Multibillion-dollar insurance loss expected

Attacks likely to surpass L.A. riots as most costly man-made U.S. disaster

New York City

September 13, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

The insurance industry braced yesterday for a multibillion-dollar bill associated with Tuesday's terrorist attacks, but executives and analysts said the losses will probably amount to less than claims from some recent natural disasters and should be borne without too much financial trauma.

Even so, the destruction of New York's World Trade Center and the near-simultaneous attack on the Pentagon are expected to carry a price tag of more than $10 billion, easily surpassing the 1992 Los Angeles riots as the most costly man-made U.S. disaster and depleting capital from dozens of firms.

"We're looking at a multibillion-dollar insurance loss here," said Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group.

"We aren't just talking about the property loss on the World Trade Center buildings themselves," Hartwig said. "We're talking about workers' compensation losses. We're talking about motor vehicle losses. There are business interruption losses, and there are significant business liability issues here as well as the lost aircraft."

Not to mention life insurance and medical claims.

The Los Angeles riots cost insurers about $775 million, or about $1 billion in today's dollars. By contrast, the insurance bill for Hurricane Andrew in 1992 came to $19 billion in 2001 dollars, and insured losses for California's Northridge earthquake in 1994 amounted to $14 billion in 2001 dollars.

New York developers reached a 99-year, $3.2 billion deal this summer to lease the World Trade Center from the state, and the complex could approach $3 billion in replacement value, real estate analysts said.

Neighboring buildings also sustained tens of millions of dollars in damage. Even so, the full value of the properties might not be insured, analysts said.

Hartwig estimated that claims resulting from Tuesday's attacks will fall far short of those for Hurricane Andrew.

It will be days before more precise loss estimates emerge and months or years before all the damage is tallied, analysts said.

"It's really hard to judge anything at this point because, for one thing, we don't know the number of casualties," said Keith Buckley, head of the insurance ratings group for Fitch Inc., a credit rating company.

"First, to judge how many of these losses are insured, and how many are going to be borne by primary insurance companies versus reinsurance, and what exclusions there are in the policies for terrorism - these are huge issues that we don't know yet," he said.

Three major insurers have significant operations in metropolitan Baltimore: Aegon, Zurich and St. Paul.

Aegon, whose Monumental Life and direct-marketing units are based here, has concentrated on life insurance in the United States and has little exposure to property and casualty losses in this country, executives said.

"Of course, we're looking at the exposure on our group or on our operations, but it's way too early to give even a rough estimate," said spokesman Marc Potma in Aegon's Netherlands headquarters.

St. Paul, which bought USF&G in the 1990s, writes property and casualty, reinsurance, aviation, workers' compensation and other kinds of coverage.

"It's a little early. We're still assessing," said St. Paul spokesman Dave Monfried. "We're just not going to have anything on exposure at this time."

Zurich, which has a small-business insurance unit and a surety and bonding division based in Baltimore, also was just beginning to gauge its potential claims, a spokeswoman said.

One provision that could shield insurers from claims stemming from Tuesday's catastrophe would be policy exceptions for losses caused by terrorism. Although terrorism exclusion clauses have become more frequent in recent years, most policies don't include them, Hartwig said.

On the other hand, the World Trade Center was the target of a previous terrorist attack, in 1993, and insurers covering its tenants and owners might be more likely to insist on protection from terrorism-caused claims, analysts said.

At least some policies covering World Trade Center tenants had terrorism exclusion clauses, Hartwig said.

Most policies do not cover losses caused by acts of war, but under insurance law, Tuesday's damage wouldn't be considered such, Hartwig said.

Much of the financial pain from the New York and Washington attacks will be borne by reinsurance companies, which act as backups to primary insurers past a certain claims limit.

Munich Re of Germany, the world's biggest reinsurer, said yesterday that its losses stemming from the disasters might approach $900 million.

"These losses will significantly impact the projected development of the net profit in the current business year of 2001 but will not affect the solidity of the Munich Re Group, which is sufficiently prepared for loss events of this size," the company said yesterday in a written statement.

No. 2 reinsurer Swiss Re of Switzerland said it expects to pay about $730 million in claims.

Sun staff writer Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.