Max Capital Group Ltd. Q4 2008 Earnings Call Transcript

| About: Max Capital (MXGL)

Max Capital Group Ltd. (MXGL) Q4 2008 Earnings Call February 11, 2009 10:00 AM ET


W. Marston Becker – Chief Executive Officer

Joseph W. Roberts – Chief Financial Officer

N. James Tees – Executive Vice President, Finance and Investments of MCS


Joshua Shanker – Citigroup

Mark Dwelle – RBC Capital Markets


Welcome to the fourth quarter 2008 Max Capital Group Limited earnings conference call. (Operator Instructions) Before we begin, the company has asked me to read the following statement.

The company reminds you that forward-looking statements that may be made in this call are intended to be covered by the Safe Harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Forward-looking statements are not statements of historical fact, but rather reflect the company’s current expectations, estimates, and predictions about future results and events, and are subject to risks, uncertainties, and assumptions including risks, uncertainties and assumptions that are enumerated in the company’s most recent Form 10-K and other documents filed with the SEC.

If one or more risks or uncertainties materialize or if the company’s underlying assumptions prove to be incorrect, actual results may vary materially from what the company projects. The company undertakes no obligation to update or revise publicly any forward-looking statements whether as a result of new information, future events, or otherwise.

I would now like to turn the presentation over to Mr. Marty Becker, Chairman and CEO of Max Capital. Please proceed.

W. Marston Becker

Welcome to Max Capital’s fourth quarter and year-end 2008 earnings call. The fourth quarter for Max was consistent with the balance of 2008 where we had two very different scenarios taking place within our firm. Max’s underwriting operations reflected very positive performance and attractive growth and this was overshadowed by the extreme 2008 volatility in the investing world.

Max obviously was not immune to this volatility, particularly in our alternative assets. Max’s fixed income portfolio performed quite well relative to the industry. Our negative performance was heavily weighted to our alternative assets where there seemed to be literally no place to go for attractive returns. Or response to this has been previously communicated but let me summarize. In October, we announced a reduction in our alternative portfolio from a target of 20% of invested assets to a range of 10% to 15%.

We also indicated it would be rebalanced to reflect more market neutral investments as it had become overweight with more long equity oriented hedge funds. This was a direct reflection of our growing traditional underwriting platform, which calls for a more traditional investment mix, as well as the obviously volatility in the alternative asset portfolio that surpassed all previous modeling.

In December, we announced interim investment results for the fourth quarter and also provided increasing detail on the composition of our fixed income portfolio, as well as an update on our alternative investment rebalancing. And again in January 2009, we completed our preannouncements of the quarter’s investment performance.

In addition, we reconfirmed our intent to continue to reduce total alternative assets to a more narrow 10% to 12% range, and that in the future our alternative investments will be a mix of the hedge fund product we currently focus upon, as well as other asset classes, such as non-investment grade debt, convertible bonds, etc.

This will take most of 2009 to complete that transition. This investment tsunami that has occurred through 2008 as generated increasingly attractive opportunities in the fixed income world with an investment expense cost that’s obviously lower than hedge funds.

At December 31, 2008, redemptions had been completed in our present alternative assets to reduce our percentage of total invested assets and alternatives to approximately 14%. By the end of the first quarter, we would expect to be approximately 12% and will likely have begun our diversification of alternatives away from solely hedge funds.

The end result of al this work is the completion of a transformation of Max commenced in 2002, 2003 from what began as an alternative risk reinsure to today a totally diversified specially insure reinsure with four quality underwriting platforms in Bermuda, Dublin, Lloyds and six major U.S. cities having a more traditional investment mix of 88% to 90% fixed income and 10% to 12% alternatives. This transformation accelerated in late 2006 and Max now has the product in geographic reach to execute through all phases of the underwriting cycle.

Now let’s focus on underwriting and operations. Max’s historical underwriting platforms in Bermuda and Dublin for both insurance and reinsurance had another very good year. Combined ratios remained attractive at below 90% for both segments and gross written premiums were relatively flat consistent with prudence in the market environment with the exception being our new agricultural reinsurance program.

