Japan quake loss fears pile pressure on insurers

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European insurance stocks slumped after Japan was struck by a massive earthquake, raising fears the sector, buffeted by several natural disasters in recent months, faces another round of bumper claims.

The quake off Japan's northeastern coast, measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, triggered a 10-meter tsunami that swept away ships, houses, and farm buildings locally, and led to warnings around the Pacific basin on Friday.

Reinsurers, which help insurance companies absorb large damage claims in exchange for a share of the premiums, and typically have the greatest individual exposure to major natural catastrophes, took the brunt of the share price falls.

The top three global players Munich Re, Swiss Re and Hannover Re were all down more than 4.5 percent by 1:50 p.m. British time, though off their early lows, while the Stoxx 600 European insurance index was off 2.2 percent.

Listed insurers operating in the Lloyd's of London market were also mostly lower, with Amlin and Catlin down by 5.3 percent and 4.1 percent respectively.

The industry said it was too early to estimate how much the earthquake would cost it.

"It is absolutely impossible to give you any clue of what that would mean to us," Munich Re Chief Executive Nikolaus von Bomhard told an analyst conference. A one-in-200 year Japanese earthquake would inflict a maximum loss on the company of about 2 billion euros, he said.

Analysts said reinsurers, who have already had to pick up the bill this year for flooding and cyclones in Australia as well last month's earthquake in New Zealand, were in danger of missing profit forecasts for the year.

"It is now a near-certainty that assuming normalised developments for the rest of the year, this will be another year of above-average nat-cat losses for reinsurers, and earnings downgrades would be likely for 2011," Credit Suisse said in a research note.

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