Big natural disaster claims hit Swiss Re, top insurers

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Global reinsurance giant Swiss Re reported a quarterly loss on Thursday as insurers shouldered the burden of exceptionally high claims for natural disaster damage this year including Japan's quake and tsunami.

The events in Japan on March 11, as well as the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand on February 22 and floods in eastern Australia since January also hit profits at Europe's biggest insurer, Allianz, as well as Zurich Financial Services.

But Swiss Re, one of the world's biggest reinsurers, reported a second quarterly net loss running, of $665 million (447,4 million euros), in the first three months of 2011 compared to a profit of $158 million a year earlier.

"In the first quarter of 2011, we experienced exceptionally high losses from natural catastrophes," chief executive Stefan Lippe said in a statement.

The firm's biggest rival, Munich Re, issued a profit warning last month, saying the natural disasters would cost it 2.7 billion euros.

Swiss Re's pre-tax costs due to natural disasters reached $2.3 billion during the first three months of 2011.

Its overall net loss was nonetheless smaller than the average $1.0 billion forecast by analysts' polled by Swiss business news agency AWP.

Swiss Re underlined that the disasters had tested the resilience of the insurance industry as a whole.

"The accumulation of natural catastrophe events is expected to turn 2011 into a year with one of the highest historical natural catastrophe claims burdens," the company said.

Germany's Allianz said that its first-quarter net profit slumped 44 percent to just over 900 million euros ($1.3 billion) because of 750 million euros in expenses related to natural catastrophes.

That included some 320 million euros from insured damage caused by Japan's magnitude 9.0 quake and resulting tsunami, which left nearly 26,000 people missing or dead.

Swiss insurer Zurich's first-quarter net profits also slumped 32 percent to $637 million, below analysts' expectations, after natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific region cost it $517 million.

Nonetheless, all the insurance firms insisted that their underlying business was otherwise strong.

"Although we spent almost 200 million euros more on natural catastrophes ... we were able to keep our operating profit close to the previous year's level," Allianz chief executive Michael Diekmann said.

Swiss Re stood by its five year performance targets, claiming its stregthened capital base helped underwrite large and complex risks.

"The impact of natural catastrophe losses in the first quarter creates an additional challenge but it will also accelerate the market turn we had previously expected in 2012/2013," Lippe added.

After years of price declines, parts of the insurance industry have been pushing for increases in premiums and underwriting capacity to reflect greater disaster risks as the market expands.

Swiss Re has also estimated that the global cost of catastrophes more than tripled last year to $218 billion with the highest human toll for decades.

The risks and occurrence of disasters such as floods and storm damage from extreme weather events have grown with climate change, according to the company.

Swiss Re has also highlighted a pattern of growing losses from earthquakes due to bigger urban populations as well as rising wealth and growth in seismically active areas.

Japanese authorities have estimated that direct losses from its biggest ever earthquake and tsunami, which also triggered the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl 25 years ago, could reach $300 billion.

© 2011 AFP

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