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Excess and surplus lines seeing boom times

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An improving economy, new regulations and new businesses are helping to drive dollars into the excess and surplus lines market and the 14 stamping offices nationwide.

Surplus lines premiums for the 14 states increased 9.5% through the first half of this year, rising to $13.08 billion, according to the Surplus Lines Stamping Office of Texas.

Filings also increased, rising 5.3% to 1.8 million during the first half of this year compared with the same period last year.

While rising surplus lines premiums could indicate hardening prices in the standard admitted market, Norma Essary, Austin-based executive director of the Texas office, said that is not the case.

“It's definitely not a hard market. We are not there yet,” she said.

Ms. Essary said new laws, which vary by state, have helped push more coverage into the nontraditional insurance marketplace, such as taxicab alternative transportation companies including Lyft Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc.

With several states approving such coverage, surplus lines companies are providing the coverage, she said. “It was probably very difficult for them to find and pay for insurance. Surplus lines come in there ... It's a different type of business model.”

Six of the 14 offices nationwide reported single-digit increases in the percentages of premium collected during the first half of the year, including Florida and Texas.

Ms. Essary credited gains in construction for the increases. Florida saw its premiums increase 6.9% , to $2.88 billion, during the first half of this year, while Texas saw its premiums increase 2.6%, to $2.61 billion.

“Traditionally, Texas and Florida have had healthy economies,” she said, adding that Texas' growth has been limited by slowing energy market growth.

Other stamping offices that saw the highest volume of business in the surplus market included New York and California, with the Golden State, however, reporting an error in one filing.

California's data — a 16.4% increase, to $2.99 billion, this year — is somewhat skewed by a significant issue with one broker's filings, said Benjamin McKay, executive director of the San Francisco-based Surplus Lines Association of California.

“We had a broker file a couple errant policies with incredibly large numbers attached to them,” Mr. McKay said. “Because of the anomaly, we reached out to that broker and learned that they had a new person doing their filing and it was in fact a mistake.”

According to Mr. McKay's early estimates, the correct numbers show an increase in California closer to 4%, a change that would dramatically affect the overall number nationwide.

On the other side of the country, New York's surplus lines premiums jumped 14.4%, to $1.86 billion.

Daniel Maher, executive director of the New York-based Excess Line Association of New York, said he expects the number to continue to grow.

“The one single area that I can speak to where our numbers are showing a significant increase is in construction liability insurance,” he said. “Construction risk is a large portion of the excess and surplus lines business in New York.” In New York City in particular, the city is seeing an improved economy, he said.

“In 2009-10, the market was down due to the economy,” he said.

“The economy is picking up and then you had (Hurricane) Sandy... which increased infrastructure projects. There is also more building in Manhattan.”

Only one state showed a decline in premiums collected during the first half of the year compared with the same time last year: Idaho, which declined 2.0%, to $39.1 million.

Oregon, another small state, saw a 22.7% increase — the highest percentage gain of the 14 stamping offices — where premiums rose to $159.9 million.

Roger Helbling, executive director of the Portland-based Surplus Line Association of Oregon, attributes the growth to the improving economy, with “more businesses having money to spend on insurance and insurance limits.”

“We probably lagged behind Washington and California as far as the recovery from the economic problems in 2008 and 2009,” he said. But more recently, “the economy in Oregon has picked up.”

Mr. Helbling also said he thinks the market for natural disaster risks is, in fact, hardening.

“There are fire risks. There is building out in the drought-stricken areas. There are dry areas and buildings lacking fire sprinklers,” he said. “Rates have increased.”

Overall, Ms. Essary said she expects numbers nationwide to flatten eventually after steady growth since 2010.

“The surplus lines market is becoming a much more secure area than it was,” she said. “You have some great carriers in there.”

On the pricing side, experts say competition is growing.

“Pricing is still very diverse, in that the larger accounts are still very, very competitive,” said Monty Stringer, Dallas-based executive vice president, national broker and managing general agent manager for U.S. Risk Insurance Group Inc. and chairman of the Surplus Lines Stamping Office of Texas. “People are continuing to fight change to cut rates. (For example), there is more coastal property capacity than ever. It's been 10 years since a major hurricane, and people tend to forget.”