Guessing game begins on Irene insured losses

Features Reuters

By Ben Berkowitz

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hurricane Irene is expected to have caused substantial property losses, though figures are still hard to come by because of uncertainty about wind damage, catastrophe modeling company Eqecat said on Monday.

Analysts at FBR Capital Markets said the storm may have been something of a worst-case scenario for large U.S. property insurers like Allstate Corp <ALL.N> and Travelers Companies Inc <TRV.N> -- enough to wipe out most or all of their third-quarter earnings, but not enough to cause an industry-wide increase in prices after years of weakness.

Yet shares in Allstate rose 4.2 percent and Travelers rose 3 percent in early trading, in line with European insurers who rose on relief that the damage from Irene was not as bad as had been feared. Other insurers were also higher, in line with gains in the broader market.

Millions of people throughout the northeastern United States were still flooded and without electricity Monday morning, particularly in rural Vermont and suburban New Jersey. Totaling those losses is expected to take time, as is the process of figuring out how many of the affected had government-backed flood insurance.

By some accounts, the insured losses in the Carolinas were as little as $200 million after the storm made landfall there Saturday, but impacts appear to have been far worse as the storm rolled up the coast.

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"Irene is a major event and will be responsible for significant levels of insured losses to property and people," Eqecat said in a loss report early Monday morning. It expects to have more figures later in the day.

$10 BILLION EVENT?

Before the hurricane, some feared Irene could be a $10 billion event or more. Analysts and insurance executives suggested something above $15 billion could bring a structural change to the insurance market, pushing prices higher around the world after three years of weakness.

It is unclear if Irene can hit that market. Between the Caribbean and the Carolinas, Eqecat has estimated losses of no more than $1 billion. Its competitor AIR Worldwide has forecast losses of $1.1 billion just for the Caribbean, though. The third key player in catastrophe modeling for the insurance industry, RMS, has not weighed in with a figure.

On Monday, RMS did say that the damage so far is much more likely to be from flood and storm surge than wind -- which would, by definition, get the insurance industry off the hook for most of the losses and push the payout burden onto the National Flood Insurance Program.

Shares in the world's top three reinsurers -- Munich Re <MUVGn.DE>, Swiss Re <RUKN.VX> and Hannover Re <HNRGn.DE> -- rose 3 percent as analysts said they did not expect any losses to force a change to 2011 estimates.

This year already was the most expensive for natural disasters in the history of the world, mostly because of the costs of the March earthquake in Japan.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Gould in Frankfurt. Editing by Derek Caney and Robert MacMillan)