Stock Story: QBE Insurance
Airlie Funds Management
Quality management and strong cycle leading business turnaround.
QBE is a global commercial insurance provider. The stock is a position we first added to the portfolio in September 2022. This is a company that for a long period had failed to pass almost every step in our process - business quality, financial strength, management quality and valuation. The impetus to revisit the stock was twofold - we liked the medium-term outlook for insurance pricing and the company announced the appointment of a new CEO with a fantastic reputation, Andrew Horton.
Insurance pricing is cyclical and alternates between periods of soft and hard market conditions. Several years of above-trend catastrophe events (CATs), as well as covid-related business interruption claims and the return of broad-based inflation, has seen the commercial insurance market tighten considerably. The net has been a prolonged period of premium rate growth not seen since the early 2000s. The cycle looks poised to continue (albeit at a lower rate of growth) as insurers digest and push through the impact of reinsurance rate increases, and continue to price for an inflationary environment. (refer to the premium rate change chart over time at the end).
QBE's calendar year 2022 result arguably represented the first reporting period in which investors could plainly see the improved operating performance of the business. Gross written premiums (GWP) grew 13%, inclusive of an average group-wide renewal rate increase of 8%. The company reported GWP growth of 13% constant currency and an underlying combined operating ratio (COR) of 93.7%. Pleasingly, QBE's North American division reported a COR of 98.9%, the division's first profitable result since 2018. The result in North America came despite a weaker-than-average year in the crop insurance business and is consistent with management's focus on portfolio remediation in property programs and growing the retail business to drive scale benefits. At a group level, cost discipline and operating leverage (in a strong rate environment) saw a material improvement in the company's expense ratio, from 13.3% to 12.4%. CATs came in line with November guidance, albeit ~$100m (10%) higher than the original FY22 allowance. QBE reported a 4.1% running yield for the fixed income portfolio to end the period, which is clearly a material tailwind for FY23 (and will support QBE's expectations of a mid-teen ROE). QBE's regulatory capital ratio increased from 1.75x to 1.79x, with debt to total capital reducing from 24.1% to 23.4%, the lowest level in over a decade.
Source: company filings
Author: Joe Wright, Senior Investment Analyst
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