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Society needs 'to wake up' to climate change, says reinsurance CFO after heavy losses

  • Despite the earnings blow, it said it would proceed with a proposed share buyback of up to 1 billion Swiss francs ($1.00 billion) that starts on Friday
  • Despite hurting profits, higher catastrophe costs can ease pressure on pricing in reinsurance markets

The world needs to understand that climate change is a fact, the chief financial officer of Swiss Re told CNBC, as the firm posted a $468 million nine-month net loss after several recent catastrophes.

"I think society really needs to wake up and realize that things are changing and if you continue to build in areas that are subject to flood, you need to be prepared to actually deal with the aftermath of flood," David Cole, CFO of Swiss Re, told CNBC Thursday.

The world's second-largest reinsurer said its nine-month property and casualty combined ratio, a measure of underwriting profitability, rose to 114.1 percent on the back of the heavy natural disaster claims. A figure above 100 percent indicates a loss.

Swiss Re and other reinsurers act as financial backstops for insurance companies, helping them cover the cost of claims from natural and man-made disasters.

Following disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and Australia's Cyclone Debbie, the reinsurer expects natural catastrophe claims to reach $4 billion.

Cole told CNBC that everyone needs "to realize climate change is a fact and we need to prepare for that."

"Our role is to make people aware, to help people understand the risk they face and also to put a price on that risk. If these prices are unsustainable we need to signal that to the market," he added.

Despite the earnings blow, it said it would proceed with a proposed share buyback of up to 1 billion Swiss francs ($1.00 billion) that starts on Friday, adding it was able to absorb the losses and maintain financial flexibility due to strong capitalization.

The Zurich-based group joined a chorus of insurers and reinsurers looking to raise rates after what looks set to be their most costly quarter on record.

"We expect pricing conditions to improve going forward — not only in reinsurance but also in commercial insurance," Chief Executive Christian Mumenthaler said in a statement.

The Swiss Re building in Zurich is shown in this Feb. 19, 2009 photo.
Christian Hartmann | Reuters
The Swiss Re building in Zurich is shown in this Feb. 19, 2009 photo.

Despite hurting profits, higher catastrophe costs can ease pressure on pricing in reinsurance markets.

The industry, which derives a portion of earnings directly from premiums when these exceed loss payouts and another from investments on the huge sums of capital reinsurers must hold, has been squeezed for years by falling industry prices coupled with low interest rates.

A turnaround in prices would be the first major reversal since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.