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Big quake cost estimate weighs on insurers

Posted On: Mar. 14, 2011 12:00 AM CST

(Reuters)—Shares in European insurers fell steeply on Monday after analysts estimated over the weekend that the Japanese earthquake could cost the industry nearly $35 billion, making it one of the most expensive disasters ever.

The Stoxx 600 European Insurance Share Index was down 2% by 0900 GMT, underperforming the wider market, which was off 0.6%. Reinsurers Munich Reinsurance Co., Swiss Reinsurance Co. and Hannover Re Group fell furthest, posting declines of between 4.5% and 5.5%.

Risk modeling agency AIR Worldwide Corp.on Sunday said the quake, which killed as many as 10,000 people when it struck northeastern Japan on Friday, could generate an insured loss of between $14.6 billion and $34.6 billion without taking tsunami losses into account.

That would make it the second-costliest natural disaster after Hurricane Katrina since 1970, when adjusted for inflation.

Insurers and analysts said it was still too early to accurately assess the damage caused by the quake, the most powerful ever to hit Japan.

"We can't say what the impact will be. The situation on the ground is changing. It will take some time before we can come forward with an estimate of the losses on the ground," a spokesman for Swiss Re said.

However, insurers also said they expected the Japanese government to absorb the cost of earthquake-related damage to a nuclear power facility 149 miles north of Tokyo, which has raised fears radioactive material could leak across the region.

Lloyd's of London insurer Chaucer, one of the world's biggest insurers of nuclear risk, said the Japanese Nuclear Act of 1961 absolves nuclear power operators of liability from damage caused by major natural disasters.

"It is also expected that any impacts due to major accidents in Japanese nuclear power plants will not significantly affect the private insurance industry," Munich Re said in a statement.

Analysts have said the overall impact on insurers will be mitigated by the Japanese state's role in absorbing earthquake-related damage to households.

The hit will also be limited by a low take-up of insurance by Japanese households and businesses relative to Western countries.

These factors limited the financial hit suffered by insurers after the 1995 Kobe earthquake to about $3 billion, a small fraction of the overall economic loss of $100 billion.

Jefferies International Ltd. analyst James Shuck estimated the latest quake would generate a loss of between $10 billion and $20 billion for insurers outside Japan.

"At this stage, we continue to believe that most losses will be sustained by individuals, corporates, domestic insurers and the Japanese state," he wrote in a note.