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Allstate's 'Good Hands' Wave 'Bye Bye'

Wary of the rising risk of hurricanes, Allstate Corp. has added coastal regions of North and South Carolina, Alabama, Maryland and Virginia to the growing list of areas nationwide where it is cutting back homeowners insurance coverage.

The latest move adds to concern by consumer advocates that less competition in those areas will cause rates to jump.

The nation's second-largest home and auto insurer (behind State Farm) confirmed Thursday that it is dropping coverage for about 12,000 homeowners in eight counties of South Carolina, 4,000 in 14 counties of North Carolina, and an unspecified number in Alabama.

It also will no longer write new homeowners' policies starting in 2007 in 11 coastal counties of Maryland and 19 in Virginia, although existing policies will be renewed.

Those decisions continue the company's strategy of minimizing risk in the wake of Katrina and other hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast and caused it to lose a record $1.55 billion in the third quarter of 2005.

Mike Siemienas, a spokesman for Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate, said the company for some time has been taking action "from Texas all the way on up the East Coast" to limit its property insurance business, which includes personal homeowners' as well as commercial property coverage.

"Managing our risk is an ongoing effort within our business to insure we can continue to protect the assets of the 17 million households that rely on us," he said. "We continually review our exposure in all coastal areas and all markets that could be impacted by major catastrophic events."

Collectively, the changes leave Allstate with sharply reduced coverage for almost the entire eastern seaboard.

The insurer announced several weeks ago that it will no longer offer new property insurance policies, including homeowners', in Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey beginning next year. It said earlier that it was dropping coverage to 120,000 customers in Florida and eight downstate New York counties, along with 26,000 Texas policyholders for wind damage; it also limited homeowners' coverage in coastal areas of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Allstate is just one of the insurers that have scrambled to reduce exposure to future catastrophes since Katrina, including Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. and MetLife Inc.

Chairman and Chief Executive Edward Liddy and Thomas Wilson, the president and chief operating officer who is to succeed Liddy as CEO next month, have said the company is forced to cut its exposure to disaster-related losses. While shifting its emphasis to other areas, such as financial services, Allstate has been seeking the creation of a government fund to help cover homeowners' losses in major disasters.

Asked how the latest cutbacks will affect rates and availability of homeowners' insurance along the East Coast, Siemienas referred the question to the Insurance Information Institute.

Jeanne Salvatore, a senior vice president for the trade group, said Allstate's moves shouldn't have any direct impact on rates or insurance availability.

"For most locations other than Florida, where availability of private insurance is difficult, it's still a competitive marketplace and people will be able to get insurance with another carrier," she said.

Homeowners' rates will continue to rise, she said, because the risk of hurricanes is rising. "The price is going to be based on the risk," she said.

But consumer advocates are critical of insurers' recent moves in coastal areas, saying prices will go up because of reduced competition.

"It's a negative for consumers," said J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America and a former federal insurance administrator. "You remove maybe 15 or 20 percent of the market for new business, and obviously that puts pressure on the rest of the market."

He characterized Allstate's actions as offensive, citing its $3.78 billion profit through the first nine months of 2006.

"I don't know why any consumer would buy insurance from Allstate, because Allstate won't stay with you when the going gets tough," he said.

In making its latest cutback decisions, Allstate cited hurricane and storm projections that point to the likelihood of many more severe storms further north on the East Coast.

Risk Management Solutions, a company that forecasts the risk of natural disasters for the insurance industry, changed its computer modeling this year and predicted that the Atlantic coast would see more hurricanes over the next five years.

That means annual insurance losses could increase by up to 30 percent in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and 50 percent in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida and the Southeast, the company said.

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