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Down but not out: the Midwest perseveres in spite of the economy.

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Although the recession has hit every industry and every corner of the United States, the Midwest has been the poster child for hard times. The auto industry and its ancillary businesses such as parts manufacturers and suppliers once made states like Michigan and Indiana a blue-collar paradise. But beginning in the 1970s, when manufacturing jobs began leaving for foreign shores, these same states became part of the Rust Belt, typified by shuttered businesses and high unemployment. The most recent nail in this economic coffin came with the bankruptcy of once-mighty General Motors.

Yet this same geographic region is seeing emerging industries gaining a foothold--from auto fuel cell manufacturing in Michigan to high tech and life sciences in Indiana. Agriculture, another traditional Midwest business, is booming due to the increase in ethanol production and other crop-based alternative energy fuels such as switchgrass. All but one of the country's top ethanol-producing states are in the Midwest, with Iowa topping the list, according to Business Week.

The Midwest also owns bragging rights to one of the most robust markets for regional insurance companies--a market that's responsible for one of the bright spots on the state's employment horizon.

"We're fortunate in some areas of the Midwest to have business sectors that have held their own during the recession," said Carol Drake, vice president of marketing for Grange Insurance, a Columbus, Ohio-based regional insurer. "There are a large number of universities, agriculture and certain service industries such as property-casualty insurance that have weathered the storm pretty well. However, in Midwest communities that have relied on manufacturing, especially auto manufacturing, the negative impact has far outweighed any resilience in other business sectors."

Hard times are nothing new in states like Michigan; in fact, you can say the rest of the country has caught up with them in the current recession, said Bob Pierce, chief executive officer of the Michigan Assn. of Insurance Agents (MAIA). "We're seeing lower payrolls, businesses that don't exist and home foreclosures," he said. "Obviously, we're not unique in that sense, but we've probably been doing this a lot longer than a lot of other states."

However, not every state or region is as hard hit as others. Although Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment figures for May 2009 show Michigan with the highest jobless rate at 14.1 percent, two other Midwestern states--Nebraska and North Dakota--registered the lowest unemployment rates, at 4.4 percent each.

A recent report by the Brookings Institution paralleled those findings. While Detroit, with its 14 percent unemployment rate, topped the list of its 20 weakest performing metro areas, several other Midwest cities--including Omaha, Neb.; Wichita, Kan.; and Des Moines, Iowa--were listed among the 20 strongest performing metro areas.

With its lack of earthquake or coastal property exposures, the Midwestern states traditionally have been an attractive market for property-casualty insurers, so agents and brokers operating in these states tend to have a wide range of national insurers to choose from. Even better, the Midwest also is home to a number of strong regional insurance companies, which not only provide agents with markets, but fill the role of employers for the states in which they operate. Regionals and "super regionals" including Citizens, Grange, Auto Owners, Cincinnati, Westfield and Michigan Millers are all alive and well in the Midwest. Agents typically enjoy doing business with these writers because of their focused expertise of the regional market.

The Midwestern states' regulatory and legislative environments also tend to be fairly conservative, except in Michigan, where politics in urban areas like Detroit frequently drive the issues for the state.

However, just about everyone we spoke with said that the long-awaited hardening market is still elusive to them.

What follows is a state-by state report of what's going on in the Midwest. Although we covered trends and market conditions in 12 states, we've selected 5 for a close-up view: Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska and South Dakota. Visit agentandbroker.com to read about the other 7 states.

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Indiana

Like most areas of the Midwest, Indiana's construction and manufacturing base were hit hard by the recession, said Roger Ronk, executive vice president of the Independent Insurance Agents of Indiana. "We had some big projects under construction in downtown Indianapolis, but several were shut down; two hospitals stopped work on expansions because of investment losses," he said.

For agents, this translates to a loss of business. "Some of our members say they're doing OK on new business, but losing their current book because contractors are going out of business and payrolls are down to the point they're not gaining any ground, even if they're writing new business," he said.

However, some industries are growing, including advanced manufacturing such as high-tech and life sciences, he said. These include medical equipment and drug research and development at companies like Eli Lilly and through incubator companies at Purdue and Indiana University. "Our state actually has a surplus, and the legislature is currently fighting over whether to spend it," Ronk said.

