance. There’s plenty to do to minimize the losses, and it’s necessary given the frequency of disasters,” Lindsay said.  &

Craig Guillot is a writer and photographer, based in New Orleans. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]