Rough first day at the helm for QBE boss
Just hours into taking charge of the 126-year-old QBE Insurance, John Neal felt the sting of jittish investment markets.
Shares in the global insurer were sold-off heavily as QBE delivered a $US760 million first half profit but the new chief executive was forced to issue the third downgrade this year over the outlook for the insurers profit margin.
But Mr Neal, the former head of QBE’s Europe businesses, was taking the selldown to a two-month low in his stride.
‘‘It’s just one day,’’ Mr Neal told BusinessDay on his first day in the role. ‘‘I’m certainly looking longer term’’.
Indeed Mr Neal believes QBE can emerge as a top 10 global insurer, competing against European giants Zurich or Allianz. With a market capitalisation of $15 billion, QBE is ranked eighteenth among the world’s general insurers.
‘‘We’re one of the few truly global insurers in that (top) pack and so many of them are concentrated in one market. One of our challenges is to leverage all that expertise we have in QBE and therefore be able to grow in multiple markets,’’ he said.
Still, the selldown left a tinge of disappointment for Frank O’Halloran, the three-decade QBE veteran who formally stepped down as chief executive earlier Friday.
After more than 14 years as chief executive, Mr O’Halloran transformed QBE from a mid-level insurer into a worldwide player through more than 120 acquisitions on nearly every continent.
While Mr O'Halloran will remain with QBE for a further fortnight as he finalises some administrative roles, it was Mr Neal who fronted analysts to run through QBE’s first half numbers. The 13 per cent lift in profit for the six months to end-June, was overshadowed by the insurance margin pressure and a slight fall in premium revenues to $US8.9 billion.
QBE’s interim dividend of 40 cents for the half was also below expectations of 42 cents. The dividend was down from 62 cents per share this time last year. QBE shares plunged as much as 11 per cent in early trading, before clawing back some ground to end 4.5 per cent lower at $13.05.
For his part, Mr Neal believes the market had been getting ahead of itself. Given the relatively benign environment for major catastrophes he believed investors were looking for QBE to release some reserves to prop-up its margins.
Mr Neal certainly has his work cut out with QBE facing pressures on several fronts - particularly the United States, its single biggest market.
QBE is wrangling with several state-based regulators on the pricing of insurance sold to banks that have repossessed houses. This week a regulator in Florida knocked back QBE’s proposal to cut premiums by 2 per cent - it wanted something closer to 36 per cent. Mr Neal says talks with the regulator are continuing.
Elsewhere in the US, the worst drought in more than 50 years is expected to cause surge in payouts across QBE's vast crop insurance business - something that will further crunch insurance margins.
The outlook for low interest rates here and globally for at least the next few years will also cause headaches as it is likely to keep returns depressed on QBE's $US28 billion investment portfolio.
Some bright spots for Mr Neal include a relatively benign year for natural disasters, compared to frequency of flooding, earthquakes and hailstorms of recent years. Pleasingly for investors, QBE has also locked in premium rate rises across its book averaging more than 5 per cent.
In taking charge of QBE, Mr Neal plans to have the insurer focus on margin over volume. In doing so he is prepared to walk away from business that is too risky or unprofitable - and this was behind the lower guidance for insurance margins.
Mr Neal also flagged QBE's ferocious appetite for acquisitions will slow in the near term as he looks at ways of driving the existing businesses harder.
As for the view of the market, Mr Neal is taking a philosophical approach: "If you've been around in the insurance game for 25 years, things do go wrong occasionally."