The U.S. insurance industry is suffering from lower property-casualty premiums, bad weather claims and interest rates that are still too low to move the needle, according to earnings reports by some of the largest players this week.
Although MetLife, Prudential Financial, American International Group, and Allstate each handily beat expectations for first-quarter profits, some of their underlying businesses showed signs of weakness.
Across the industry, insurers had to pay out higher claims for catastrophes due to extreme weather conditions.
A single hailstorm in Texas cost Allstate over $250 million during the quarter, Chief Executive Tom Wilson said in an interview. Cyclone Debbie, a tropical storm near Australia, also hurt some insurers. Travelers Companies Inc cited a variety of weather issues for its 11 percent decline in quarterly profit when reporting results last month.
UBS analysts cut full-year estimates for several companies through 2018 this week, citing margins that were "generally deteriorating."
Unusual items also weighed on results. MetLife's bottom line was hurt by a $602 million net loss on its derivatives portfolio, as well as higher legal costs and higher effective taxes in Japan. Profits at AIG were crimped by a change in U.K. regulations regarding certain bodily injury claims.
A restructuring at MetLife and a turnaround effort at AIG are uniquely affecting their businesses as well. MetLife plans to spin off a retail business called Brighthouse Financial, pending regulatory approval. AIG has been divesting chunks of its operation to return capital to shareholders.
Despite the lumpiness in results, analysts and insurance executives are hopeful that a continued rise in interest rates, combined with cost-cutting efforts and better business practices, will bolster profits going forward. AIG, for instance, reported lower but more profitable net premiums written in all three of its major business units.
Although the price of individual premiums is generally not falling, many insurers are writing fewer policies as they become more selective about the risks they take on.
Another bright spot: insurers said their investment portfolios performed well because of gains on alternative investments, such as hedge funds, venture capital, and private equity.
"Financial markets are better today than they were a year ago," Sandler O'Neill analyst Paul Newsome said in an interview.