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Insured losses fall as hurricane cycle cools

Not so many: A sign outside a business in Florida shortly before Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005. It has now been a record-equalling ten years since a Category 3 or above hurricane made landfall in the US

Global insured losses for the first half of this year have plunged to $16.5 billion, which is close to half the ten-year average of $29 billion.

That is the finding of Swiss Re, the world’s second-largest reinsurer, in its preliminary estimates for the first six months of 2015.

And experts say there are signs that the Atlantic hurricane season, traditionally the biggest driver of global insured losses, may have entered a relatively quiet period that could last for ten to 15 years.

This is the third consecutive year that insured losses from natural catastrophes during the first six months of the year have been below the average for the 2005-2014 period.

Conversely, the global insurance industry covered almost half of economic losses caused by natural and man-made disasters during the first half of this year, a full 45 per cent, which is well above the ten-year average of 27 per cent, according to Swiss Re’s data.

A lack of disasters and catastrophes in regions with strong insurance market penetration has resulted in declining levels of insured losses since 2011, the year that saw the double disaster of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

It has been a record-equalling ten years since a major hurricane (Category 3 or above) made landfall in the US. The last was Wilma in 2005.

Aon Benfield, which is part of reinsurance intermediary and capital adviser Aon, commented on the falling trend in insured losses in its latest reinsurance outlook report. It said: “Should current trends from the first half of the year continue, there are currently no regions of the world on pace to surpass their ten-year average in 2015.”

Florida is the US state that has historically been most affected by hurricanes and tropical storms. Since 1871 there have been only five occasions, including the current one, when a ten-year period has elapsed between Category 3 hurricane landfalls.

According to the Florida-based National Hurricane Centre mid-August traditionally marks the start of the peak hurricane season in the Atlantic, but this year has yet to see its first Atlantic hurricane.

Jim Lynch, chief actuary at the Insurance Information Institute in New York, said the big insured losses tend to come from hurricanes striking the southeast US.

“The hurricane cycle tends to be a good indicator for the industry. There has been nothing significant in Florida since 2005,” he said.

“In terms of hurricanes it has been a fallow time. The hurricane forecasters are starting to think we are moving into a period of lower hurricane activity that could last for the next ten to 15 years. That’s what they are thinking at the moment, although the science is not exact.

“There is a cyclical pattern and we were in the peak period during the past ten years.”

The hurricane cycle is known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or AMO, and is influenced by the sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic. When the sea temperatures are cooler there tends to be less hurricane activity.

Since 2012 the AMO has been negative, with cooler sea temperatures, according to Colorado State University scientist Phil Klotzbach, who spoke on the matter with the Houston Chronicle in May.

Insured losses attributed to hurricanes have waned for most of the past decade, with the exception of Hurricane Sandy, which caused $65 billion of damage when it hit the northeastern US in 2012.

That said, natural disasters have not gone away. They have shown up in places with much lower levels of insurance penetration. The earthquakes in Nepal, in April and May, claimed more than 9,000 lives and caused economic losses of at least $5 billion, of which only $160 million were insured losses.

“The tragic events in Nepal are a reminder of the utility of insurance,” said Kurt Karl, chief economist at Swiss Re, in a note on the company’s preliminary sigma estimates for the first-half of this year.

“Insurance cover does not lessen the emotional trauma that natural catastrophes inflict, but it can help people better manage the financial fallout from disasters so they can start to rebuild their lives.”

This point was picked up by Mr Lynch, who said insurance penetration rates were low in the Nepal earthquake region, and in the Philippines where some large typhoons have struck this year. He said the insurance industry was looking at how to increase coverage in those markets.

However, he does not feel it is the lack of big insured losses, and the consequential soft market conditions, that are driving the wave of mergers and acquisitions among insurers and reinsurers.

“What is driving that, more than a lack of catastrophes, is the emergence of new capital. You have collateralised reinsurance and cat bonds. And when the companies are booking profits they have to find ways to deploy that capital,” he said.