IAG move shows contrasting fortunes of insurance giants

It could be a tale of two insurers. Just days after one-time Insurance Australia Group stalker QBE Insurance issued another confidence-shaking profit downgrade, IAG makes a $1.85 billion move on the insurance unit of Perth conglomerate Wesfarmers.

It could be a tale of two insurers. Just days after one-time Insurance Australia Group stalker QBE Insurance issued another confidence-shaking profit downgrade, IAG makes a $1.85 billion move on the insurance unit of Perth conglomerate Wesfarmers.

In addition it had been the bigger QBE - not IAG - that has long been linked to the acquisition of Lumley as part of efforts to boost its Australian-based earnings.

And almost in payback to its longtime stalker, IAG is seeking to raise $1.2 billion in an institutional placement to pay for the Wesfarmers underwriting business.

No doubt much of the investor funds that rushed out of QBE last week will now find a new home at IAG.

For IAG, the move on insurance - mostly focused on Lumley - marks its biggest domestic play since it paid $1.9 billion for CGU Australia a decade ago. But the acquisition still has some way to play out, with competition issues in Australia and New Zealand the key sticking point.

IAG already dominates both markets with brands such as CGU, NRMA Insurance, SGIO, NZI, State and AMI. It also sells insurance under the RACV brand in Victoria.

Meanwhile, Wesfarmers has been growing share of the personal insurance market in Australia in recent years through its insurance venture with its retail arm Coles.

However, the focus for the competition regulator will be on intermediated insurance - that is insurance sold through brokers to small and mid-size business.

The move on Wesfarmers insurance will allow IAG to leapfrog QBE in this market to emerge with a near 25 per cent share of the business insurance market in Australia.

But there will be some states and specific business lines where IAG's overall share will be significantly higher. In NSW IAG is likely to command in excess of 30 per cent of personal lines insurance business.

Some 44 per cent of Wesfarmers' $1.3 billion insurance income last year was generated from sales to small to medium businesses. An additional 18 per cent was from personal lines, which cover motor and home insurance.

Here IAG will be betting on recent decisions by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, where the regulator increasingly views financial services as a national rather than a state-based market.

Westpac's 2008 acquisition of smaller banking rival St George reinforced this view with Westpac emerging from the deal with a dominant slice of NSW's retail banking market.

A key question for the ACCC is whether the level of competition on the national market would be sufficient to keep prices in check.

In New Zealand the hurdles appear much higher - the Wesfarmers acquisition will give IAG a 40 per cent share of the business insurance market.

Insurance has been an underperformer for Wesfarmers in recent years, although the past 12 months have been a better. Reported earnings of $205 million for the year to end-June were up from just $5 million a year earlier.

Premium income of $2.08 billion was up 8 per cent on the year. The combined operating ratio of the insurance business was 95 per cent, an improvement on the previous year when payouts exceeded income.

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