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Ace shares rise 4.2% after profits beat expectations

NEW YORK ( Bermuda) - Ace Ltd, the Swiss insurer with operations in more than 50 countries, will wait for the right buyout, even if it means holding cash at near record-low interest rates, chief executive officer Evan Greenberg said.

“You don’t just say, ‘I’ve got money, let me go out and deploy it,’” Greenberg said yesterday in a conference call. “If you do that, what will you do? You’ll buy big and ugly. You’ll be sorry what you did. Whatever you do, you have to live with for a long time.”

His comments came after Ace shares rose more than four percent yesterday after fourth-quarter profit of $750 million beat analysts’ expectations and the insurer raised its full-year earnings forecast.

Mr Greenberg has used acquisitions to expand in nations including Malaysia and Ecuador and to build business like US crop insurance. He said more insurers may be available as financial firms struggle with writedowns and face tighter regulations on capital.

An acquisition may increase the company’s return on equity, said Greg Locraft, an analyst at Morgan Stanley. The Zurich-based insurer is earning “next to nothing” on its excess capital as the Federal Reserve keeps it benchmark rate near zero to stimulate the economy, Locraft said on the call.

“You’ve got to be patient, and things happen,” Mr Greenberg said. “I wish it were as simple as ‘You got some money and, boy you know, let’s just this week look around and there you go.’”

Ace rose $2.90, or 4.2 percent, to $72.50 in New York trading yesterday. The insurer has gained about 16 percent in the past year.

Net income slipped 25 percent to $750 million as investment gains narrowed. The company’s average market yield on its fixed-maturity portfolio fell to 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter from 3.6 percent a year earlier, the company said in a financial supplement.

Ace increased its forecast for full-year operating profit.

The variable-annuity business net loss was $660 million, Ace said. Mr Greenberg has been diversifying risk by expanding through acquisitions in countries including Malaysia and South Korea and adding business lines such as crop insurance.

“As a result of an historic drop in interest rates - the lowest level in over 100 years - and an equity market correction driven by Federal Reserve action and a flight to safety by investors, we incurred a substantial charge,” Greenberg said in the statement.

The insurer raised its forecast for 2011 operating profit to a range of $6.55 to $6.75 from $6 to $6.20 given in July. Book value, a measure of assets minus liabilities, declined to $70.60 a share from $71.36 as of June 30.

Ace earned 9.7 cents for every dollar of premium from property and casualty customers in the quarter, down from 11.6 cents a year earlier. The pretax cost from natural disasters rose 25 percent to $121 million from $97 million in last year’s third quarter.

Chubb Corp and Travelers Cos, which rely more on US property and casualty coverage, reported profit declines on losses from Hurricane Irene, which lashed states from North Carolina to Vermont. Chubb’s net income plunged 48 percent and Travelers had a 67 percent decline in third-quarter profit.

Careful buyer: ACE chairman and CEO Evan Greenberg

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Published February 02, 2012 at 1:00 am (Updated February 02, 2012 at 7:05 am)

Ace shares rise 4.2% after profits beat expectations

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