Our business mix remained nicely diversified with each of our specialty product lines led by a proven experienced professional team. Max was fortunate to have downsized our exposure to financial institutions and D&O coverage in our professional liability portfolio in 2005 and 2006. We believe this has allowed us to avoid the mainstream of the current exposure from the financial crisis and Madoff like scenarios.

Our accounts and lawyers books may have some tangential exposure but well within our loss picks. Our property catastrophe reinsurance team again turned in a very fine result from 2008’s numerous events. On Ike, our total max net loss estimate remains around $50 million. This is at the upper end of our early announced range of $35 to $50 million.

Pricing at January 1 was consistent with market commentary. Shorter tail lines particularly Property CAT and Energy had rate increases. Other lines were no longer down but flat or perhaps even up slightly. Max is well positioned in these markets to allocate our capital where the returns are expected to be the highest.

A current popular quote coined by one of the brokers is that this is the start of an invisible hard market. Form a broker’s perspective that is probably true as client business conditions are not allowing much premium growth as sales and payrolls are down. However, from an underwriter’s standpoint, rate as it relates to exposure is definitely improving and that should be beneficial to ultimate profitability.

Our expansion in 2007 into the U.S. is maturing very nicely. Startups are difficult and particularly in a softer market. Our Max specialty leadership team has navigated this extremely well. Their historical distribution relationships have earned them a quality flow of business. As these markets improve, Max’s growth will benefit.

Today, we writing mostly shorter tail lines and the loss ratios have held the projections. Within our property lines, our expectation is some rate to exposure increase in 2009, and January’s result would seem to confirm a 5% plus upward movement.

Our expense ratio and, therefore, combined ratio will be coming down in 2009. Our book of business is now becoming large enough to have meaningful earned premium. We also intend to reduce modestly our amount of purchased reinsurance with our growing confidence on the book we are writing. As we progress through 2009, it is our expectation we will be adding some additional casualty underwriting talent, although none of this revenue or expense is in our 2009 plan.

Our newest platform is Max’s entry into Lloyd’s. In November, we closed on a Lloyd’s managing agency that we renamed Max at Lloyd’s. This agency manages three Lloyd syndicates 1400, 2525 and 2526. Max’s capital participation in the three syndicates varies. With syndicate 1400, which writes principally property catastrophe and personal accident reinsurance, as well as non-U.S. financial institution business, we provide 100% of the capital and it is the largest syndicate.

On 2525 and 2526, we only provide 2% and 36% of the capital respectively with the balance being provided principally by Lloyd’s names. Their focus is more on some niche specialty non-U.S. casualty insurance lines of business. Should Max have an economical opportunity, we would likely increase our capital participation on each of these syndicates as their underwriting track record has been quite good.

This was a very attractive transaction for Max both financially and operationally. Our purchase price was very close to net asset value, with Lloyd’s being the words best specialty insurance and reinsurance marketplace, it is a perfect environment for Max to continue to recruit quality teams and product lines that we like.

In 2008, we had very little premium participation on the Lloyd’s operations due to the late year closing and a large 2008 quota share we had negotiated with the seller. In 2009, this operation is expected to contribute approximately $190 million to Max’s gross written premium. There is very little product overplay with Max’s other operations, except on the property catastrophe reinsurance. This team was closely coordinated with our Bermuda underwriters on January 1 to assure we participated optimally on any programs reviewed and remained within Max’s core, more conservative aggregate appetite.

As part of this closing the Lloyd’s transaction, our fourth quarter results do contain some non-recurring legal expenses at $1.00 sterling currency hedge on the purchase price, which did develop negatively as the pound declined relative to the dollar at an increasing pace through the balance of the year.

Max’s final platform is our life reinsurance business. Our life reinsurance business is different in that we only write closed books of business. Transactions are infrequent and lumpy as we reinsure books from Cedants to generally give them surplus relief for new business. We have no variable annuities in our book of business.

In 2008, we wrote approximately $240 million of business, all in euros. Historically, approximately 40% of the reserves of this business have been invested in our alternative investments. With our downsizing of this segment, this ratio will obviously decrease. However, with the present bond market environment, our modeled return on equity utilizing none of our alternative investment hedge funds on the 2008 transactions with 16% to 17%.

