Zurich Insurance Falls as Greco Fails to Convince on Growth

  • One-time gains and lower disaster claims boost profit
  • Company expects support from markets, rate increases in 2017

Zurich Insurance Group AG fell in Zurich trading after posting a quarterly profit supported by one-time gains as Chief Executive Officer Mario Greco presses ahead with an overhaul of Switzerland’s largest insurer.

Net income for the three months through December amounted to $685 million compared with a loss of $424 million a year earlier due to restructuring costs and claims from storms in Britain and Ireland, the Zurich-based company said Thursday in a statement.

Greco is stepping up cost cuts as ultra-low interest rates chip away at investment income and below-average catastrophe claims keep prices for property and casualty insurance on hold. The company said it eliminated $300 million in annual spending in 2016.

“We remain skeptical about Zurich’s turnaround plans,” Thomas Seidl, an analyst at Bernstein in London, said in a note to clients. “The track record of past cost-cutting exercises is not strong and the people involved have not changed that much.”

The shares fell as much as 2 percent, the most since November, to 278.10 francs at 10:37 a.m., while the Bloomberg 500 Europe Insurance Index was up 0.1 percent.

Full-year net income rose 74 percent to $3.2 billion, matching the average of 10 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. As last year, Zurich proposed a dividend of 17 Swiss francs.

“It was a turbulent year,” Greco said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “Markets were tough. We made lots of changes, but results came out very strong. They give us optimism for ’17 and the next years.”

General insurance recorded an operating profit of $611 million, after a loss of $120 million a year ago. The global corporate unit, under restructuring for more than a year, “has not yet achieved a satisfactory level of profitability, and the focus remains on further improvement in the portfolio,” Zurich said.

The combined ratio in general insurance was 98.5 percent for the quarter. A measure of more than 100 means the unit is paying out more in claims and costs than it’s collecting in premiums. Zurich said in prepared remarks the combined ratio would improve this year as the company continues cutting costs. 

The unit benefited from $34 million in proceeds from a sale of German real estate and $13 million of “favorable” foreign exchange movements, said Barclays Plc analyst Claudia Gaspari, adding that the expense ratio came in higher than expected.

“We downgraded Zurich to sell last month due to concerns about its premium valuation, which isn’t justified in view of its constrained growth prospects,” said Nick Holmes, a Societe Generale analyst.

Hurricane Claims

Zurich paid out $47 million to cover claims on damages caused by Hurricane Matthew, Chief Financial Officer George Quinn told reporters in Zurich.

Operating profit at the global life unit rose 4.3 percent to $312 million as higher profit in the Asia Pacific region and from Latin America offset a decline in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

“Once again, headwinds mean insurers need to cut more costs -- and faster -- to stand still,” Gaspari said.

— With assistance by Chris Malpass

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