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The Navigators Group, Inc. (NASDAQ:NAVG)

Q4 2008 Earnings Call

February 18, 2009, 8:30 am ET

Executives

Stan Galanski - President and CEO

Frank McDonnell - SVP and CFO

Analysts

Vinay Misquith - Credit Suisse

Scott Heleniak - RBC Capital Markets

Dean Evans - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Inc.

Andrew Terry - Fox-Pitt, Kelton Cochran Caronia Waller

Operator

Good day ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the Fourth Quarter 2008 The Navigators Group Incorporated Earnings Conference Call. My name is Ann and I will be your coordinator for today's call. (Operator Instructions) As a reminder this conference is being recorded for replay purposes. At this time all participants are in listen-only mode. We will be facilitating a question-and-answer session towards the end of the presentation.

Before we begin, the company has asked me to read the following statement. We remind everyone that today's call includes forward-looking statements made pursuant to the Safe Harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. These statements concern future business conditions, expectations and the outlook for the company based on currently available information that involves risks and uncertainties.

The company's actual results could differ materially from those anticipated in the forward-looking statements. We refer you to the company's most recent forms 10-K and 10-Q for a description of the important factors that may affect the company's business.

The forward-looking statements made on this call and any transcript of this call are only made of this date and the company undertakes no obligation to publicly update the forward-looking statements to reflect subsequent events or circumstances, except as required by law.

I would now like to introduce and turn the presentation over to Mr. Stan Galanski, Chief Executive Officer; and Mr. Frank McDonnell, Chief Financial Officer; please proceed.

Stan Galanski

Thank you very much. This is Stan, and I would like to welcome you to the fourth quarter earnings conference call of The Navigators Group, Inc. Yesterday afternoon, we announced net income of $10 million for the fourth quarter of 2008 and $52 million for the full year.

While it's not enjoyable or satisfying to report a financial result that is short of our plan, we are very proud of Navigators performance during what has been an exceptionally challenging year for our industry.

We produced a very respectable underwriting profit despite the impact of a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico during the third quarter. We have a healthy balance sheet that includes just under $1 billion of net loss reserves, we have invested in the future growth of our business with several new locations and product lines, and we achieved an increase in our book value as shareholders equity grew by 4.2% to $689 million.

The fourth quarter results were adversely impacted by $16 million of net realized capital losses. Frank McDonnell will take you through the details of this in a few minutes. Adjusting for the impact of those losses, our operating earnings in the quarter were $26 million, which is up slightly from the fourth quarter of 2007. And for the full year, operating earnings were $76.6 million. This figure is down about $18 million from 2007, largely reflecting the impact of Hurricane Ike.

On the underwriting side, we generated an underwriting profit for the quarter and the full year with combined loss and expense ratio for the quarter and 12 months of 88.9 and 93.8 respectively.

We continue to experience favorable loss emergence patterns, particularly on our construction liability business, which enabled us to release over $18 million of reserves from prior underwriting years during the fourth quarter.

I would like to comment a bit on each of our major businesses beginning with our marine and energy business.

Between the marine business underwritten by our insurance companies and at Lloyd's, our gross written premium was up about 20% for the quarter and about 7% for the full-year.

We were successful in achieving premium growth in most major product lines including marine liability, cargo, protection and indemnity and our transport lines. Our net written premium for the year was up 16% reflecting the ongoing impact of our decision to buy less quota share reinsurance and therefore retain a greater amount of our business net. The combined ratio for our marine business in the fourth quarter was 83.3% for the insurance company and 89.4% for our syndicate at Lloyd's.

We opted to take a small increase in our loss estimate for Hurricanes Gustav and Ike during the quarter because we believe there could be further loss development from these storms emanating from the cost of wreck removal. This slightly higher ultimate loss is still well within the limits of our reinsurance program and the full-year after tax net impact of these events remains at less than $20 million.

We're pleased to have generated an underwriting profit for the year in our marine business despite the impact of Hurricane Ike which ended up being a major event to the offshore energy insurers with 12 month marine and energy combined ratios at 99% for the insurance company and 90% at Lloyd's.

While marine pricing during 2008 was in retrospect slightly better than we had originally expected, we began to see improvement during the fourth quarter as renewal rate turned positive for several marine product lines. The improvement in pricing was most evident in the London market with the US lagging a bit behind.

Our largest marine product line for the insurance company, marine liability, had a rate movement just under flat for the fourth quarter and was positive in January against the backdrop of single digit rate decreases for the last two years.