Among the most encouraging endorsements Max received in 2008 on our continued progress were the affirmations we received in the last four months of the year from each of our rating agencies. Not only were our ratings affirmed, but A. M. Best and Standard & Poor’s upgraded their outlook on Max to positive, at a time when turmoil in the world financial markets was highly pronounced. It would have been very easy for the rating agencies to take no action, so we were particularly pleased to receive their affirmations at that time.

With that quick overview of our business, let me now turn the call over to Joe Roberts, Max’s CFO, to review our financial results and discuss guidance for 2009.

Joseph W. Roberts

Our net operating loss for the quarter ending December 31, 2008, was $85 million or $1.51 per diluted share compared to net operating income of $63.4 million, or $1.01 per diluted share for the same period in 2007. For the year ended December 31, 2008, we produced a net operating loss of $146.7 million, or $2.59 per diluted share versus net operating income of $307.3 million, or $4.81 per diluted share for the same period in 2007.

Diluted book value per share at December 31, 2008, was $22.46, an increase of 2.7% from $21.88 at September 30, 2008. The largest component of our net loss for the fourth quarter and the year were losses of $88 million and $233 million respectively on our alternative investment portfolio. Excluding our alternative investment losses, we had pre-tax net income for the year of $58.9 million driven by positive underwriting results.

The overall combined ratio for our property and casualty segments for 2008 was 99.6% in the fourth quarter, and 91.9% for the year, compared to 94.9% for the fourth quarter of 2007 and 88.2% for the year of 2007.

Included in our 2008 year’s underwriting results are approximately $50 million of losses related to catastrophe events as compared to no CAT related losses in the same period of 2007. Offsetting these losses were $90.4 million of net favorable development of loss reserves and prior year contracts, an increase over the prior year of $44.8 million.

Turning to each segment, our gross premiums written for our Bermuda Dublin reinsurance segment for the year ended December 31, 2008 increased 21.5%. The increase is principally due to our expansion in the agricultural product line during the first quarter of ’08. We have had a reduction in our Marine and Energy line, which has been offset by growth in our medical malpractice business with all other lines broadly in line with the previous year.

Adjustments to gross premiums written estimate on prior year contracts, decreased gross premiums written by $46 million for the year ended December 31, 2008, and are largely due to the effects of the slowing economy and our client’s business plans and some client counseling coverage.

Reinstatement premiums of $7.4 million, net of reinsurance ceded, were recognized during the second half of the year in respective hurricane-related losses. Reinsurance premiums ceded in our Bermuda Dublin reinsurance segment increased 107.4% for the year ended 2008. This increase reflected our first time purchase of protection on our agricultural business and an additional quota share protection on our medical malpractice and workers compensation businesses related to increased assumed premiums.

Our 2008 combined ratios for the Bermuda Dublin reinsurance segment for the fourth quarter and year are 102.5% and 87.4% respectively, compared to 88.3% and 83.9% respectively for the same periods in 2007. The increase in the combined ratio for the fourth quarter is mainly due to adverse developments on a prior year ocean marine contract.

Losses incurred for the year ended December 31, 2008 include hurricane-related losses, net of reinsurance of $47 million, whereas the prior year result had none. Also included in our losses for the year is approximately $67.8 million of net favorable development on prior year reserves with this development excluding reserve changes caused by revised premium estimates, compared to $36.8 million in 2007.

With the largest development in 2008 on our professional liability, property, and whole account lines of business, this favorable development reflects the lower than expected claims emergence on prior year contracts and is mostly related to 2006 and prior accident years.

Hurricane-related losses increased our loss ratio by 12.6% each point, including the effect of our reinstatement premiums, and favorable loss development reduced our loss ratio by 19.9 points. Absent CAT losses and favorable loss development, our loss ratio for the period and year was moderately higher than for the same period in 2007, largely reflecting the softer pricing environment.

Turning now to our Bermuda Dublin insurance segment, our gross premiums written in that segment increased by 1.7% for the year ended December 31, 2008. An increase in our aviation and professional liability business was offset by a decline in gross premiums written in our excess liability business.

