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Industry insiders predict softer rates, higher combined ratios in 2014


NEW YORK — Property/casualty insurers are likely to experience softer rates and higher combined ratios in 2014 than they did in 2013, according to a panel of analysts and executives speaking at Standard & Poor’s Corp.’s 30th Annual Insurance Conference in New York on Thursday.

S&Ps outlook for the insurance sector, published twice a year, remains “stable,” said John Iten, an S&P director, and has been so since 2012. Overall, 76% of ratings are stable, up from 71% last year, while negative outlooks were flat at 18% and positive outlooks slipped to 6% from 10% last year, he said.

“The overwhelming number of outlooks are stable, and this supports the stable outlook on the sector as a whole,” said Mr. Iten.

Pricing, however, is expected to soften. “We see a deceleration on pricing momentum following the 2013 pricing peak,” said S&P director Patricia Kwan. “On a composite basis, we expect to see single-digit rate increases.”

Jay Gelb, managing director with Barclays Capital Inc., agreed.

“I would expect that primary commercial pricing turns negative at some point this year,” said Mr. Gelb, adding that he thinks the primary commercial insurance space “is on the cusp of a classic soft market.”

Loss ratios will also come under pressure in 2014 after a positive 2013, said panelists.

“Underwriting profitability improved in 2013”, said Mr. Iten, with the sector turning in a combined ratio of 96.7% that year compared with 102.3% in 2012.

In 2014, the figure will reverse course: “We expect 2014 combined ratio to come in between 98% and 100%,” said Ms. Kwan.

Scott Frost, director of global research at Bank of America Corp.’s Bank of America Merrill Lynch, concurred.

“We agree that combined ratios aren’t going to stay where they are — they’re going to be up,” said Mr. Frost, adding that property/casualty insurers will continue to battle low investment returns as well.

“The rate environment remains challenging and will pressure property/casualty industry profitability,” said Mr. Frost.