QBE haunted by ghost of the past

The ghost of Frank O'Halloran still haunts QBE. You could almost hear him rattling around the room as his successor John Neal fronted investors, telling them there were some unexpected negatives in the June, 2013, half-year results. Earnings were well short of the expectations set by management.

The ghost of Frank O'Halloran still haunts QBE. You could almost hear him rattling around the room as his successor John Neal fronted investors, telling them there were some unexpected negatives in the June, 2013, half-year results. Earnings were well short of the expectations set by management.

It is becoming increasingly clear to analysts that cleaning up the sprawling business created by O'Halloran has become a more difficult task than they had been led to believe.

Neal has been in the top job for only a year but has already had to hose down guidance and disappoint with results.

This time around, the biggest culprit was the US, where gross earned premiums fell 20 per cent year on year due to QBE's troubled lender-placed insurance (LPI) business, which is essentially mortgage insurance.

O'Halloran bought into this business in 2011, but earlier this year, the division's selling practices were the subject of legal action, forcing it to pay fines and legal fees of $14 million. On top of this, its partner, Bank of America, sold a big portfolio of mortgages.

QBE's need to increase the level of amortisation in LPI also had a negative impact on profits.

Neal described it as a tough 12 months for the business. With the value of hindsight, others would describe this acquisition as a disaster.

But this was not the only soft spot in the results. Once again, QBE has needed to top up its reserves - its capital buffer against claims. This time it was the result of charges arising from changes to rules around Italian medical practice insurance and new regulations on Argentinian workers' compensation insurance.

The bottom line was that insurance profit fell 18 per cent, net profit declined 36 per cent and the guidance on full-year premium growth has been lowered by $600 million.

In isolation, the market may have understood one lower-than-expected half-year, particularly one delivered by a chief executive who is only coming out of the honeymoon period. But it has been a couple of years now since strategic flaws in the previous management's plan have been hitting QBE's performance.

The question that investors will now be asking is whether this is a long-tail problem - one that will throw up problems for years to come.

It took O'Halloran 14 years in the top job to amass more than 100 acquisitions - for which he was lauded by investors for most of his career.

Neal has a much more glass-half-full take on the future. He says: "We remain on track to deliver what we anticipate will be top-quartile performance in the global non-life insurance market with a target 92 per cent combined operating ratio and an 11 per cent insurance profit margin for 2013."

But it doesn't sound quite as good if you take into account that until this week Neal was saying it would be better than 11 per cent.

He is also defensive about the reduction in claims reserves.

So should investors give Neal the benefit of the doubt? He explains the first-half result as one that had bumps that can be smoothed out over a longer period. In a sense, a game of two halves, the second being the better one.

At first blush the market was neither buying the story nor the stock. It fell 5.4 per cent on relatively heavy volume.

Neal and his new management team need to finish the second half with a scoreline as good as or better than it is forecasting.

He dropped plenty of hints about his full-year forecasts being particularly conservative - which is generally code for we should do better but I am not about to risk any further disappointment.

When he arrived, Neal made all the correct noises about getting this business in shape and capitalising on the company's scale and diversity. He set up a cost-savings target of at least $250 million and kicked it off by creating a giant processing centre in Manila.

The key plank in his vision is to organise the mass of small and large operations that come under the QBE insurance banner. He holds to the view that the global footprint is the key to doing better deals with clients, superior access to trading partners and defraying risk by operating in numerous different products and markets.

Simplification is a major element of his strategy but selling business certainly is not a core. Having said this, QBE has recently offloaded a couple of operations - one in Panama and another in Macedonia.

The criteria for divestment is businesses that are not core, scalable or can't achieve market leadership or higher than normal profits.

The Australian and New Zealand operations were among the standouts in this regard. Unlike its US counterpart, the mortgage insurance premiums in Australia rose almost 10 per cent despite the fact the banks have described delinquencies as static or benign.

QBE has only one major competitor in this segment of the insurance market.

Neal describes this as the year of transition - one that investors hope will take QBE to a more reliable earnings footing.

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