Insurers brace for unusually expensive year

Catastrophic claims are pummeling profits, though shares of some insurers still carry 'buy' ratings.

By TheStreet Staff Jun 1, 2011 11:03AM

By Frank Byrt, TheStreet


There's no shelter for those in the property-casualty insurance industry this year, as they face a tidal wave of underwriting losses stemming from a string of catastrophes of Biblical proportions, including earthquakes, Tsunamis, nuclear plant meltdowns, and tornados.


SNL Financial, which tracks insurance industry data, reported that the industry had its worst first quarter since 2001, with an estimated underwriting loss of $3.3 billion, as insurers spent nearly $1.03 on claims and expenses for every dollar they collected in premiums.


And disaster-claims payouts worldwide this year are on record pace, on order of $50 billion to $60 billion so far, said Jose Miranda, director of client advocacy at Eqecat, which provides disaster and risk modeling for insurance companies.


So you'd think insurance-industry analysts would have a bunch of screaming "sell" ratings on companies in this sector, particularly on reinsurers, who take on risk that the front line property/casualty insurers don't want.

But instead their outlook is, well, muddled, even though catastrophic losses have rippled throughout the industry. That should be a red flag for individual investors as it shows a lack of conviction on the part of analysts.


Transatlantic Holdings (TRH), a major industry player, reported it lost $456.2 million due to claims payouts in the first quarter and yet it gets three "buy" ratings and six "holds" from analysts, according to Bloomberg.


Swiss Reinsurance (SWCEY), one of the largest reinsurers in the world, gets 12 "buy," 16 "hold" and seven "sell" recommendations, even though it estimated claims losses of $1.2 billion from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in the first quarter.


And Warren Buffett's General Re, a reinsurer owned by Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.B), took a more than $1 billion hit on underwriting losses in the first quarter on claims related to the series of catastrophes in Japan and the earthquake in New Zealand.


But Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analysts cheerfully reported that "while $1.7 billion of catastrophes is big, we view them to be well within the company's risk tolerance and that GenRE will be in an excellent position as the Japanese market rebuilds."


Apparently you need a strong stomach, or at least an understanding that the property/casualty business is different from others, to invest in it.


"So far, from what I've been hearing from the industry, (this year's losses are considered) a matter of bad luck, and not a new paradigm" said Drew Woodbury, a Morningstar insurance analyst. "Some years you get great underwriting profits, and (others) are large loss years. You need to understand the volatility of the market place."


Indeed, when times are good, they can be very good and give the firms a chance to build their capital base. For example, in 2006 catastrophe losses were only $9.2 billion, so the industry pocketed $31 billion in net gains from underwriting, according to an S&P industry report.

Woodbury advises that investors "not focus as much on quarterly or even annual earnings, as earnings on these insurers do tend to bounce around a lot, so it's hard to determine what normalized earnings are for this sector as they trade more on book value than earnings."


But some investors are taking their cues from the misdeeds of Mother Nature to get out of insurance, as the sector 's stocks are down an average 4.6% over the past three months, versus the S&P 500 Index's decline of 0.7%.


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