Tornadoes and interest rates to hit insurers' results

NEW YORK/BANGALORE Mon Jul 18, 2011 4:51pm EDT

NEW YORK/BANGALORE (Reuters) - It's a rough time to be an insurer, and investors looking at quarterly earnings will be focusing mostly on a single question: How long will the pain last.

The second quarter is likely to go down as one of the worst for the U.S. insurance industry in years, mostly for property insurers, which will report billions of dollars in catastrophe losses due to powerful tornadoes that struck in April and May.

Life insurers fared somewhat better from a performance standpoint, though persistently low interest rates continue to batter their shares and create medium-term uncertainty.

Among the winners in the industry: insurance brokers that could benefit from property insurers' difficulties.

BUYBACKS AND HURRICANES

Property insurers have already disclosed more than $6 billion in losses from the tornadoes that ravaged parts of the country in April and May, so losses will not be a surprise.

Dow industrials component Travelers Companies (TRV.N) has said it expects an operating loss, and others would not surprise if they reported the same. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S expect operating losses of 64 cents a share for Travelers and $1.53 for Allstate.

"Major losses from tornadoes, other bad weather and earthquakes have eliminated earnings for many. Meanwhile, top-lines remain weak and investment yields low. In addition, the economy is hardly robust," KBW analysts said in a July 12 research note.

Share buybacks are off the table after years of multibillion-dollar programs, but KBW said share weakness was an opportunity for investors to buy companies like ACE (ACE.N) and Chubb (CB.N).

To the extent there is any good news in the quarter, some say, it may come from the Bermudan reinsurers. Langen McAlenney insurance analysts, in a July 11 note, said investors may be pleasantly surprised by premiums in Bermuda, as pricing has started to firm following years of declines.

LIFE GOOD, BUT RATES WEIGH

On the life insurance side of the industry, all signs suggest business has remained somewhat steady.

The problem for life insurers, as it has been of late, is persistently low interest rates. As long-term investments mature, the insurers have to put that capital in new long-term instruments at much lower rates. That could create problems meeting obligations in future years and force insurers to tap their surplus.

Even as low rates weigh on insurance product and annuity sales, Barclays Capital forecast double-digit growth in operating earnings per share on the effect of share buybacks and growth from acquisitions. The country's two largest life insurers, MetLife (MET.N) and Prudential (PRU.N), are both digesting substantial acquisitions from AIG (AIG.N).

"The life insurance sector could be revalued upward as these companies generate increasingly consistent results," Barclays said in a note, given the contributions they gain from their expansion of late. Analysts on average expect earnings of $1.13 per share from MetLife and $1.55 for Prudential.

BROKERS ATTRACTIVE

Given the series of catastrophes and rise in business volumes, most brokerages are optimistic about reinsurance brokers like Aon (AON.N), Willis (WSH.N) and Marsh & McLennan (MMC.N), as they stand to benefit from rising premiums.

Insurance brokers with international exposure like Arthur J Gallagher (AJG.N), Aon and Marsh should also benefit from a weak U.S. dollar, Raymond James analyst Gregory Peters said in a note.

For title insurers, analysts expect home sales to remain sluggish with the depressed real estate markets. The industry has been unable to generate meaningful earnings or premium growth in the last couple of years as business volumes continue to remain low.

"As far as industry growth is concerned I'm not expecting any surprises in the second-quarter. Things are pretty much going to remain the same," RBC Capital Markets analyst Mark Dwelle said.

(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)