On the insurance side, rates are still soft; although personal lines such as homeowners are seeing a median price increase of 8 to 10 percent, commercial lines are still as soft as ever, he said.

However, the state is rich with admitted carriers, Ronk said. "According to A.M. Best, Indiana has a third of the most admitted carriers in the country, and last year for the first time regional carriers wrote more commercial business in Indiana than the national insurers," he said. Strong regional insurers include Auto Owners, Cincinnati, Westfield, Selective, Indiana Insurance and State Auto.

Surprisingly, personal lines sales are big business for Indiana insurance agents, who wrote 40 percent of the state's personal lines coverage in 2008. "For some reason, direct response writers don't control a big market share here; maybe it's because people here are more conservative and prefer doing business with a person," Ronk said.

The regulatory environment in Indiana is good under new commissioner Carol Cutter, and the legislative atmosphere is fairly benign as well, Ronk said. Although Indiana doesn't have insurance pooling like other states, and a recent pooling bill was unsuccessful, the legislature did pass a graduated driving bill and a commercial auto UM/UIM bill. The credit scoring issue was hot for awhile, but a bill to eliminate its use was defeated.

And although the economy and the soft market may be tough right now, Ronk is confident things will change soon. "The market is soft now, and maybe the end isn't in sight, but we're hanging in there," he said. "I've talked to some of our MGA friends who tell us their business is at least leveling off, so maybe that's a sign."

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Kansas

In Kansas, the primarily agriculture-based economy appears to be weathering the economic storm. And according to Larry Magill, executive vice president of the Kansas Assn. of Insurance Agents (KAIA), agents have not been letting employees go or making significant cutbacks in the past year, supporting Magill's belief that the insurance industry is generally recession-proof in the state.

"People are shopping more, particularly in the personal lines area, and of course soft markets are continuing in the commercial area," he said. "Although there's a little bit of a hidden hard market, where you've actually got exposure units for contractors, for example, going down significantly as well. So it might look like pricing is still soft but in fact it's firming up a little bit--it's just that the exposure base is reducing."

As with other states, however, Kansas agents are coping with soft rates. "We'd like to see the hard market come back, because the soft market continues to hurt," Magill said. "Our members are all struggling to hang on to personal lines and working harder to retain their business."

At the same time, KAIA has seen a surge in its membership over the past year because "the markets are willing to deal with new agencies, and in a hard market, they wouldn't be," Magill said.

Kansas also can be plagued with tornadoes and hail. Though the former tend to be localized, the latter can cover a broader area and cause more damage to cars or roofs. The state has seen some major tornadoes in recent years, but weather conditions have not made a significant impact on insurance, with no major losses in the current year.

The health insurance reform effort, however, was and continues to be a source of concern for KAIA members. "Health insurance is as important to our members here as anywhere else in the country," Magill said. "For some of our members, it's an important source of revenue. A number of members I've talked to have given up on the health insurance market because people are so upset about what it costs or how claims are handled, and it's difficult to deal with that."

Magill said he foresees a stable future for the Kansas industry in the coming year. He cites a history of good communication between KAIA and the Kansas Insurance Dept. and notes that Commissioner Sandy Praeger, a proponent of reducing health care costs, is expected to run for another term in 2010.

"Kansas has moved from maybe one of the more difficult states to deal with to one of the better states to deal with," he said. "The state is modernizing our insurance regulations, and companies that we've talked to have commented that our flex-rating law on personal lines, for example, is working well."

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Michigan

Michigan leads the country in unemployment, which means business for insurance agents in the state is dire, right? Not necessarily, according to Bob Pierce, chief executive officer of the Michigan Assn. of Insurance Agents (MAIA).

"Michigan is blessed with a wide variety of strong regional and domestic insurers: Auto Owners, Citizens, Frankenmuth, Michigan Millers, Pioneer State, Fremont, Wolverine, and many others," he said. Within the Lansing area alone are the corporate headquarters of Auto Owners, Accident Fund, Michigan Millers and Jackson National, so the insurance industry is a big employer in the state.

