Unclear Future for the U.S. Terrorism Insurance Program

News & SocietyNews

  • Author Inah Goethem
  • Published September 9, 2014
  • Word count 608

Who would pay for shattering destruction if terrorists were to attack a U.S. city again, or any part of the world like SE Asia such as KL Malaysia or Jakarta Indonesia? The answer: the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act.

Axis Capital, a group of companies based in Bermuda with 29 branches worldwide including the United States, provides customized insurance coverage –i.e. terrorism.

Whereas most ordinary people will never have need of it, Douglas Durst, one of New York's real estate barons, surely does. According to him, without the federal government providing a backstop on private insurance policies, many major real estate transactions would grind to a halt since his family has trophy properties, like One World Trade Center, Bank of America Tower and the Condé Nast Building, all around Manhattan. All of his occupied buildings have terrorism insurance.

"We would not be able to build or refinance our buildings without it, because banks insist on having insurance for all risks," Durst says.

What does the act provide? It guarantees that if a policyholder has private terrorism insurance and damage from an attack exceeds $100 million, the federal government will step in to cover most of the liability and damages above that point.

As of the present year, the program is up for renewal, as well as over the past few months, the thought of it might be in trouble started Durst along with other members of the New York real estate establishment to worry. The Senate plans to vote on it this month. But then again in the House, renewal of terrorism insurance was decelerated by the program's opponents. The renewal effort lost one of its biggest allies when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in his primary bid for his House seat in early June.

Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, says Cantor came in to his office in Manhattan to talk with building owners.

"There was no question that Eric Cantor was helpful" to the renewal effort, Spinola says. Spinola is now watching the Republican leadership shuffle closely and looking for new allies on the Hill.

However conservatives aren't the program's only detractors. The Consumer Federation of America says it's a bad deal. There had been complaints.

"First of all, I don't think the taxpayers should be in the business of offering free insurance to anybody for anything," says Bob Hunter, the group's insurance director.

Hunter emphasized that contrasting in previous federal insurance programs; the government in this condition doesn't collect any premiums from policyholders.

"Without a premium, it's not a real insurance program — and especially in a program that protects very large interests," he says.

Hunter says a government backstop is needed, but it should be limited to nuclear and biological attacks — not bombs and planes. He says private insurers can handle a Sept. 11-style attack.

"The impact it would have on the insurance industry today, in today's dollars, is infinitesimal. They can really handle a 9/11 event. I've done the calculations," he says.

Now there's a bill in the House of Representatives that sets a higher damage threshold for those types of attacks, before government assistance starts to flow. To Spinola from the Real Estate Board, this is dismaying.

"It's now more than 10 years since 9/11, and people are forgetting about it," he says.

Over the next few months, new tenants will start to fill the long-delayed One World Trade Center Tower. Durst says he expects to pay $3 million to $4 million a year to insure it against attack. But he says if the government scales back its terrorism insurance program, the cost of doing business in America's downtowns could rise significantly.

AXIS is a global insurer and reinsurer, providing clients and distribution partners with a broad range of specialized risk transfer products and services.

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