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Insurers may face $35b bill from Japan quake damage alone

As Bermuda's insurers prepare for some hefty claims from the massive earthquake and devastating tsunami that hit Japan on Friday, catastrophe modeller Eqecat said economic losses could top $100 billion.

Insured losses could be as high as $35 billion, said another modeller AIR Worldwide, in its preliminary estimate of earthquake damage, but the company stressed that this did not include damage from the devastating tsunami that devastated coastal communities in eastern Japan, close to the quake's epicentre.

The early estimates would indicate that the event is likely to cause the biggest insurance industry payout since Hurricane Katrina and its consequent floods in 2005.

Just how big Bermuda's portion of the bill will be remains unclear. One expert from insurance broker Willis Re told Dow Jones Newswire that non-Japanese non-life reinsurers would be eligible only for commercial and industrial losses.

Several Bermuda market companies, most of whom are still calculating their losses from last month's deadly earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, saw their shares fall after the news came out early on Friday.

Worst hit was Flagstone Re, now based in Luxembourg, which fell 12.2 percent to close on $9.65. Platinum Underwriters fell 4.6 percent, Aspen Insurance Holdings tumbled 4.2 percent and Montpelier Re was also down 4.2 percent. London-listed Catlin Group also dipped 4.5 percent to 349.8p, while Axis Capital fell 2.8 percent, RenaissanceRe 2.7 percent and PartnerRe 2.2 percent.

A spokeswoman for Ace Group, whose shares actually rose 0.6 percent on Friday, said there was nothing to report yet and it could be some time before any figures were released.

A RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd. spokeswoman said it was too early for the company to make a statement, as did a spokeswoman for PartnerRe.

A spokeswoman for XL Group plc said it was too soon to comment on potential losses and that the company was monitoring the situation.

In a report on the event, Eqecat said economic damages would be “devastating” after the strong shaking affected more than 12 million people, or more than one in ten of the Japanses population.

Eqecat said infrastructure damage would likely cost more than $30 billion, after roads bridges and railways lines were hit by the quake and the tsunami.

It estimated that there were around two million homes in the worst hit eastern areas of the country, such as Ibaraki, Tochigi, Fukushima, Miyagi, and that about 30 percent of them would probably have suffered damage, adding up to costs of $20 billion. This figure could double with damage to contents of homes and living expenses for those forced to evacuate.

Fires broke out after the quake struck during Friday afternoon, some of the biggest at oil refineries. Eqecat estimated the fires to cost between $5 billion and $10 billion.

The tsunami floods swept away thousands of cars and dozens of boats. Automobile and property losses from flooding could top $20 billion, while marine losses, which would include damage to ports could be $10 billion.

“The Lloyd's insurers would be more at risk here than the reinsurers,” Collins Stewart analyst Ben Cohen said in a note on Friday.

“Catlin looks to have the highest exposure at 16 percent of net asset value, along with Hardy at 16 percent. Lancashire has 15 per cent and Hiscox nine per cent.”

Among reinsurers, Swiss Re appears to have the biggest exposure of seven percent of tangible net asset value, Mr Cohen added, with Scor at four pecent and Hannover Re at three percent.

According to AIR, earthquake insurance penetration in Japan is relatively low, ranging between 14 to 17 percent nationwide.

James Vickers, chairman of Willis Re international and specialty, part of Willis Group Holdings, told Dow Jones that the financial exposure of foreign re/insurance companies to the earthquake could be limited with Sendai, the area most directly affected being “not one of the key areas of major economic activity in Japan and sums insured are consequently much lower than in the Tokyo, Nagoya or Osaka areas”.

Also, housing insurance in Japan is provided by domestic insurers, using a government-backed pooling programme managed by Japan EQ Re.

“So, for non-life companies, the only losses which are eligible to be reinsured outside of Japan are those arising from commercial and industrial risks,” Mr Vickers said.

Earthquake coverage in Japan isn't automatically given under insurance policies, “but are purchased separately with a lower penetration” rate, he added.

“While this event is unique, it is worth noting that in the most recent major earthquake in Japan, the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in Kobe, the economic loss was estimated to be in the region of 2.5 percent of Japan's [gross domestic product] at the time and the insured loss was only in the region of $3 billion which was mostly retained domestically,” he said.

The reinsurance industry has seen a downward pressure on rates for some time, because

Analysts at stockbroker Jefferies International estimated the total insured loss from the quake would be “significant but manageable” at about $10 billion, not enough to buck the downward pricing trend.

“We expect some rate momentum in the upcoming Japanese/CAT renewals, but not enough for the industry cycle to turn,” they wrote in a note.

Last year, analysts polled by Reuters said a natural catastrophe would need to cause an insured loss of over $40 billion to lift prices across the market.

A spokesman for American International Group Inc. declined to comment on the company's exposure.

AM Best Co said the impact of such a big market event would be significant and that its analysts were currently evaluating the preliminary information and the impact on rated companies based in or doing business in Japan.

A ferry stranded on a building is seen in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan yesterday, two days after a powerful earthquake-triggered tsunami hit the country's east coast. (AP Photo/The Yumiuri Shimbun)

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Published March 14, 2011 at 10:00 am (Updated March 14, 2011 at 9:59 am)

Insurers may face $35b bill from Japan quake damage alone

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