* Q3 profit up 7.3 pct to 141.5 mln eur vs poll avg 142 mln
* Gross premiums rise 3.4 pct to 2.14 bln eur
* Combined ratio in first 9 months 96.9 pct
* Sees good Q4 barring disasters or market turmoil (Recasts with CEO quotes, adds market reaction)
VIENNA, Nov 27 (Reuters) - Vienna Insurance Group is eyeing takeovers to fuel growth in central and eastern Europe (CEE) and cement its market leadership in the region that is powering profits, it said on Tuesday.
“There are new offers nearly every week. We are constantly reviewing opportunities,” Chief Executive Peter Hagen told reporters after the group posted a 7.3 percent gain in third-quarter profit before tax, in line with market expectations.
Poland and Hungary top the wish list for the Austrian group, which is armed with a 1.5 billion euro war chest, and wants to expand in the region, where a growing middle class is fuelling demand for insurance products.
Quarterly pretax profit of 141.5 million euros ($183.5 million) matched estimates of analysts polled by Reuters. Gross premiums grew 3.4 percent to 2.14 billion euros versus market expectations of 2.17 billion.
“Provided that no natural disasters occur and there are no adverse developments in the capital market, the management of Vienna Insurance Group believes that the positive developments seen in the first three quarters of 2012 will continue in the last quarter of this year,” it said.
Vienna shares came off early highs to gain 0.9 percent to 35.465 euros by 1025 GMT, outpacing a 0.6 percent increase in the Stoxx European insurance sector index.
“The mid-term outlook is still good, it is well capitalised with a solvency ratio above 200 percent, and they are growing very strongly especially in central and eastern Europe where they are market leader in many countries,” said analyst Thomas Neuhold at Kepler Capital Markets.
“I think the mid- to long-term growth story is still intact.”
The group’s combined ratio - a measure of underwriting profitability - dipped to 96.9 percent for the first nine months of the year despite 110 million euros in net claims for damage from severe weather in Austria and the Czech Republic.
A combined ratio below 100 percent shows the group is making an underwriting profit.
Hagen said the group’s focus on CEE was paying off, with more than half the group’s premiums and revenue coming from the region, where rising standards of living are boosting demand for insurance products.
Premiums in Poland alone rose by nearly two thirds in the first nine months to 1.2 billion euros. But Hagen called Romania a “problem child” given a weak market in which Vienna’s premiums fell nearly 15 percent in the first three quarters.
Hagen said last month the group was reviewing “two or three” potential takeover candidates in the CEE region in deals that would be worth less than 100 million euros.
Vienna has been trading at around 10 times 12-month forward earnings, a premium to peers such as Zurich Financial at nearly 9 times and Swiss Life at under 7, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine, which ranks analyst estimates by previous accuracy.
$1 = 0.7713 euros Reporting by Angelika Gruber and Michael Shields; Editing by Mark Potter and Helen Massy-Beresford