As one would expect, rates in the offshore energy business began to increase and experienced the largest renewal price change in the quarter, although very little Gulf of Mexico business was available to renew during the fourth quarter.

Our offshore energy renewals experienced single digit rate increases on business with exposures outside of the Gulf of Mexico. And we are reasonably optimistic that rates will continue to show improvement in the marine and energy lines in 2009.

Last month, we announced the formation of a new business unit, Navigators Technical Risk, which combines our first party offshore energy business with our first party onshore energy, power, engineering and other technical property risk.

Our underwriters are located in London, Houston and Miami; and we believe this realignment of our underwriting resources will allow us to better serve our energy and power customers through a unified global approach to the business.

One of these units’ major objectives in 2009 is to carefully manage the amount of Gulf of Mexico wind coverage that we make available. To make sure we are getting paid appropriately for taking on that risk and reserve that capacity for risk where we get our rates and terms.

This impacts a portion of our book although the majority of our offshore energy business is not exposed to the Gulf of Mexico.

Our longer term objective in forming Navigators Technical Risk is to increase our leadership position in the energy sector by providing meaningful capacity, consistent underwriting and enhanced technical risk assessment services to our customers.

Turning to the US casualty market, Navigators Specialty had another terrific quarter and year, generating a combined ratio of about 78% for the quarter and the full year combined ratio of 83.5%. As I mentioned earlier, we continue to experience positive loss emergence on our California construction business and released $12.5 million of IBNR from prior underwriting years during the fourth quarter. As you can imagine, our premium volume for California construction is down dramatically as a result of both the construction slowdown and ongoing price competition for this business. There are still naïve new markets willing to chase the business by cutting rates and our underwriters are not shy about walking away from under priced business.

Our California construction gross written premium is down only about 18% compared to 2007 and would have been down much more if not for the strength of the small artisan business which we underwrite through an e-commerce platform which is held up much better than the home builders and the larger artisans in terms of both rates and activity level.

While the US casualty business continues to be competitive, there are niches that we are optimistic about. For example, our Excess Casualty business was up about 12% in 2008 and we began to experience reduced levels of rate competition during the fourth quarter.

We continue to expand our Excess Casualty underwriting team in order to develop more business from retail agents and brokers in the US. We are a relatively small player in what is a very large market for commercial umbrella and excess casualty. That is working to our advantage in the current environment where many brokers and policy holders are concerned about having too much exposure with some of the large insurers who dominate this business.

We launched an environmental casualty unit late in the fourth quarter. While it had very minimal impact on our fourth quarter results, we began writing business in the first quarter and interest in the product is very strong.

Our targeted customers are middle market businesses ranging from contractors to educational institutions and we see a lot of cross sell potential with our marine and construction business in particular.

Turning to Navigators Pro, our management and professional liability unit, we are optimistic about the potential for improving market conditions in the US D&O market and about the new business opportunities resulting from concerns about the financial condition of some of the major insurers of this business.

We experienced a slight increase in D&O renewal rates during the quarter and our D&O premium was up 24% in the fourth quarter in the US compared to the fourth quarter of 2007.

The underwriting results remain solidly profitable. During the quarter, Pro produced an underwriting profit for the insurance companies but had a slight loss at Lloyd's stemming from a couple of large losses on Lloyd's professional liability business that we have underwritten there.

Well, I have commented on some market disruption impacting several of our units, nowhere is it more pronounced than in the D&O market. The competitive environment has changed substantially since mid-September and we are clearly one of the beneficiaries of the desirable brokers and policy holders to diversify the participants on their D&O placements.

We reacted to this opportunity early in the fall by increasing our capacity for US public companies to $25 million. We also recognized if there is a lot of concern about future D&O loss activity in the industry. Securities class action suits in United States were up 30% in 2008 over 2007. And with the implosion of the financial markets many industry observers are concerned if there will be dramatic increase in D&O clients in the coming 12 months.

Our strategy from the inception of Navigators Pro has been to focus on small to mid cap companies. And as a result, we are fortunate to have very limited exposure to either financial institutions, or Fortune 500 companies, and a number of claims we have associated with securities class action suites that were reported in 2008 was actually down from the number we received in 2007, which is clearly the opposite direction in the overall market claims trends.

Late in the fourth quarter, we hired an experienced team of international excess D&O underwriters in London who are now part of our Lloyd's operation. They focus on excess D&O layers for companies based outside of the United States. We are very pleased to have a attractive team with a strong track record of profitable underwriting results and it appears to be a great fit with our underwriting culture.

