Allstate's Good Hands Have Butterfingers

You win some, you lose some, and sometimes you get beaten silly by Mother Nature. Allstate (NYSE: ALL  ) suffered that last fate after the bell yesterday, reporting fourth-quarter results that badly missed the mark.

The nation's largest publicly traded home and car insurer reported quarterly operating income of $0.50, versus an analyst forecast of $0.88. The company, which often touts that its customers are "in good hands," pointed its fingers at a host of excuses for this quarter's disappointment.

Topping the list was a series of natural disasters which resulted in massive one-time charges, including the Midwest snowstorm and a massive hailstorm in Arizona. Not surprisingly, Allstate wasn't the only insurer to succumb to Mother Nature over the past three months. Chubb (NYSE: CB  ) and Travelers (NYSE: TRV  ) also fell short of estimates because of catastrophe expenses suffered from major storm events.

Unfortunately for Allstate, this was only the beginning of its troubles, as its rising combined ratio signifies. The combined ratio gives us a way to look at the quality of the loans that Allstate is underwriting and determines exactly how profitable those policies are to the company, with anything under 100 being profitable. For Allstate, its combined ratio took a nearly four-point jump from 88.1 to 92.0 over the past year, meaning that the company is paying out considerably more in claims than it did in this time period last year.

At the heart of the rise in the combined ratio is a mixture of catastrophe expensing, but also a marked increase in auto insurance claims. Allstate's "Mayhem" advertising campaign might be working too well; policy claims rose, while customer retention and premium revenue both fell. Allstate's combined auto ratio rose to 99.7, a six-point jump year over year.

Finally, what would a bag of excuses from an insurer be without the stereotypical blaming of rising interest rates on its fixed-income portfolio? Allstate reported a $1.7 billion sequential quarterly contraction in its investment portfolio, and net investment income that fell more than 7% year over year.

Earnings misses aren't an industrywide problem, though. Insurers Metlife (NYSE: MET  ) and Prudential (NYSE: PRU  ) both reported results after the bell that sailed past analyst forecasts. Both companies credited strength in their annuity businesses for their stronger-than-expected earnings.

On the other hand, Allstate shareholders need to get a towel and wipe those good hands off, because this quarter could be the start of a slippery downtrend in margins. Allstate does have an intriguing 2.7% dividend yield, but with all aspects of its business struggling, and its CEO still looking for the right answers, right now its stock might be the kind of mayhem you'll want to avoid.

What's your take? Is Allstate protecting investor's money or is its stock another natural catastrophe waiting to happen? Post your thoughts in the comments box below!

Fool contributor Sean Williams does not own shares in any companies mentioned in this article. He now wonders whether Mayhem was to blame for his leaky roof three years ago. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy which is catastrophe-proof.

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  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2011, at 6:31 PM, pmja wrote:

    Chubb beat estimates. Chubb did not fall short. Fire your editors.

    "Chubb Corp. (NYSE:CB) reported Q4 EPS of $1.69, ahead of consensus estimates of $1.58 per share."

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