Reinsurance premiums ceded decreased for the year ended December 31, 2008 by 1.9% due to minor reductions in the percentage ceded on a number of our quota share facilities. Our 2008 combined ratios for the Bermuda Dublin insurance segment for the fourth quarter and year are 83.6% and 88.2% respectively, compared to 96.7% and 86.2% respectively for the same period in 2007.

Losses incurred for the 2008 year include $5.4 million of hurricane-related net losses compared to no losses for hurricanes in 2007. In 2008, we had $22.6 million of favorable development in prior period reserve compared to $8.8 million of favorable development in 2007.

Hurricane losses contributed an increase of three percentage points for both the loss and combined ratios for our Bermuda Dublin insurance segment for the current year. Absent favorable reserve development, our loss ratio for the 12-month period was higher than the same period in 2007, once again reflecting the softer pricing environment and a slight change in the mix of business.

Our U.S. specialty segment contributed gross premiums written of $194.4 million to our ’08 year results, exceeding our plan for the year and demonstrating strong growth in the last quarter of the year. Our combined ratio for 2008 has improved throughout the year, and as our net earned premiums continue to grow, we expect the combined ratio to be more in line with our other segments.

Our Max at Lloyd’s segment, which was acquired on November 6, 2008, reported a small loss for the year. Results for this segment were not expected to be significant for 2008. However, we expect this segment to be an important contributor to our 2009 results.

Our life and annuity business has once again exceeded our original estimate of $150 million for premium for the year. This segment contributed $242.2 million of cost premiums written in 2008, which resulted from three life annuity contracts written with existing clients. As previously mentioned, this business is a spread business and results will vary directly with investment performance with 2008 showing poor performance due to difficult investing conditions.

For the year ended 2008, we incurred a foreign exchange loss of approximately $10 million in connection with the acquisition of the Lloyd’s operation. Between the times the acquisition was negotiated and its closing, we accumulated approximately half of the pound sterling required for the purchase. Over this period the exchange rate for sterling dropped from approximately $2 to $1.6 per pound resulting in mark-to-mark large losses to net income on our currency position.

For the quarter, our overall investments portfolio produced a positive return of 1.41%. We believe our fixed maturities investment portfolio weathered the investment storm reasonably well in 2008 with a total return of 4.66%. These positive results were overshadowed by losses in our alternative investments, which had a negative return of 19.27% for the year.

At December 31, 2008, $4.6 billion or 85.9% of our investable assets consisted of cash and high-grade fixed maturities securities that have a weighted average credit quality rating of AA plus. With approximately 98% of our fixed maturities rated A or higher.

Approximately 56% or $2.6 billion of this cash and fixed maturities portfolio, is comprised of cash, government and agencies, and U.S. agency MBS. Our corporate exposure is well diversified with over 200 different issuers with our largest single issue of being AAA rated and 1.3% of this portfolio. The remaining portfolio is comprised principally of AAA rated asset-backed securities, collateralized mortgage obligation, and commercial mortgage-backed securities.

Sub-prime and Alt-A exposed mortgage-related security $58 million currently as of December 31, have a weighted average life of 2.5 years and continues to pay down. Credit issues and fixed maturities portfolio have been largely avoided and minimal to date.

We took an impairment charge of $17 million for the year, which included $14 million on par value Lehman bonds. No impairment charges were recorded in the fourth quarter, which we believe reflect the high quality of our portfolio.

Net investment income was $44 million for the quarter ended December 31, 2008 versus $49 million for the same period in 2007, a decrease of 10% principally due to a current desire to hold more cash, as well as lower yields. Alternative assets were $754 million or 14.1% of our invested assets at year-end. The alternative portfolio produced a negative return of 8.28% during the quarter ended December 31, 2008, resulting in a year-to-date negative return of 19.27%.

The HFRI fund-to-fund composite that, which we believe is the most comparable benchmark for this asset class, produced negative returns of 9.28% and 20.68%, respectively over the same periods. Very preliminarily, for the month of January 2009, our alternative investment portfolio returned a positive 1.5% or $13 million. By way of comparison, the HFRI fund-to-fund composite index return was 0.98% of the same period.