As a result of all of this, we have experienced a significant increase in submission activity, both in the United States and in London, and those submissions were coming from a more diverse group of producers, which is increasing our ability to pick and choose, and what we expect will be an improving competitive climate during 2009.

Our strategy continues to be to avoid financial institution business, because we do not believe we can adequately assess the true exposures of those risks. On the professional liability front, the majority of our business traditionally has been the lawyers’ professional liability segment, where we focus on small to medium sized law firms.

To further strengthen and diversify our professional liability book, during the fourth quarter we hired a well respected, knowledgeable team of underwriters who will continue building out this portfolio with particular emphasis on the miscellaneous professional liability segment.

We ended 2008 with strong underwriting results for the quarter, and underwriting profit for the year, growth in book value despite natural and financial market catastrophes. We made a number of investments in intellectual capital, and believe this will position us well to respond to the unfolding opportunities in our targeted markets.

We had a modest increase in our non-commission operating expenses for the 12 months some of which reflects the investments we have made in expanding our underwriting units.

During 2008, our employee count increased approximately 11% to a total of 445 people. While our hiring has been primarily focused on experienced production underwriters within our target niches. We have also invested in the appropriate claims, operations and information technology professionals that we need to ensure we maintain the performance levels required to support future growth and to be a good performing company, ranging from policy initiations to effectively handling a claim in a prompt, efficient and fair manner.

We continue to invest in the information technology projects that we believe will allow us to be more productive and to support the growth of our business in the future. I think we all recognize that the current environment is characterized by risk and opportunity.

We are in the risk business and we can peak primarily on the basis of the quality of our people. We believe the caliber of our intellectual capital has never been stronger and coupled with our balance sheet we are well positioned to identify and act upon opportunities for profitable growth.

And with that I will turn the mike over to Frank to provide a review of our financial performance and then we will open it up to your questions.

Frank McDonnell

Thank you, Stan. We reported net income per share of $0.59 in the fourth quarter compared to $1.55 in the fourth quarter of 2007. Including the 2008 fourth quarter results, our realized capital losses of $0.95 per share.

Operating earnings per share were $1.54, $0.03 higher than the $1.51 per share reported in the fourth quarter of 2007. The extraordinary financial markets turmoil intensified during the fourth quarter resulting in additional investment impairment losses. We reported realized losses of $24.7 million including a $23.9 million increase in our provision for other than temporary impairments.

The impairment charge included $7.9 million for fixed maturities all of which are asset backed securities. According to our analysis less than $200,000 of the fixed maturity impairments resulted from credit issues. We have the intent and ability to hold these securities to maturity. However the accounting rules required a write down to the market value of the securities, resulting in an impairment charge of $7.7 million greater than the expected principal losses.

During the quarter, our reported net unrealized investment loss position improved $28.8 million adjusted for amounts reclassified to other than temporary impairments; the actual improvement was $4.1 million. This market value increase was due to improved market liquidity for treasuries, municipals and high quality mortgage backed securities.

We continue to maintain a high quality investment portfolio with average S&P ratings of AA. The duration is approximately 4.3 years. We have no CDOs, CLOs, or credit default swaps in the portfolio. Our 2008 investment results, were in the top tier of our peer group having benefited from our consistently conservative portfolio management and from a shift to treasuries, agencies and municipals in recent years.

The investment portfolio is highly liquid, at December 31st our net unrealized investment losses were approximately 1% of the cost basis of the investment. In other words the market value of our investments was 99% of the cost basis, over 65% of our investments were trading at or above our book value. In addition to the portfolio liquidity we have more than $220 million of cash and short-term investments and we continue to generate strong cash flow as evidenced by the $245 million of operating cash flow reported for 2008.

We increased our 2008 Hurricane gross loss estimate by $10 million in the quarter resulting in an after-tax charge of $800,000. Hurricane losses continue to be well contained within our marine excess of loss reinsurance program. Prior period reserve releases of $18.5 million were recognized in the fourth quarter. Most of this favorable loss development relates to the insurance company’s loss reserves from 2005 and prior actual years.

During 2008, net loss reserves increased $153 million to $1 billion incurred, but not reported losses were 63% of our net loss reserves at December 31st. In addition to our internal reviews, during the fourth quarter, the loss reserves were subject to reviews by our external auditors and an independent actuarial firm. We did not repurchase any shares during the fourth quarter. Stock repurchase authorization expired in January.

In summary, despite the unusually challenging insurance and financial market events of 2008, Navigators reported an underwriting profit, generated strong cash flow, maintained a very solid capital position and grew book value per share by more than 4%.

We will now open the call up for questions.

