Catastrophes Prompt Investor Interest in Reinsurance

By Katherine Chiglinsky and Sonali Basak | February 9, 2018

The $500 billion reinsurance industry is experiencing a flurry of deal talks.

This image made from video shows several damaged houses by Hurricane Irma in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Hurricane Irma weakened slightly Thursday with sustained winds of 175 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm boasted 185 mph winds for a more than 24-hour period, making it the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm was expected to arrive in Cuba by Friday. It could hit the Florida mainland by late Saturday, according to hurricane center models. (AP Photo/Ian Brown)

One reason: Companies are finally for sale as a rash of natural disasters has depressed valuations and a influx of competitors has made it harder to raise rates.

“When things are not for sale, nobody can buy,” said John Marra, a partner in PwC’s transaction-services practice. “You have a lot of willing sellers right now. They see complex deals getting done, they see big checks getting written.”

From Bermuda to Switzerland, the reinsurance industry is luring interest from investors looking to generate returns. Swiss Re AG said Wednesday that it was in talks with SoftBank Group Corp.’s Masayoshi Son about the Japanese firm acquiring a stake. Germany’s Allianz SE is among companies potentially interested in buying XL Group Ltd., people with knowledge of the matter said this week.

Capital Influx

Reinsurers are essentially insurers for insurers, providing backstops to other companies while earning premiums that they can then use to invest elsewhere. In recent years, the business has seen a flood of new entrants – including hedge fund managers David Einhorn and Dan Loeb – with the injection of capital pushing down reinsurance rates and pressuring returns.

The ramped-up competition prompted Warren Buffett – whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns reinsurer General Re – to lament in 2016 that the industry’s prospects had worsened.

Then came Harvey, Irma and Maria. Those storms led to the most expensive U.S. hurricane season on record, and analysts waited to see if insurance losses would boost reinsurance rates. But prices rose less than expected, and those disasters compressed reinsurer valuations, helping drive some of the dealmaking, Wells Fargo & Co. analyst Elyse Greenspan said. XL was trading at less than its book value earlier this year, making it a prospect for a takeover.

Validus Deal

Validus Holdings Ltd. dealt with losses from three hurricanes and an earthquake in Mexico in the third quarter alone, helping reduce its price-to-book value. American International Group Inc. agreed in January to buy the Bermuda-based reinsurer for $5.56 billion in cash, a 46 percent premium to the target company’s closing price before the deal was announced.

Those catastrophe losses might spur more consolidation for Bermuda reinsurers this year, while the U.S. tax overhaul has diluted the pricing advantage the companies enjoyed with Bermuda’s low rate, according to a Fitch Ratings report.

It’s difficult for Bermuda firms to “reduce prices or become more competitive, because they really haven’t gained any more advantage,” Fitch analyst Brian Schneider said Thursday in an interview. The U.S. companies “have much more flexibility to do things with the extra returns they’re getting from lower taxes.”

‘Take Risks’

One of the industry’s main attractions is something Buffett refers to often: float. That’s the money insurers collect in premiums, which they can invest while waiting to pay out claims.

“You can take risks on both sides of the balance sheet,” Paul Newsome, a Sandler O’Neill & Partners LP analyst, said in an interview. “That’s the basis for what Berkshire Hathaway does.”

As a result, reinsurers are attracting a wide variety of potential buyers, PwC’s Marra said. Private equity firms, pension funds and family offices have been kicking the tires, as well as rival Asian firms looking to expand in the U.S. and Bermuda.

“Because complex, significant, big-check transactions have gotten done, folks that might not have been a seller two, three, four years ago are entertaining deals because they think the right price can be achieved,” Marra said.