- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

From combined dispatches

Losses for the global insurance industry from the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia are likely to be sharply below claims from the hurricanes in Florida earlier this year, as the regions hit over the weekend are generally underinsured, analysts said yesterday.

Mother Nature’s fury in the Indian Ocean is just one more disaster in a year marked by a number of expensive catastrophes, including the four hurricanes that hit the United States this summer, typhoons and an earthquake in Japan.

Even before the weekend’s earthquake and tidal waves hit the region, a lethal string of natural catastrophes had made 2004 the costliest year on record for the global insurance industry. The estimated $105 billion in total economic damages was primarily caused by hurricanes in Florida, and typhoons plus an earthquake in Japan, according to data from reinsurance company Swiss Re.

The estimated bill for insured losses in all those disasters amounted to $42 billion, well ahead even of 2001’s $37 billion in insured losses resulting from the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“In this part of the world, this is primarily a human tragedy and won’t generate insurance losses as large as you might expect,” said Robert Hartwig, chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute. “There is relatively low insurance penetration in many of the countries, such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India.

“A wave like this coming ashore in Florida would have produced economic losses dwarfing those of the hurricanes — tens and tens of billions of dollars.”

He projected the insurance losses would be less than $5 billion, while the U.S. hurricanes cost $27 billion.

Yesterday’s magnitude 9.0 quake and the ensuing waves killed at least 22,000 people, mainly in areas with little insured property.

Of those companies with exposure to the region, Mr. Hartwig said European and local, indigenous insurers probably will feel the brunt of the insured losses as opposed to U.S. and Bermuda-based insurers.

The world’s largest reinsurance companies — Swiss Re and Munich Re — said it was too early to determine damage.

“No one is sure of the exposure yet because people are trying to save lives on the scene rather than assess damage,” said Donald Light, senior analyst at Celent Communications. “Assessments will be fragmentary for the next several days.”

RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd., XL Capital Ltd. and American International Group Inc. all have exposure to the affected region.

A representative from RenaissanceRe declined to comment on loss estimates, and representatives from the other companies weren’t immediately available for comment.

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