AUSTRALIA – When fire tore towards Sophie Bryden’s semi-rural Beechmont property in Queensland’s Scenic Rim region in September, she fled not knowing if her house would still be there when she returned.
“I got my head around it and thought if my house wasn’t standing, I’d just get a camper trailer, move in there and build a whole new house,” she said.
Luckily, the fire stopped short of her home.
But houses about a kilometre away did not escape the blaze.
“There’s a small valley between myself and other houses and we lost roughly eight to nine houses across there,” Ms Bryden said.
After counting her blessings, a month later, Ms Bryden was sent the annual renewal for her home insurance.
It had increased 48 per cent, from $884.08 the year before to $1,304.80, but her insurer was not clear on why her bill had increased so dramatically.
“I think it’s a combination; I had to make a claim because some of my fences were broken by the firies trying to get through and also the fact that this area is now a higher fire risk,” she told The Business.
Ms Bryden said it was not easy to pay the extra $420.72 on top of last year’s bill.
“I’m a single mum, I can’t afford price hikes like that,” she said.
‘One of those angry summers’
The Insurance Council of Australia said the September bushfires were the first of six catastrophic weather events to hit Australia’s east coast in the past five months.
“This is known as disaster season for a very good reason and this certainly has been one of those angry summers that Australia experiences,” the Insurance Council of Australia’s Campbell Fuller told The Business.
Mr Fuller said it was too early to say if insurance premiums would be impacted by the summer catastrophes.
“It’s unlikely these natural disasters will have a significant effect on premiums,” he added.
He said that was because insurers prepared last year for the impending costs.
“There were plenty of signs in early 2019 that we were heading into a catastrophic bushfire season and the insurers made the relevant prudential precautions for that, including reinsurance and their own balance sheet measures.”
JP Morgan insurance analyst Siddharth Parameswaran agreed insurers had already priced in a catastrophic summer.
“The industry had already allowed for a huge increase in their natural perils budgets leading into this,” he explained.
“I think there will be some [premium] increases in particular parts of Australia, but we’re not expecting large, across-the-board increases like we saw in 2011 [after Cyclone Yasi].”
But he warned the natural disaster season was not over.
“There’s no doubt this year is materially above average in terms of what we would have expected and we’re still not through the worst of it, so there are still some pressures to come,” he said.
Mr Parameswaran estimated the bushfires could end up costing about $2 billion for the insurance industry, in addition to almost $1 billion for the wet weather events such as hail, cyclones and floods.
Insurers reveal profit pinch from catastrophes
The exact cost of this summer’s catastrophic weather events to insurers will not be known until later this year, but this week’s half-year results have provided an early indication.
Suncorp revealed a first-half profit of $642 million, up on the same time last year but below analyst expectations.
IAG reported a 43 per cent drop in its first-half net profit after tax to $283 million, after last month advising the market it was downgrading its forecast.
The results only account for activity from July 1, 2019 to December 31, 2019, so do not include the worst of the natural disasters, which have hit since January 1.
Suncorp also revealed it received 3,707 claims for damage and destruction caused by the bushfires between July 1 last year and January 31 this year.
It received 10 times that number of claims for wet weather events like floods and storms.
With more than two months left to run on the cyclone season, those numbers are predicted to increase.
Suncorp CEO Steve Johnston used his results briefing to call on the Federal Government to develop better policies to protect people against natural disasters.
“We have an opportunity here to improve the resilience of our communities and to improve the quality of our private infrastructure,” he said in a briefing to analysts.
“The irony is you can get a subsidy to put a solar panel on your roof, but you can’t get a subsidy to batten that roof down to protect it against a category-four or five cyclone.
“If one thing comes out of a horrible situation, it’s that we can get this dialogue around resilience and mitigation on the public policy agenda, ahead of the budget, so that we can get some traction.”
Policy change or not, home owners like Sophie Bryden who are in the path of natural disasters will be nervously waiting to open their next insurance bill.
“I think about all the other people, because almost everyone is living borderline where money is harder to come by these days and it’s harder to pay all the bills,” she said.