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Fla. hurricane fund has $3.2 billion shortfall

TALLAHASSEE – Florida’s hurricane fund, a state-created pool intended to help insurers after disasters, is confronting a potential $3.2 billion shortfall.

Turmoil in the world financial markets – as well as an unsteady and weak economy – mean that right now it is unlikely that the fund could borrow all the money it needs to help after a hurricane.

“The fact is that when you look at the world economy we’re in a very uncertain environment,” said Jack Nicholson, the chief operating officer of the fund, Tuesday.

The fund was created after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992. Insurers purchase coverage from the fund to help to pay homeowners if a storm results in widespread damages. The fund plays an important role in how much consumers pay for property insurance in Florida because it provides a low-cost backstop to insurers.

But the fund doesn’t have enough cash on hand to meet all of its obligations in the event of a big storm, or worse, a series of hurricanes. So the fund must go out and borrow what it needs.

Just how much the fund can borrow, however, has fluctuated wildly in the last three years, as the recession and debt crisis have made borrowing large sums of money more uncertain.

“We used to think we could bond for $55 billion in multiple hurricane seasons,” Nicholson said. “That’s fairy land now.”

This year the fund is providing $18.4 billion worth of coverage. It should have more than $7 billion of cash on hand by the end of the year, but it would still need to borrow another $11 billion if a storm were to strike.

But new estimates drawn up by financial experts, including some of the nation’s most prominent financial firms, suggest the fund could borrow just $8 billion over a 12-month period. An advisory panel formally approved the new estimates Tuesday.

The new figures, however, do suggest that the fund – formally known as the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund or “the Cat Fund”- could borrow an additional $6 billion during a period one to two years following a major storm.

“The Cat Fund does not need to do all of its bonding at once,” said John Forney, managing director of Raymond James and the financial adviser for the fund.

The good news is that the 2011 hurricane season is almost over, and so far the state has avoided any major hurricanes.

And Nicholson stressed that there is only roughly a 4 percent chance that the fund would need to borrow the full $11 billion.

Still, the news about the fund’s financial strength could lead to yet another battle in the next few months in the halls of the Florida Capitol.

Nicholson has already told legislators that he thinks the fund is “dangerously overexposed” due to the recent market gyrations and he wants lawmakers during the 2012 session to scale back the size of the fund. Some key Republicans, including Gov. Rick Scott, support that idea.

But any reduction in the state’s hurricane fund would likely cause insurance premiums to rise during a crucial election year.

Every insurer currently in Florida is required to purchase coverage from the fund. Nicholson estimated that this low-cost option probably results in insurance premiums being about 25 percent cheaper.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he would rather side with homeowners since there’s only a 4 percent chance the fund would run out of money.

“We need to look out for the little guy and gal, they can’t take any more economic hits,” Fasano said.

Some legislators, however, have fretted about the financial strength of the fund.

That’s because if the fund is forced to borrow money it pays off its debts with an assessment, or what some call a “hurricane tax,” that is placed on nearly every insurance policy in the state, including auto insurance policies. Right now, homeowners and drivers in Florida are paying off charges due primarily to Hurricane Wilma from 2005.