The state is looking at a number of growth industries, too, ranging from fuel cell technology within the auto industry, to wind power and solar energy. The state is also seeing a lot of road construction, which is attributable to federal stimulus dollars.

"What we're seeing from our members is that despite the economy, they're blessed with good strong companies, and those that are positioned are taking advantage of some excellent opportunities," Pierce said.

Based on 2007 A.M. Best figures, independent agents write 43 percent of personal lines in the state, and captive agents 53 percent. This means that direct response companies only write about 4 percent of personal lines in Michigan, among the lowest nationwide. Michigan independent agents still control 83 percent of commercial lines business in the state.

Strong business mix means Michigan agencies are poised to grow. According to a late 2008 survey of MAIA members, 30 percent said they were planning to hire over the next 3 years, Pierce said.

One of the biggest problems in the state is the adversarial relationship between insurance and the current administration. "When we talk to insurers about the ease of doing business here, they'll say they find it easy to get into the state, but once they're here, it's a different story," Pierce said.

For example, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has sought for years to ban the use of credit scoring. The issue has now worked its way through the legal system and is now in the Supreme Court, "a good litmus indicator of the administration's battle with insurers over how they do business," Pierce said.

Spurred by concerns about auto insurance pricing and availability in urban areas like Detroit, politicians have introduced various bills over the years requiring across-the-board decreases in personal auto rates. And because Michigan is the only state that offers unlimited personal injury protection, the state's cat fund, the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Assn. (MCCA), funded by insurer assessments, has also been the subject of political tinkering, including ever-growing per-car assessment costs.

"Because the insurance industry in Michigan brings so many jobs to the state, some people are puzzled why the state administration is so actively involved in giving the industry such problems," Pierce said.

However, in spite of the challenges, Michigan remains a decent place for independent agents. "Independent agents are extremely resilient. With 30 percent of our members intending to hire in the next 3 years, it's evident they're looking ahead and making sure they're positioned properly to take advantage and ride the wave once the economy turns around."

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Nebraska

With the western third of the state in the hail belt and the eastern region suffering from wind and the occasional tornado, weather-related exposures tend to have a detrimental effect on losses and premiums in Nebraska. Though the state only sees significantly damaging storms every 5 years or so, Nebraska's central region was hit with a mix of tornadoes, hail, and heavy rains as recently as mid-June of this year.

"If you have a really bad hail season for 2 to 3 years in a row, companies sustain disproportionate losses to the premium they're getting," said Carol McClelland, executive director of the Independent Insurance Agents of Nebraska (IIAN). "There have been times, in the last couple of decades, when some companies have even pulled back from high-loss parts of the state."

To combat this, IIAN worked with the Nebraska Dept. of Insurance (NDOI) several years ago, leading NDOI to approve policies that better addressed weather-related concerns. Now insurance providers can offer actual cash value coverage on roofs, along with higher end percentage-type deductibles, making it easier for insurers to stay in certain parts of the state "without getting killed with wind and hail," McClelland said.

The soft market for workers' compensation and other commercial lines raises another issue of concern within the state. With a small residual market for workers' compensation and decreases in pricing due to the soft market, the standard marketplace is handling the majority of all workers' compensation risk--a major concern that McClelland has heard from IIAN members.

"Our workers' compensation system is dealing with rising medical costs just like everybody else," she said. "Rates are relatively high in Nebraska, but we have a plus or minus 40 percent flex rating rule, so the marketplace can deviate by that amount without checking with anyone."

With a primarily information- and agriculture-based economy, Nebraska appears to have felt the effects of the recession less than some other Midwestern states. Though weather has been and continues to be an issue for farmers and ranchers, McClelland said she believes the Nebraska insurance industry is well-prepared to handle those concerns.

"The best thing is that there continues to be a lot of market availability in terms of agents having access to markets and companies," McClelland said. "My sense is that even out in the western part of the state, in the hail belt, the agents can access the markets they need for their clients. Our insurance department is also easy to access and easy to have a dialogue with, and I think that's one of the reasons why insurance has a significant part of our economy."

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South Dakota

With a relatively quiet legislative session in the past year, South Dakota insurance agents are primarily concerned with national issues--namely, flood insurance and the prospect of a public health care system, according to Larry Ahrendt, executive vice president of the Independent Insurance Agents of South Dakota (IIASD).

