Reinsurers May Prove a Good Bet
Worries About Exposure
To Tough Hurricane Season
Could Be Overexaggerated
By IAN MCDONALD and LIAM PLEVEN
August 14, 2006; Page C4
Worries about the shares of reinsurance firms this hurricane season might just be a tempest in a teapot.
Of the roughly $83 billion in insured losses from natural disasters world-wide last year -- most of them in the U.S. -- some $40 billion was paid out by reinsurers, according to reinsurance broker Guy Carpenter & Co., a unit of Marsh & McLennan Cos.
"The reinsurance industry took it on the chin," says Joshua Shanker, an insurance-industry analyst at Citigroup Inc. Reinsurers are frequently little-known companies, often based in Bermuda, that backstop the policies that insurance companies sell to individuals and businesses.
But bold investors might be smart to bet that fears of another record storm season are exaggerated. The stocks of many reinsurers are trading at skimpy multiples of their projected profits. Some Wall Street bargain hunters sniff an opportunity because the stocks are priced as if last year's record storm season is the new norm.
Federal forecasters warned last week that despite a relatively quiet start to this year's storm season, they still expect above-average hurricane activity. Shares of reinsurers are down more than 4% on average this year, according to Morningstar Inc., compared with a 3.5% gain for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
"There's a fear of record hurricanes again this year that's easy to understand but also probably irrational," said Richard Pzena, head of Pzena Investment Management LLC and manager of the $5.7 billion John Hancock Classic Value Fund. He began investing in reinsurers like RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd. and IPC Holdings Ltd. last year. "It's one of these very big upside areas with potentially very little downside."
"I think many of the stocks are already discounting a pretty active storm season," adds Gabriel Solomon, an insurance-stock analyst at T. Rowe Price Group Inc., which owned shares of reinsurers such as XL Capital Ltd. and Aspen Insurance Holdings Ltd. as of March 31, according to regulatory filings.
Many in the business are betting big on a calmer storm season. Anticipating potential profits, Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group, a unit of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., pocketed $1.7 billion in premiums in the first six months of the year, more than twice as much as last year.
If the bulls are correct, that could be good news for investors in many reinsurers, particularly those with exposure to wind risk. At numerous companies, premiums and deductibles for wind coverage have risen sharply, and many underwriters have been more selective in writing policies.
At RenaissanceRe, selling property insurance for natural catastrophes is the company's largest single business. On Aug. 1, the company reported an overall 32% second-quarter increase in net premiums written, an industry term for the amount of premiums taken in, minus the risk passed on to other reinsurers. With premiums up significantly this year, Bill Riker, the company's president, told investors that the company has improved its risk/reward equation but that its risk is "about flat."
Citigroup's Mr. Shanker, who doesn't own the stock, rates RenaissanceRe's stock a "hold." Citigroup has done business with RenaissanceRe in the past 12 months, and makes a market in its shares.
Everest Re Group Ltd. estimated in a regulatory filing that it could have a loss of $415 million after taxes from a once-in-100-years hurricane in the U.S. But the company has a diversified portfolio of policies, its fundamentals are strong and a repeat of last year's hurricane season already is priced into its stock, according to William Yankus, an analyst at Fox-Pitt, Kelton.
Everest Re declined to comment. Mr. Yankus has a "buy" recommendation on Everest. (He doesn't own the shares; Fox-Pitt doesn't trade in the shares.)
Reinsurer Aspen Insurance Holdings has diversified its business, but still has significant exposure to catastrophe risks. Mr. Solomon of T. Rowe Price says the company has diversified its risks a bit and should do well "as long as it's not a ridiculously active hurricane season." Aspen officials weren't available to comment.
Each of these stocks trades at or below seven times the company's projected per-share earnings for next year, which is a little more than one-third the price/earnings ratio of the average stock in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. They also trade at lower valuations than financial giants like insurer American International Group Inc. and mammoth bank Citigroup Inc., according to Thomson Financial.
In 4 p.m. composite trading Friday on the New York Stock Exchange, RenaissanceRe's shares edged down 36 cents, or 0.7%, to $47.73. Shares of Everest and Aspen edged up 0.1% and down 0.4%, respectively, on the Big Board.
Each also is trading slightly below its average price-to-book value ratio over the past five years, according to researcher Capital IQ. The price-to-book value ratio is a measure of a stock's current price compared with the per-share value of what would be left if liabilities were subtracted from assets.
Of course, profits are hardly assured in these risky businesses. Even bulls like Mr. Pzena acknowledge that while they are an intriguing opportunity, they aren't suitable for big positions in most portfolios. Obviously, if the hurricane season is as severe as last year, many reinsurers could take a big hit. Some of the nation's most devastating hurricanes have arrived in the second half of August, including Katrina last year and Andrew in 1992. Last year, Rita hit in late September and Wilma struck in October.
In a recent research report, Mr. Yankus of Fox-Pitt listed 15 reinsurance companies and estimated that if there were a repeat of last year's storms their stock prices would be 13.5% lower on average in six months.
Mr. Yankus also predicted a "relief rally" if investors conclude that the risk from hurricanes is past. In a "normal" hurricane season, he estimated the stocks would rise 12.2% on average in six months. In a quiet season, he forecasts a 16.6% gain.