Calif. Earthquake Losses Seen As Few

By Michael Ha

NU Online News Service, Dec. 23, 1:54 p.m. EST?The earthquake that struck central California yesterday was the largest to strike the Golden State in more than four years, but it is unlikely to cause significant insured losses, industry observers said.

The quake, and its aftershocks, struck mostly unpopulated areas, accounting for the expected low rate of losses. The aftermath, one insurance analyst suggested, could be “a net positive” for property reinsurers, instilling more discipline in the market as the industry enters into the renewal season.

“It was 6.5 on the Richter scale, and its epicenter was in an area called Cambria, which is almost 200 miles away from Los Angeles,” said Peter Moraga, Los Angeles-based spokesman for Insurance Information Network of California.

At least two people were killed, and authorities have reported damaged buildings and scores of injuries in towns across San Luis Obispo County, a rural region north of Los Angeles, Mr. Moraga said. Other nearby counties reporting damages from the quake include San Benito County and Monterey County, he said.

“I heard that a total of 46 buildings were actually damaged,” said Mr. Moraga. “I don’t know whether that number will change or not. Today we will see more efforts assessing all of that. People will be going from building to building doing inspections. Yesterday was the search-and-rescue phase.

“The closest urban center is San Luis Obispo County, which has about 60,000 people,” he noted. “Another populated area that’s near there is Paso Robles, but these are not major urban centers. So we were very lucky in that respect.”

The quake was felt in Los Angeles and as far north as San Francisco, Mr. Moraga added.

“We actually felt our building here in Los Angeles rocking and swaying for about five minutes,” he said. “This is the first time that I heard of an earthquake that was felt both in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But I don’t think there will be any damage in either city.”

He added that it is still too early to estimate insurance losses.

The New York-based Insurance Information Institute said that less than 15 percent of the state’s homeowners have earthquake insurance. It added that few businesses, especially small businesses, have the insurance.

In a research note released by Banc of America Securities regarding the earthquake, Brian Meredith, an insurance analyst at the Charlotte, N.C.-based investment banking firm, said that the quake is probably not going to be a big event for the property-casualty industry and might in fact bring some unexpected benefits.

He listed a number of reasons for his forecast:

? The California Earthquake Authority, a state run, privately financed pool that makes earthquake coverage available to policyholders, writes 47 percent of all earthquake insurance in the state.

? Most earthquake policies carry high deductibles that are often more than 15 percent of the value of the property.

? The quake was centered around a relatively unpopulated area.

Banc of America noted that insurers with the highest market-share of earthquake coverage in California include Seattle-based SAFECO Corporation, The St. Paul Companies Inc. in St. Paul, Minn., and Travelers Property Casualty Corp. in Hartford, Conn. Companies with the biggest exposure to property reinsurance are Montpelier Re Holdings Ltd., RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd., ACE Limited and XL Capital, all headquartered in Bermuda.

Mr. Meredith forecasted that if the damage exceeds $1 billion, the industry will see some losses in the reinsurance market, particularly from the companies that participate in the California Earthquake Authority reinsurance program. That said, the quake is probably “a net positive for the property reinsurance industry,” as it instills more discipline in the market as the industry enters into the heavy January renewal season.