Thursday 12 May 2022

Mystery solved?

Over at Newsroom, AUT lecturer William Cheung wonders why Kiwis don't seem to worry much about flood risks when buying a house.

Similarly, a few years ago, Arthur Grimes found that the Christchurch earthquakes meant that properties in Wellington subject to liquefaction traded at a discount for a couple of years, and then that risk stopped being noticed.

Maybe I'm nuts, but there seems a pretty simple explanation.

  1. The Earthquake Commission covers damages from natural disaster events. The EQC cap is high enough to cover most stuff that isn't going to be a major structural issue. 
  2. EQC premiums vary with the sum insured, not with underlying risk. The EQC premium will be the same for a $2m house that sits underneath a cliff that's ready to collapse, a $2m house that's right beside a flood-prone river, a $2m house in Petone that'll get wrecked by the combination of tsunami and liquefaction in any real earthquake, or a $2m weatherboard house in the safest part of Karori. 
  3. Commercial insurers could very reasonably fear that the government would slice them in two with breadknives if they charged premiums that reflected actual risk in places like Petone. That whole model starts to fall apart the second some new entrant comes in and decides only to insure safe places at lower premiums. But there are regulatory barriers to entry that can result in low-risk places being overcharged and high-risk places being undercharged, and less competitive pressure than there might be in getting finer risk gradations. 
If that's all right then there's no mystery at all. 

If you live in a flood-prone place, you'll deal with the hassles of being flooded, and maybe people who haven't experienced dealing with insurers in a really bad event affecting lots of properties underrate just how much they should be trying to avoid that. 

But insurance in those places is at a hefty discount relative to the real risk, and if you set policy to subsidise living in risky places, expect that people will do so and that property prices won't much reflect that risk. 

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