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Contagion biggest threat to insurers in Greek crisis


LONDON (Reuters)—Greece’s debt crisis has stirred fears of a wider euro zone sovereign credit meltdown that would be damaging for insurers, although the sector should be able to easily withstand any losses on its Greek debt, analysts said.

Most European insurers’ holdings of Greek government bonds are small relative to their overall portfolios, enabling them to absorb any losses in the event of a default or restructuring, according to ratings agencies and equity analysts.

But Greece’s escalating crisis has reawakened fears that other heavily indebted but far larger euro zone members such as Spain or Italy could be forced into default, potentially inflicting bigger losses on holders of their bonds.

“Insurers’ exposure to Greece is relatively limited, with only a couple of exceptions,” said James Shuck, an analyst at stockbroker Jefferies International in London.

“The issue is one of contagion.”

Fears of an imminent Greek default eased on Wednesday after the country’s parliament backed a package of tough austerity measures, putting it on course to secure fresh international bailout cash and continue servicing its debts.

The Stoxx 600 European insurance share index rose 2% in the wake of the Greek vote, but is still down 5.8% in the past two months, weighed in part by concerns the Greek crisis could spread, analysts say.

Any spread of default worries to major euro zone nations likely would be accompanied by a slump in stock markets and a sharp rise in credit spreads, potentially sapping economic growth and piling further pressure on the insurance industry.

“If you look at the amount of paper outstanding issued by other peripheral countries, we’re talking about much larger numbers,” said Federico Faccio, a senior director in the insurance group at ratings agency Fitch.

“So any further dislocation to the price of these holdings, and also equity prices, would certainly be a much bigger area of concern.”

Italy’s Generali is the insurer with the greatest exposure to Greek sovereign bonds, with holdings of €3 billion ($4.26 billion), followed by Groupama of France with €2 billion ($2.84 billion), Barclays Capital said last week.

Other insurers with significant exposure are Axa, Allianz and Ageas, with holdings of €1.9 billion ($2.7 billion), €1.3 billion ($1.84 billion) and €1.1 billion ($1.56 billion) respectively.

Insurers with the biggest holdings of bonds issued by the four most critically indebted euro zone nations—Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy—tend to be those with the biggest operations in those countries, analysts say.

This is because insurers mainly hold a country’s debt to fund local currency payments to policyholders there, although some also hold sovereign debt purely for investment purposes.

The European Central Bank in December said insurers’ exposure to risky euro zone government bonds was “manageable” overall, with euro area sovereign debt overall accounting for 17% of the industry’s financial assets.

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