Steady improvement for U.S. personal auto insurance companies has culminated in the sector’s best underwriting performance in 10 years, according to Fitch Ratings in a new report.
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. Material premium rate increases over successive renewal periods and a return to more favorable claims frequency experience are key contributors to this result. A 65 percent industry aggregate statutory direct loss ratio in private passenger auto liability and auto physical damage combined through the first nine months of 2018 represents an improvement of over five points from full-year 2017.
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 percent for the first nine months of 2018, versus 98.1 percent for full-year 2017 and 98.8 percent 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, Allstate, GEICO and Progressive. Specifically, these insurers benefit most from size and scale advantages that allow for investment in technology to gain pricing and risk selection sophistication, and branding through marketing and advertising. GEICO rebounded from a rare auto insurance underwriting loss in 2017 to a 92 percent 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, 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 expects flatter price changes going forward given competitive forces and recognition of recent better underwriting performance.
Claims frequency experience has resumed its longer-term historical downward trend, driven in part by strong 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 are more costly to repair and replace. Bodily injury claims severity remains a prime source of future personal auto profit uncertainty as signs become more evident of medical inflation rising above general inflation and heightened litigation activity and settlement costs in the auto segment.