* Q1 pretax profit down 4.7 pct to 151.8 mln euros
* Premiums steady at 2.73 bln euros
* Combined ratio 96.4 pct vs 96.9 yr ago, 100.6 end-2013 (Adds investor presentation, comment from CEO, analyst, share price)
By Angelika Gruber
VIENNA, May 27 (Reuters) - Vienna Insurance Group’s first-quarter profit fell 4.7 percent, slightly less than expected, as the group made money in all of its central and eastern European markets for the first time since the financial crisis began.
Emerging Europe’s biggest insurer reported profit before tax of 151.8 million euros ($207.2 million), partly reflecting a return to profit at its struggling Romanian business.
Chief Executive Peter Hagen said on Tuesday the group faced a “hit” of just a few million euros from widespread flooding in the Balkans that hit Serbia and Bosnia especially hard.
“What I can say definitely is that our reinsurance programme will ensure that we will be affected only very marginally. There will be a hit, but we are probably talking about a few million euros net - so nothing really dramatic - for the group,” he told Reuters.
Vienna’s Romanian arm eked out a profit of 500,000 euros before tax in the quarter after losing 2.9 million a year earlier. Premiums fell nearly 19 percent to 82 million.
Hagen said last month he expected Romania to return to profit this year after a 75 million euro writedown in 2013 to reflect tough competition. He said on Tuesday it was too early to say how sustainable the upturn in Romania would be.
The group, whose biggest market is Austria, said total premiums edged up 1 percent to 2.73 billion euros and would have risen nearly 3 percent excluding exchange-rate swings.
Analysts polled by Reuters had on average expected pretax profit to fall 7.5 percent to 147 million euros on premiums of 2.73 billion.
Vienna’s shares rose 0.4 percent to 38.825 euros by 0800 GMT, in line with European peers. Berenberg analysts said the earnings were “robust” but unlikely to change consensus earnings expectations much.
Vienna said higher interest expenses for a new subordinated bond and the strong euro had weighed on pretax profit.
The company’s combined ratio - a measure of profitability in the property and accident segments - improved to 96.4 percent from 100.6 percent at the end of 2013. It had been 96.9 in the year-earlier quarter.
“A substantial reduction of more than four percentage points in the combined ratio confirms that the measures taken in the second half of 2013 were correct,” Hagen said in a statement.
One-off effects in Italy and Romania had contributed to a 2013 pretax profit drop of 37 percent to 355.1 million euros. These two businesses still weigh on the group’s combined ratio.
Vienna’s Italian car insurance business posted heavy losses last year after getting a flood of claims from customers across the country. It has scaled back its Italian business, cut ties with many brokers, changed local management and focused on customers in northern Italy.
Premiums at its Italian motor business contracted 63 percent in the quarter, with premiums from its Italian business overall down 55 percent.
Hagen said Vienna was taking a conservative approach while building reserves for its shrinking business in Italy.
“We expect that if this trend continues then the relative impact of the portfolio will decrease. I still expect Italy to produce a loss this year given this conservative provisioning.”
$1 = 0.7325 Euros Additional reporting by Michael Shields. Editing by Jane Merriman