TEXT-S&P summary: Ageas Group

Tue Nov 27, 2012 6:37am EST

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Summary analysis -- AG Insurance ---------------------------------- 27-Nov-2012

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CREDIT RATING: Country: Belgium

Local currency A-/Stable/--

Primary SIC: Fire, marine, and

casualty

insurance

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Credit Rating History:

Local currency Foreign currency

03-Aug-2009 A-/-- --/--

29-Sep-2008 A/-- --/--

17-Jul-2008 A+/-- --/--

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Rationale

The ratings on AG Insurance reflect Standard & Poor's Ratings Services' view of Ageas' strong competitive position and strong capital adequacy. Factors weighing on the ratings, in our opinion, are Ageas' operating performance and its constrained financial flexibility.

We view Ageas' competitive position as strong. In Belgium, AG Insurance's strong position derives from a diversified sales force, diversified product ranges, and broad clientele coverage. AG Insurance's solid position in Belgium through long-term bancassurance ties and brokerage is complemented by Ageas' defendable positions abroad, particularly in the U.K. where the group recently reinforced its presence by acquiring Groupama Insurance Co. Ltd. (not rated). However, the depressed economic environment affecting Portugal weighs on our assessment of Ageas' competitive position. We also see Ageas' lack of meaningful control over its Asian affiliates as a rating weakness.

We view Ageas' capitalization as supportive of the ratings. Capital adequacy is strong, according to Standard & Poor's risk-based insurance capital model. The group's concentration risk has declined over time and therefore alleviates capital strains attached to weakening earnings in life and the overall adverse capital market environment. In 2012, the acquisition of Groupama Insurance Co. Ltd., and an additional EUR200 million share buyback in our view had a manageable impact on the group's capitalization.

We believe Ageas' long-term operating performance is good and sustained by life and non-life diversification. Ageas' markets are highly competitive in both disciplines, however, putting pressure on margin sources. Non-life earnings are constrained by a highly competitive, broker-oriented Belgian market, and exposure to natural catastrophes. Life earnings are gradually pressured by the low interest rate environment and relatively high average guarantees, despite declining guarantees on new business. Profits may in our view be subject to additional asset impairments, after those recorded on Greek government bonds, which largely impaired 2011 results, with a bottom line loss of EUR674 million. High expense ratios in property and casualty (P/C) and a high concentration of earnings in Belgium add pressure on earning prospects. The focus on Belgium is being accentuated as the contribution of Portuguese operations (Millenniumbcp Ageas Grupo Segurador S.G.P.S. S.A; MAGS; operating companies rated BB/Negative/--) is likely to be further dampened by the tough domestic environment. In life, Ageas' results are weakening and were below our base-case expectations in 2011. Ageas' reported new business margins were 0.7% in 2011, compared with Standard & Poor's expectations of at least 1%, mostly due to France and Portugal where the lower swap rate and the adverse economic environment, respectively, is affecting the group's earnings. In P/C, Ageas met our base-case scenario in Belgium with a net combined ratio of 100% in 2011 and 99% in the first nine months of 2012 excluding worker's compensation, versus 104% in 2010. Still, the group's three-year average net combined ratio remains relatively high at 102%. Similarly, in the U.K., Ageas' net combined ratio recently improved (it was 99% in the first nine months of 2012), but higher claims frequency and reserve strengthening led the group's net combined ratio to peak at 110% in 2010. We expect continuing pressure on earnings in 2012 and 2013, reflecting our belief that the maintenance of investment margins in life and more competitive pressure in non-life will be the main challenges to the group. The operating return on embedded value and new business margin are likely to be maintained respectively close to 5% and in the 0.5%-1% range over the next two years. The group's net combined ratio in Belgium will stand close to 100%, excluding the worker's compensation business that might add up to 2 percentage points to the net combined ratio. A deterioration of the net combined ratio in Portugal is in our view likely, but we expect it will continue to stand below 90% in 2012.

We view financial flexibility as good, particularly as we foresee relatively low additional capital needs from Ageas' growth prospects. Our opinion is that Ageas' recent acquisition in the U.K. and capital repurchase of EUR250 million in 2011 and EUR200 million in 2012 do not reflect long-term trends in its capital management. Pressure on financial flexibility arises from our belief that the group largely relies on its earnings capacity, which we view as only good. Currently a relatively high amount of hybrid debt remains outstanding, of which a significant part is on lent hybrid debt to Fortis Bank. Furthermore, despite recent positive actions, we believe the group has yet to build a strong enough reputation in the investment markets to access capital markets under acceptable conditions, particularly with regards to its ongoing, still not fully closed, legacy issues.

Outlook

The stable outlook reflects our assessment that Ageas' diversified business profile and carefully managed capital adequacy and investments are likely to balance the pressure on its life and non-life operating performance and provide it with sufficient latitude to withstand its reduced financial flexibility during the coming two years.

We could raise the ratings on AG Insurance if Ageas exceeds our expectations while maintaining strong levels of capital adequacy. Conversely, we could lower the ratings if the group does not meet our earnings expectations or if capital adequacy weakens to levels inconsistent with the current ratings, particularly if significant losses occurred because of legal proceedings or the general account. We could also lower the ratings if Ageas' presence in Portugal was to weaken the group's business and/or financial profile more quickly or to a greater extent than we currently expect.

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