3 Things to Watch When This Big Insurer Reports Earnings

Are you getting excited yet? It's officially earnings season! And since the big banks have already taken the plunge, it's time for the insurers to join in on the fun.

Traveler's Companies (NYSE: TRV  ) is set to report its full-year 2013 results tomorrow, making it the first of the big insurers to report earnings. Though there are some topics that will likely apply to the remaining insurers, here are three items that Traveler's investors should be looking out for.

1. Expense reduction plan
It's been six months since Traveler's Companies announced a plan to cut out 10%, or $140 million, of the company's expenses within the personal auto division. Investors should be interested to see how the company has fared in its goal to have that reduction fully realized by 2015.

The insurer jump-started the plan by eliminating 450 positions during the second quarter of 2013, with more reductions coming through attrition. Without that type of immediate cut expected to occur in the future, investors should listen carefully to how Traveler's plans on keeping pace with its aggressive goal.

2. Competitiveness
The personal auto operations were also the centerpiece for another plan rolled out by the insurer last year. Traveler's sits toward the back of the pack in terms of market share for personal auto insurance:

Insurance Company Personal Auto Market Share (2012)
State Farm 18.4%
Allstate (NYSE: ALL  ) 10%
Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) 9.6%
Progressive (NYSE: PGR  ) 8.27%
Travelers Companies 1.94%

Source: NAIC Top 25 Property and Casualty Insurers 2012.

When Traveler's realized it wasn't providing competitive rates through the agents using comparative rate technology, there was a clear shift in priority. Traveler's goal was to be within the top two quotes given to customers in terms of pricing. By setting this goal, the company hoped it would be able to compete with the insurers that dominate the market.

Investors should keep an ear out for whether or not the pricing strategy has worked for Traveler's. The personal auto insurance market is one of the most competitive in the insurance industry. Both Allstate and Progressive offer use-based technology discounts (DriveWise and Snapshot), while State Farm and Berkshire Hathaway's Geico offer various other discounts, making pricing extremely important to customers.

3. Interest rates
Though the impact of interest rates on insurers' investments is a marketwide issue, Traveler's was particularly affected in its fixed investments. Jay Benet, Traveler's CFO, said that the continuation of low interest rates would cause a $25 million decline per quarter in the firm's investments -- not a trivial sum for the company.

American International Group (NYSE: AIG  ) also reported a big decline in investment income because of its sensitivity to interest rates. But during the third quarter, with interest rates strengthening, it was the firm's alternative investments that put a strain on overall investment income. Though the alternative investments provided a buffer against the low interest rates, the increases seen in the third quarter negated their positive impact.

Shareholders should be mindful of the company's strategy for managing the changing interest rate environment. Traveler's has stated in previous quarters that it would be seeking higher margins because of the low interest rates and volatile weather plaguing the U.S., so any mention of the changes in strategy will greatly influence how analysts and investors perceive the company's outlook.

The big one
Earnings season for the fourth quarter of any year is an important time for investors to take stock (pun intended) of their portfolios and how each company is performing. Though the previous quarters have given you a glimpse of each company's strategy, the fourth quarter brings it all together -- you can see what's working and what isn't. Make sure to check out Fool.com for more earnings season coverage!

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