With a number of rivers flowing north to south and very little decline in elevation, floods are frequent in South Dakota. "If there's normal or above-normal snowfall and above-normal rainfall in the spring, we typically have flooding in some of the major population areas like Aberdeen, Watertown, and Sioux Falls," Ahrendt said.

In 2008, for instance, the Sioux Falls flood zone doubled in size when the federal government updated the map of the city's flood plain, resulting in an increased demand for flood insurance for private homes and businesses.

Though weather-related disasters affect South Dakota residents in "small numbers compared to other more populated states," Ahrendt said that one of the state's main concerns is "making sure that we get some positive changes with regard to the flood insurance program--increases in coverage, specifically, and that we get it renewed for a long-term period."

The possibility of universal healthcare hindering private insurance is another national issue on the IIASD's radar.

"We're concerned about the federal government setting up a public health system and going into competition with the private sector," Ahrendt said. "There's certainly some question as to whether or not there would be a level playing field in that situation, and the possibility that there won't be a private sector anymore. Ultimately, we could see a single-payer system."

The recession is another issue of interest, though on a slightly smaller scale than it typically is for most states. South Dakota's unemployment rate is generally very low and the insurance industry in the state tends to be, as Ahrendt said, "recession-proof." Nevertheless, cities like Watertown and Yankton have seen substantial increases in unemployment in recent months as businesses close down or make staff cuts.

"That has an effect on the members [of IIASD]," Ahrendt said, "because they're either losing premium or having it substantially reduced because coverages are being reduced or, in the case of workers' compensation, the payrolls are being reduced."

Membership in IIASD, which represents about 1,300 insurance agents employed by approximately 350 agencies, is growing steadily each year--a fact that can be partially attributed to agriculture, the state's principle industry.

"About 95 percent of the farmers in South Dakota insure their crops with crop insurance agents, and we have a substantial number of folks [in IIASD] who specialize in crop insurance," Ahrendt said. "For them, we provide advocacy, educational services, and the opportunity to purchase professional liability coverage."

Along with reaping the gains from favorable commodity prices in agriculture, South Dakota is experiencing a boost in tourism, Ahrendt said. "They're coming into the state and they're taking motel rooms and seeing the sites, so we've got revenue coming in from that standpoint as well."

With little changes in the South Dakota insurance scene, Ahrendt is keeping an eye on the national issues and the wind, ice, and hail storms, some of which touched down in smaller, southeastern communities in the past several weeks.

"Sometimes you need a storm for folks to realize, hey, this insurance is really a good product--it's something you really need," Ahrendt said. "But right along with that, we've got our own little economic stimulus package in those communities out on the farms, and hopefully, most of those folks are insured."

LAURA M. TOOPS, editor with contributions from Melissa Hillebrand, managing editor and Taryn Tawoda, editorial intern
Direct premiums
written by state,
property-casualty, 2007

State              Total, all lines ($000)

Illinois           $ 21,095,721
Indiana            $ 8,554,355
Iowa               $ 4,820,940
Kansas             $ 4,781,367
Michigan           $ 14,739,781
Minnesota          $ 8,848,413
Missouri           $ 9,030,816
Nebraska           $ 3,325,609
North Dakota       $ 1,471,042
Ohio               $ 13,076,439
South Dakota       $ 1,694,478
Wisconsin          $ 8,109,973

Source: Insurance Information Institute,
The Insurance Fact Book 2009

Domestic
insurance companies,
property-casualty and
life/health, 2007

State              property/   Life/
                   casualty    health

Illinois           190         61
Indiana            72          38
Iowa               60          26
Kansas             24          12
Michigan           75          29
Minnesota          47          12
Missouri           51          31
Nebraska           31          27
North Dakota       17          3
Ohio               132         38
South Dakota       19          2
Wisconsin          183         28

Source: Insurance Information Institute,
The Insurance Fact Book 2009
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:COVER STORY: MIDWEST COVERAGE
Author:Toops, Laura M.; Hillebrand, Melissa; Tawoda, Taryn
Publication:American Agent & Broker
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Aug 1, 2009
Words:3272
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