Turning to reserves, our property and casualty loss reserves were $2.9 billion at December 31, 2008, an increase of $600 million from $2.3 billion at December 31, 2007 with approximately 69% of these reserves being IB&R reserves. Our life and annuity benefit reserves were $1.4 billion at December 31, 2008, compared to $1.2 billion at December 31, 2007, with the increase principally due to new business and foreign exchange consolation.

Our operating cash flows and capital position remain strong. Cash provided by operating activities was $508.7 million for the year compared to $252.5 million for the same period in 2007, largely due to higher gross premiums written in the year. Net investment income was down 3.5% for the year reflecting lower interest rates and a higher portion of our unvested assets in cash and cash equivalents.

Shareholders equity at December 31, 2008, was $1.3 billion or $22.46 per diluted share versus $21.88 per share at September 30, 2008, an increase of 2.7% in the fourth quarter. An improvement of over $115 million in the unrealized gains in our fixed maturities portfolio was a significant contributor to the increase in book value for the quarter.

We repurchased $3.6 million of our stock during the fourth quarter representing 288,000 shares outstanding. For the year ended December 31, 2008, we have repurchased approximately 4.1 million shares or 7.2% of shares outstanding at the beginning of the year. Today we have 69.8 million of repurchase authorization from our board.

While we still believe that share repurchases look attractive, especially at our current trading price, we believe it’s prudent to maximize our liquidity and flexibility in deploying capital considering the potential to improve underwriting opportunities in 2009 and beyond.

During the quarter we repurchased $8.5 million principal amount of our senior notes at a discount recognizing a gain of $2.3 million and reducing the principal amount to $91.5 million. We also declared a dividend payable on March 10, 2009, to shareholders of record as of February 24, 2009, of $0.09 per share.

Turning to 2009, we are expecting an increase in property and casualty gross premiums written of approximately 20% to 22% driven mostly by Max at Lloyd’s and continued maturity by US operations.

Even with our expectations of an improving underwriting environment, we forecast our Bermuda and Dublin insurance and reinsurance operations to be fairly flat. Price improvements in 2009 will mostly benefit 2010, and we have yet to see how much the economy impacts volumes.

In an environment where capital in the market is constrained, we believe our planned reduction in alternative investments could free up as much as $250 million of capital, which could be deployed to take advantage of market opportunities.

On our life business, we are targeting $150 million in gross premiums written. We expect our U.S. operation to bring its combined ratios to less than 100% as they earn through enough premium in 2009 to begin to support their expense base. This is right on schedule.

In Bermuda and Dublin, we would expect our combined ratios to be relatively consistent with 2009. Assuming no development of prior year loss reserves, we are targeting an overall combined ratio in the 90% to 92% range. Our objective is to achieve an ROE of 15% over the course of the cycle with some years being higher and some lower.

Our most difficult projection is the speed with which we reinvest our relatively large cash positions. While we would enjoy the yield pickup in the near-term, preservation of capital remains a high priority. We are at work and will continue to update you as the year continues.

I will now turn the call back to Marty.

W. Marston Becker

What we would like to do now is open it up for questions, so Ann, if you would organize that please?

Question-and-Answer Session


(Operator instructions) The first question comes from Joshua Shanker – Citigroup.

Joshua Shanker – Citigroup

In the reinsurance renewal season for you, compared to what you would have done a year ago and where are you placing in various syndicates that you’re in? In terms, are you more senior, is it about the same? In terms of your participation, how would you say the changes as Max Capital becomes more well respected in the market, how is that affecting your placements?

W. Marston Becker

Actually with some of the disruptions in the marketplace, we’re getting the opportunity to participate at different points on programs than we might have in the past, which is attractive from an economic standpoint. Now those particular situations are different by risk, so some are higher and some are lower, but I think the challenges that some of the players in our industry are facing are creating opportunities for us to look at positions on business we might not have seen in the past, Josh, so I think that should be helpful.

Joshua Shanker – Citigroup

Would you say that your share on various programs is growing, or just shifting?

W. Marston Becker

It's really by program. I would say for the most part we're putting out about the same line we're just putting it in a different layer.

