Everest RE Group (NYSE:RE) posted its third-quarter earnings results on Oct. 26. And the global insurance and reinsurance holding company managed small but steady gains despite a difficult operating environment.

Sure, profit dove -- falling to $200 million, or $4.53 per share, compared with $280 million, or $6.12 per share, a year ago. But Everest's results on this single metric don't tell nearly the full story of how the business performed over the past three months.

The quarterly results
For that, we need to look at a few other data points, starting with earned premiums. Everest's premiums ticked up by 2% in the quarter to reach $1.4 billion. Earned premiums had improved by 5% in the second quarter and by 14% to start the year, so this represents a continued slowdown for its main revenue source.

Next, Everest's combined ratio worsened slightly, rising to 89% from 86%. The combined ratio is comparable to profitability, since it describes the portion of earnings that are used up through underwriting losses and expenses. Any number below 100% is positive, and so it's good news for the business that Everest's ratio is still well below that threshold.

Everest's combined ratio, along with select other long-term profitability metrics. Source: Everest investor presentation. 

Finally, the company's return on equity, another view of profitability, slipped lower, falling to 14% from last quarter's 15% mark. Through the first three quarters of 2014, Everest's ROE was a sturdier 16%.

Two major international events combined to create $100 million of losses for the company this quarter. An explosion at a Chinese port cost the insurer $60 million, while an earthquake in Chile produced losses of $40 million.

Yet overall, management said it was happy with the results, as they continued Everest's record of slow but still industry-beating growth in a tough environment. "We are pleased with the results that Everest has achieved thus far this year considering the challenging market dynamics -- both on the underwriting and investment fronts," CEO Dominic Addesso said in a press release. Management also highlighted a healthy 4% uptick in book value per share.

Cash spending targets
Executives put a pile of cash behind their optimism about the business: Everest spent $200 million buying back its own stock over the past three months at an average price of $176 per share. That repurchase spending was up sharply from $50 million in the second quarter and $75 million in the first quarter of the year.

But Everest's cash position is strong even after that outlay: Operating cash flow was just under $1 billion over the past nine months, and the company is sitting on over $400 million of cash, in addition to its $18 billion investment portfolio that's producing steady income.

Management has so far decided to avoid spending a big piece of its hoard on an acquisition. "We are generally not inclined to take on significant dilution and then still face the generally enormous integration, cultural, and legacy challenges" of a buyout, Addesso said in July, "unless of course if it was accretive in some reasonable timeframe."

In the meantime, management seems set to keep Everest operations humming at near the top of its industry, while returning cash to shareholders through dividend boosts and stock buyback spending.