September 10, 2017 / 8:00 PM / in 3 months

In sunny Monte Carlo, insurers tally hurricane costs

MONACO (Reuters) - Insured losses in the United States from Hurricane Irma could total $40 billion, according to one risk forecaster, and though that was less than earlier projections, the elite of the insurance world convening in this sunny resort were reluctant to signal relief.

Boats are seen at a marina in Coconut Grove as Hurricane Irma arrives at south Florida, in Miami, Florida, U.S., September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

AIR Worldwide forecast on Monday total insured losses in the United States of between $20 billion and $40 billion. That was down from initial estimates over the weekend of as much as $65 billion.

The reinsurance giant Swiss Re SRENH.S was loathe to provide guidance on the storm’s significance for the industry. “It will take weeks before we have a sense of where we are,” Swiss Re’s chief Christian Mumenthaler said.

Swiss Re and its German competitor Hannover Re HNRGn.DE, in a sign of optimism for the sector, said they generally see reinsurance prices stabilizing after years of decline.

Even though Irma swerved well away from Miami, it is a “major event for Florida and also a major event for the insurance industry”, Torsten Jeworrek, member of the board of German reinsurance giant Munich Re MUVGn.DE, told journalists on Sunday.

Some 2,500 insurance executives are gathered in Monaco for an annual conclave to haggle over reinsurance prices and strike underwriting deals.

The meeting typically occurs at the height of the Atlantic hurricane season, but not since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have catastrophes weighed so heavily.

The takeaway of the storms so far for the global industry: Irma and its predecessor Hurricane Harvey, which caused massive flooding in Texas two weeks ago, are likely to take a toll on profits in a sector struggling with thin margins, stiff competition and falling prices.

But at this early stage, the damages are not expected to be so excessive that they hit insurers’ capital base in a way that would lift slumping insurance prices or hurt their credit ratings.

The industry is only slowly coming to grips with Harvey’s likely costs.

Munich Re’s Jeworrek said the loss assessment was “complex” and it would “take a long time for the necessary estimates, leaving high uncertainty in the market”.

He estimated that insured losses for the global industry would total between $20 billion and $30 billion, which would put the storm on a similar scale to Hurricane Sandy, whose storm surge caused flooding in New York in 2012.

UNDERWRITING LOSS?

All combined, the storms are likely to “translate into an underwriting loss for the year”, said Robert DeRose, senior director at the insurance ratings agency A.M. Best.

His firm estimated that $75 billion in insured losses would result in an average industry-wide combined ratio, a measure of expenses to premium income, of 106 percent compared with 95 percent in 2016. Ratios greater than 100 point to losses.

The big question for the industry has been whether reinsurers will see such high losses that they can then demand higher prices for their coverage. That would be the first major reversal since Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history with insured losses of around $80 billion.

The verdict so far among analysts is that profit will take a hit, but the dynamics of capital and pricing will not.

“We don’t see this as a market-turning event,” said Brian Schneider of Fitch Ratings. “Pricing is not likely to respond.”

Irma’s timing is giving attendees plenty to talk about and in some cases disrupting their own travel plans.

Reinsurance broker AON Benfield told some staff who had planned to travel to Monte Carlo to remain instead to deal with Florida claims, Chief Executive Eric Andersen said.

With Monte Carlo’s yacht-filled harbor and billboards advertising private jets offering a contrast to the destruction wrought in Texas and the Caribbean, one journalist asked whether insurers might move their annual meeting to a more modest venue.

Monte Carlo is “the place to be at the end of the day”, said Munich Re’s Jeworrek. “The industry wouldn’t move to another location to get rid of the reputational damage to its image.”

“We will also come next year. You can write that.”

Reporting by Tom Sims; Editing by Dale Hudson and Catherine Evans

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