Joshua Shanker – Citigroup

And in terms of this structuring are you noticing a different relationship with your broker that they're coming too early in making up the program, or what's been the difference between this experiences this year to a year ago?

W. Marston Becker

Well, I think that the major lines that you've seen a radical difference in behavior from the brokers has been on the capacity constrained areas of the market, and that mostly relates to any coverage that has a CAT exposure attached to it. Many programs are still not totally full on the property CAT space, so clearly there's been more solicitous in activity there.

Joshua Shanker – Citigroup

And with the duplication of CAT exposure between the new operations and the current operations, are you going to be pairing it down to the best of both organizations, or are you going to increase your exposure through that merger, so to speak?

W. Marston Becker

We've not changed our policy and our policy remains to have our exposure on an annual basis be somewhere between 15% and 20% of shareholder's equity if you measure the AG on a 1 and 250 basis. We continue to have that policy. What is different this year than last year is last year we probably in 2007, we were down at the lower end of that range because we did not view the marketplace as being priced as attractively as it is this year, so you'll probably see us this year be more towards the upper end of that range.

Joshua Shanker – Citigroup

And in the business that you've kept compared to last year's, how much do you think rate on lines improved?

W. Marston Becker

I would say rate to exposure 15%.


The next question comes from the line of Mark Dwelle – RBC Capital Markets.

Mark Dwelle – RBC Capital Markets

A few questions let me start with a numbers question. I think I got confused as you were working through the various favorable and unfavorable developments related to the different business segments. The total favorable development in the third quarter was a net $2 million, is that correct?

Joseph W. Roberts

I don't have the third quarter numbers on hand.

Mark Dwelle – RBC Capital Markets

I mean fourth quarter, I'm sorry.

Joseph W. Roberts

I would have said it would have been around that. We didn't have much development in the fourth quarter.

Mark Dwelle – RBC Capital Markets

So that's comprised of it sounded like a couple of the units had fairly decent sized favorable development and then there was unfavorable development on the reinsurance segment?

Joseph W. Roberts

There was but most of our development this year, Mark, came through the three quarters as opposed to the fourth quarter. We cleaned up a few contracts in the fourth quarter between different lines, so by segment there might have been some adjustments but other than that it was really of no consequence.

Mark Dwelle – RBC Capital Markets

With respect to Max at Lloyd's, you commented that there would be approximately $190 million gross written premium. I would expect because of the nature of that business that that is fairly front-loaded into the year?

Joseph W. Roberts

It has more weight into the front in terms of the property exposures because they write reinsurance the early part of the year, but there will be some through out the year, but there will be a bigger waiting at one than at any other part of the year, Mark.

Mark Dwelle – RBC Capital Markets

Would you care to give us some descriptions of maybe what portion of that total might be first quarter, maybe a range?

Joseph W. Roberts

I would probably off the cuff, somewhere in the region of a third of the premium activity for the year.

Mark Dwelle – RBC Capital Markets

Then you've commented in terms of the U.S. specialty business that there would be some less use of reinsurance, therefore, increasing retention of premium there. That had been running generally between 30% and 40%. I mean, how large of an increase is contemplated there?

W. Marston Becker

It's been running much higher than that Mark, 50%, 55%, in terms of third party reinsurance on that book. And when we say less, we're not talking huge orders of magnitude. I mean, think more in terms of 45% or something like that. We'll continue to ease our way into retaining that book.


And there are no further questions at this time. I would now like to turn the conference back over to Mr. Marty Becker for closing remarks.

W. Marston Becker

Once again, thanks to each of you for your participation on the call this morning. One item that I wanted to bring to note is we did issue a couple weeks of press release that had both good and bittersweet news for Max. The good news of, course, is Susan Spivak Bernstein joining our organization as Senior VP of Investor Relations. Most of you know Susan and it'll be an easy contact for you. Her information is on the press release today, and we also announced that the pending return to the U.S. of Jim Tees.

Jim's been a terrific employee at Max with us about ten years, and he's heading back home to be with his family, so if you have not touched base with Jim, please do so. As always, feel free to phone Joe, Susan, or myself for any individual queries, and we thank you very much.


Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your participation in today's conference. This concludes the presentation, and you may now disconnect. Have a good day.

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