W.R. Berkley Posts Q1 Gains But Cites ‘Painfully Competitive’ Reinsurance

By Mark Hollmer | April 28, 2014

For W.R. Berkley Corp., sobering results from its global reinsurance division were a blemish on an otherwise successful 2014 first quarter, during which the Greenwich, Conn.-based company enjoyed overall gains in net income, gross premiums written and returns on equity.

Chairman and CEO William R. Berkley chose to focus generally on the positive.

“We are very pleased with the quarter,” he said during his company’s quarterly earnings call for shareholders.

The company reported nearly $170 million in net income during the quarter, or $1.25 per share, up from $116.6 million in the 2013 first quarter. Gross and net premiums written all made solid gains year-over-year. Berkley’s return on equity reached 15.7 percent, up from 10.8 percent compared to last year’s first quarter.

The company said it expected price increases to remain obtainable in most of its business lines.

The overall combined ratio also improved to 93.9 from 94.7, and Berkley repurchased 4.8 million shares of its common stock. What’s more, book value per share jumped to $34.30, a 4.6 percent increase.

But global reinsurance remained a challenge because the sector continued to confront major changes in how it conducts business, President and Chief Operating Officer W. Robert Berkley, Jr. explained during the call.

“The reinsurance market remains painfully competitive. The combination of an ongoing change in the approach that the cedent companies are taking to buying, combined with the increasing participation from nontraditional capacity coming into this space [such as hedge funds] is putting a tremendous amount of pressure on the market,” Berkley said.

He explained that the company sees traditional reinsurance market participants as “grappling with this new reality and trying to figure out what their model will be going forward.”

Much of this transformation is taking place in the U.S. and western European reinsurance markets, as well as with some global accounts, Berkley said, though he added that “this new phenomenon within the reinsurance space is spreading to other regions.”

Berkley’s global reinsurance business has faced some struggles. The division reported close to $173.7 million in net premiums written during the quarter, down from $185.7 million in the 2013 first quarter. The combined ratio for Berkley’s global reinsurance hit 97.4 during the quarter, compared to 91.3 in the same quarter a year ago.

Berkley said during the company’s earnings call that the reinsurance results stemmed, in part, from “a change in our appetite for property exposure in Asia. We made a strategic decision to dial that down a bit and be bit more selective than we had been.” Moving ahead, he said “we are going to continue to reduce our participation in the property reinsurance market in Asia, and it is very possible it will impact our top line.”

He reiterated, however, that “there is probably some opportunity” remaining in reinsurance, “but not as much as in other segments.”

The elder Berkley, the chairman and CEO, said he expects some reinsurance industry consolidation, particularly among mid-sized players, unless they are in a specialized niche. He added the company will still be part of the reinsurance space as it migrates to the use of more alternative capital, although he’s not sure what Berkley’s final strategy will look like.

“There are opportunities to manage alternative capital [in reinsurance] but it has got to be very long-term alternative capital,” he said. “We view this different than most people, and we view it as a long-term business. It’s probably not best designed for hedge fund investors who, for the most part, don’t have a long-term view.

“We’re just trying to mull it over, to think about how we want to do it and where we want to do it.”
Berkley’s biggest gains were on the domestic front, with the sector producing more than $1.1 billion in net premiums written, versus just under $986.2 million over the same period a year ago. The GAAP combined ratio for the sector dropped to 92.2, from 95.5 in the 2013 first quarter.

Berkley’s international insurance division generally performed well, producing $225.8 million in net premiums written, versus $205.13 million last year. But the GAAP combined ratio grew to 99.3 versus 93.8 in the 2013 first quarter.

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