Bob Hartwig on macro factors – drinking from the firehose

More discussion over macro factors driving workers comp – the always energetic Bob Hartwig Ph.D. followed Dennis Mealy.  Hartwig was his typically rapid-fire self, dispensing insights, quick takes on economic data, the impact of catastrophes and myriad other topics faster than I could record them.

You can get his presentation slides here shortly.

Overall, Hartwig was pretty optimistic, especially about the recovering economy; private sector employment was up 6.74 million jobs since 2009, while governmental employment declined more than 600,000 jobs.  Hartwig forecast unemployment to dip below 7 percent in the last quarter of 2014 – or perhaps earlier.  As payroll is a main driver of workers’ comp premiums, this is good news indeed.

Overall, the larger employment picture has returned to a level we haven’t seen since just before the recession; mass layoffs are way down, hours worked has moved back up, and hourly wages, while not all the way back, are up significantly.   The overall economy has been – and continues to be – dragged down by the sequestration to the tune of about a half-point of GDP growth.  Fortunately private housing starts are accelerating, driving up construction employment which has partially offset the impact of the political impasse. Manufacturing employment is also up by more than a half million jobs. 

Amongst all that good news is the number of discouraged workers – those who have stopped looking for work – has declined by some 14 percent, but is still quite high relative to historical levels.  More troubling yet is the growth in Social Security disability rolls, which has gone up dramatically over the last two decades.  SSDI claim frequency is up nearly 30% since 1996 – while WC lost time frequency has dropped by almost 50 percent.  (more on this here)

Hartwig made a major point of the P&C industry’s continued ability to pay claims, contrasting that ability with other financial institutions’ less-than-robust stability – evidenced by the 500 banks that failed post-recession.  However, the continued lower-than-low interest rates available in the bond market will require better underwriting results – a lot better – if workers comp payers are going to stay even, much less generate a bit more margin.



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