State Farm’s Profit: Excessive?

Many plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers are complaining that State Farm’s profit surged to $5.6 billion in 2006 — up 75% from $3.2 billion in 2005. State Farm’s CEO, Ed Rust, Jr., received a $5.26 million dollar pay raise last year and is now earning $11.66 million. Implicit in this complaint is the idea that State Farm’s lowball offers and hardball tactics are the reason why their profits are so high and their CEO is overpaid. I think these complaints are misplaced for a lot of reasons.

First, General Motors took a $39 million loss last quarter. While this statement is misleading as well, it underscores the obvious: big companies can have large profits and large losses. A number like $5.6 billion in a vacuum means nothing, particularly for a huge company like State Farm.

If you think the insurance companies make too much in profit, put your savings in a company like Allstate, which is publicly traded. But be careful: Allstate, for example, has underperformed the market in the last ten years. Insurance companies are hardly the Google of the stock market and I really don’t think there is any evidence that their profits are historically excessive. (Please, correct me if I’m wrong.)

Second, with respect State Farm’s CEO’s salary, State Farm is a Fortune 100 company. If high CEO salaries are a problem (and I don’t think they are for reasons that are not worth getting into here), it is not specific to the insurance companies. Big company CEOs are making a ton of money in every business.

Finally, and I think most importantly, I think it is misplaced to expend energy complaining about low ball offers. Setting aside first party obligations where the paradigm is a little more complex, insurance companies should be trying to do whatever they ethically can to decrease payouts. It is our job as personal injury lawyers to do the opposite. We are not shooting for fair offers, we are trying to get as much as we possibly can for our clients. They call us greedy and we call the insurance companies cheapskates.

But maybe this is not the worst thing in the world. We have an adversarial system that has been in place for a few hundred years and I think it works. To the extent that it does not, it is clearly not a perfect system. It is just the best system.

State Farm and their brethren are going to play tough. That’s okay. If personal injury lawyers hold up their end of the bargain and fight back, the system will work just fine.

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