Bermuda re/insurers bounce back in 2012

By added on 29/05/2012

The Bermuda market’s major US-listed re/insurers bounced back strongly to reap more than US$4 billion of net income in the first quarter of this year, reports the Royal Gazette.

This represents a dramatic swing from the US$2.67 billion net loss the group of 17 companies recorded in 2011, when most were hit by claims from an earthquake in New Zealand and a tsunami in Japan.

For the Bermuda market a relatively quiet first quarter, in terms of catastrophe activity, came as a welcome relief after last year’s losses, which were not only driven by heavy claims from natural disasters, but also by low interest rates which squeezed investment income.

The change of fortune is also shown by the companies’ combined ratios, a measure indicating the proportion of premium dollars spent on claims and expenses.

A figure lower than 100 per cent indicates underwriting profitability and the average combined ratio for the group in this year’s first quarter was 89.4 per cent, a stark contrast from last year’s dismal 149.5 per cent.

In fact, all except Argo Group managed a sub-100 combined ratio this year.

Last year, only Maiden Holdings, which has little exposure to catastrophe business, came in under 100.

By far the biggest generator of profits was Ace Ltd, which earned nearly US$1 billion, compared to a US$250 million profit in the same period of 2011. Ace has evolved from its Bermuda roots into a truly global insurer, with its holding company now based in Switzerland.

Some companies produced almost a mirror image of their results from the same period last year.

Everest Re, for example, made a profit of US$304.7 million, compared to a loss of US$315.9 million last year, while Montpelier Re posted net income of US$107.1 million, compared to its 2011 first-quarter loss of US$104.3 million.

Only Ace, Alterra, Arch Capital, Allied World and Maiden Holdings managed to make a profit in the first quarter of both years.

Analysts at investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods (KB&W), in a report on 55 property and casualty insurers, including most of the Bermuda group, said they were “surprised” by the strength of performance in the quarter, but cautioned that the headwinds facing the industry had not changed.

“Going forward, we expect that some of the ‘luck’ of the good weather in the first quarter of 2012 is unlikely to hold and that the pressure of slowing reserve releases and weak investment yields will pressure returns,” the report, dated May 20, stated.

However, KB&W added that the story was deeper than the lack of catastrophes and noted that the release of reserves set aside for previous events, a factor which has significantly boosted underwriting results in recent years, shows little sign of drying up in the way many analysts had expected.

“Reserve releases were 4.8 per cent on average in the quarter, down from 5.3 per cent a year ago, but still a surprisingly strong result,” KB&W reported.

“Naysayers who have warned of rising deficiencies, ourselves included, are being shown wrong.”

The report noted that strong results had helped the 55 property and casualty insurers in its universe to achieve an average book value increase of 3.5 per cent during the quarter.

Stock buybacks were also a significant factor, with 1.6 per cent of shares repurchased during the quarter.

Among the strongest Bermuda market performers on this metric were Montpelier Re, which saw a seven per cent increase in book value in the first three months of the year, Allied World (6.7 per cent), Everest Re (6.5 per cent), RenRe (5.7 per cent), PartnerRe (5.7 per cent) and Maiden Holdings (5.5 per cent).

KB&W said stock performance had appeared to driven largely by earnings per share. Two of the company’s three top stock picks for the group are Bermuda companies, Axis Capital and Maiden Holdings.