Though it is an ill wind that blows no good, property casualty insurer W.R. Berkley
W.R. Berkley focuses to some degree on the types of insurance risks that send other insurers screaming into the night. It writes policies in so-called excess and surplus lines, professional liability, worker's comp, and reinsurance, among others. These can be risky lines of business, but they can also be very lucrative when you understand the markets and the risks and can price them appropriately. It's sort of fitting, really, when you consider that stock market success is often about exploiting mispriced risk.
Third-quarter results looked pretty good to this Fool. Net premiums climbed 7% to more than $1.1 billion, and the company posted 25% growth in operating income and 26% growth in net income. Hurricanes did their damage, though: Berkley incurred about $50 million in Katrina and Rita-related losses.
With the hurricane damage, the company's combined ratio worsened from 91.9 to 92.1. Taking out the effect of the hurricanes, it improved to 87.8. Performance was a bit mixed in Berkley's segments. The combined ratio in specialty insurance worsened a bit on higher losses, while the regional segment benefited from tighter expense control. In the alternative market, the expense ratio got better and the loss ratio improved significantly, while both worsened slightly in international terms. On the reinsurance front, it's no surprise to see that the loss ratio went up with the aforementioned hurricanes.
Although this company doesn't do much property insurance, the recent disasters could help lengthen the current period of peak profitability. Hopefully, inexperienced insurers will stay out of Berkley's markets because that's often what hurts the business -- newbies come in and misprice business and can screw up pricing for everybody as sharp-eyed brokers look to dump bad business on the unwitting entrants.
This is likely a riskier-than-average insurance stock, since the company not only engages in some risky underwriting but also carries a somewhat higher-than-average debt load. On the other hand, the CEO owns a hefty chunk of stock, and there can be some pretty significant competitive advantages to focusing on specialized niches in the market. Although AIG
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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).