Insurers face hit from UK floods as earnings season looms

LONDON Tue Jan 7, 2014 9:30am EST

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LONDON Jan 7 (Reuters) - Britain's insurers are preparing to pay out hundreds of millions of pounds in claims following a run of winter storms that have flooded homes and disrupted travel, though the absence of major damage should limit the impact on their 2013 results.

Insurers contacted by Reuters on Tuesday declined to estimate how much the extreme weather would cost them in terms of claims paid out to customers on the basis that the storms were ongoing and any figure would quickly become obsolete.

However, a source at the UK unit of Swiss insurer Zurich told Reuters that on one day over the Christmas holiday period, claims from customers were running at "300 percent higher than the usual daily average".

Britain's biggest listed insurers, such as Aviva, RSA and Direct Line, are all due to report full-year earnings in coming weeks and the storms, which started in December, are likely to affect fourth-quarter numbers.

Robert Muir-Wood, chief research officer at catastrophe modelling firm RMS, said the 2013-2014 winter had seen "the most severe sequence of storms since 1990".

"Individual storms may not cause significant insured flood loss but ... accumulative flood losses from several storms could become significant for some insurers and reinsurers," he said.

Britain's Environment Agency said on Tuesday it had three severe flood warnings in place across the country along with 106 secondary warnings and 201 alerts, including a dozen in London.

Train companies said it was too early to put a figure on the cost of the bad weather but 10,000 staff worked to clear lines, rebuild track and make repairs in recent weeks following 644 "serious weather-related incidents."

Analysts said, however, the final cost to insurers from flood related damage was unlikely to match the 3 billion pounds ($4.9 billion) paid out after summer floods in 2007.

Eamonn Flanagan, insurance specialist at Shore Capital, said individual insurance firms would be looking at costs amounting to "tens of millions not hundreds of millions".

"Obviously it's a real tragedy for anyone involved but is it going to move the dial in terms of full year numbers? Not to any major extent," he said.

Flanagan said that though television images of flooded homes were dramatic, the weather had yet to cause inundation of a major town or industrial facility which would then trigger potentially very large claims for disruption to business.

Aviva said in November a hurricane strength storm in southern Britain had cost it 10 million pounds, while a combination of bad weather events in Europe and Canada sparked a profit warning at rival RSA.

But Munich Re, the world's biggest reinsurer, said on Tuesday natural catastrophes globally claimed fewer lives and cost less damage in 2013 than on average over the past decade.

As extreme weather and flooding in some parts of Britain become more frequent, Britain's government and the insurance industry have moved to subsidise insurance cover for homes in high risk areas.

The industry is setting up a government-backed scheme known as Flood Re to guarantee affordable insurance to households in flood-prone areas.

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