Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Insurers feel the heat as minister steams

Insurers were spooked by the Tongariro eruptions recently. Photo / Steven Sherburn, GNS Science
Insurers were spooked by the Tongariro eruptions recently. Photo / Steven Sherburn, GNS Science

IAG (NZ) chief executive Jacki Johnson quickly got in touch with her company's European-based reinsurers when Mt Tongariro erupted, throwing out rocks, ash and steam.

The boss of the New Zealand's largest insurer wanted to make sure the reinsurers were not spooked by reports that the North Island volcano had blown its top for the first time since 1897.

Johnson - an engaging Australian - stresses that IAG's reinsurers are committed to New Zealand "but we will be doing a lot of things behind the scenes to make sure they are informed about what it is like here in reality."

Like other insurance industry CEOs, Johnson has been facing the heat.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee has openly said he has lost patience with private insurers' excuses for delaying claims' settlements.

There are boundary issues between the Earthquake Commission and private insurers on claims apportionment; insurers say they have been waiting for flood data maps since March.

Many Christchurch residents are demoralised by the long wait for repairs to their damaged houses. But Johnson says IAG hopes to have individual plans to their residential claimants by December.

The insurance company did insure the Restart retail project to "give confidence to the city" and underwrote the temporary AMI Stadium.

It's eight months since IAG bought the troubled AMI Insurance from the Government for $380 million strongly increasing its Christchurch footprint. AMI's $1.8 billion of earthquake-related liabilities stayed with the Government ($1.3 billion in reinsurance reduces the Crown's exposure).

IAG has settled 54 per cent of its commercial claims in Christchurch with a high proportion of business owners having rebuilt or taken other leases. Johnson is optimistic about Christchurch's future and the ability to source adequate insurance cover for the new CBD commercial buildings.

"If it's really well-designed and we understand the land, it'll be one of the most insurable cities in the world.

"The challenges are more around the rest of New Zealand because if councils are then delaying people having to strengthen buildings to code, what is the insurability for people who don't have earthquake-resistant buildings in earthquake prone areas?"

Earlier this year, Swiss Re said the February 22 earthquake was the third most expensive insured natural catastrophe in history. It estimates the 6.3 quake triggered economic losses of US$15 billion and insurance claims of US$12 billion.

Though Japan's devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami generated economic losses of US$210 billion, the insurance payout of US$35 billion was proportionately much less due to New Zealand's higher rate of insurance cover.

Johnson says the reinsurers' confidence will be boosted by making sure claims are managed in line with contracts and by proper risk assessment.

"They actually need to get the claims settled as quickly as possible because we have to carry an extra capital charge while we've got so many liabilities on our balance sheet.

"It would have been easier to say we'll just cash settle everything and leave the city to itself.

"But at the end of the day you need co-ordination to get a good sustainable rebuild."

- NZ Herald

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