Question-and-Answer-Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions). And the first question comes from the line of Vinay Misquith. Please proceed.

Vinay Misquith - Credit Suisse

Good morning.

Stan Galanski

Good morning.

Vinay Misquith - Credit Suisse

Stan, could you give us some more color on your reinsurance program this year versus last year. And if you could help us understand how the higher cost of reinsurance will affect the profitability. I understand that pricing is going to be higher in the marine and offshore NHE book, I am just trying to figure out whether that profitability will change because of your reinsurance program?

Stan Galanski

Okay I am going to take -- your question is really good toward the Marine and Energy business because that's really our principle treaty that renews on January 1st. And I think Navigators like many markets found the marine reinsurance market to be much firmer by the time firmer order terms came out in late December than probably most of us expected in the early part of December.

As the reinsures funded their Hurricane Ike losses, particularly coming from the Gulf of Mexico were worse than they had originally thought. How does this impact us? Well, we traditionally bought a fairly complicated program of the combined quota share and excess of loss reinsurance. And we also by then what's called a risk attaching basis as opposed to a losses occurring basis which adds a layer of complexity to that.

We also have been a buyer on a global basis, covering both our insurance company operations and our Lloyd's. So we have one unified global marine program. The fundamental changes I would say we experienced in January or effective January 1 we chose to buy less quota share coverage and the excess of loss program is not fundamentally different in its structure.

Slightly more expensive than what we would have paid for a similar program in 2007 as you might expect. Because I think when you look at the experience that the excess of loss, reinsures have had and I'm not speaking about from us, but speaking from the industry, they have gotten hammered pretty well over the last four or five years largely coming out of the losses from windstorm in the Gulf.

So I think the excess of loss reinsures look to push prices up, did not fundamentally change our buying decision and I don't think will fundamentally alter the profitability of our marine book our attachment points will remain about the same.

But we are leveraging that program in essence greater, because we have less quota share, that we are spending money on underneath.

Vinay Misquith - Credit Suisse

Sure, the [1 in 250], your maximum loss for Gulf of Mexico storm was I believe about $34 million last year, do you have an updated number for that this year?

Stan Galanski

Well, that number will change. I mean it changes every month based on how business renews. But what I would tell you is, that we have always managed to the fact that we do not really want to have a cat event that could every expose more than a quarter's worth of earnings to the company.

We continue to feel strongly about that, but we are also looking at the Gulf, which we believe to be our principle cat exposure and being very cautious about how we manage limits there. So we are not looking to increase our cat exposure in the Gulf.

Vinay Misquith - Credit Suisse

Sure, fair enough. The second question was on the growth in the professional liability business that was about 25% roughly this quarter, if you could add some color to that, that would be great. Thanks.

Stan Galanski

Yeah. Well, just to put some perspective on that, we had a really solid growth quarter in the US D&O business. But having said that, that's still about $70 million, $75 million business for us, this is not, we are a niche player within this segment, we are not one of the top three or four markets.

So I think what it really reflects is what I will call improved trading conditions. There is certainly business, that is still, is price competitive. But I think there is I guess the overuse term would be a flight to quality, but concerned about how a program is ventilated and what the, who the players are as a program attaches.

So it's very clear we are seeing more opportunity. There were some risks that we simply did not see in the past because we did not provide a $25 million capacity for US public companies other than Side A and so increasing that capacity I think allows us to be shown, business that certainly would have always met our underwriting standards. But we simply did not have the capacity for the method in which the broker was layering that placement. So I think the combination of those two factors is helping us.

Vinay Misquith - Credit Suisse

Sure, and have you increased your retention on the D&O side?

Stan Galanski

No. Our net retention did not change.

Vinay Misquith - Credit Suisse

It's about $6 million roughly?

Stan Galanski

That would be an average number, yes. It does not exceed it.

Vinay Misquith - Credit Suisse

Sure one last question if I may. On the pricing side for D&O, what we have heard in the market is that pricing for financial institutions is going up. Since, your focus is mostly non-financial institutions, what's the pricing within that line for you?

Stan Galanski

Well I would tell you that the D&O business from our perspective, our renewal rate change and our book probably saw a four and half years of consecutive price decline and the fourth quarter was just slightly positive. So, again, we're not impacted by some of the big account pricing and our books performed pretty well so we continue to feel pretty good about the pricing of our business.

Vinay Misquith - Credit Suisse

Sure thank you very much.

Stan Galanski

You bet.

Operator

And the next question comes from the line of Scott Heleniak. Please proceed.

Scott Heleniak - RBC Capital Markets

Hi good morning.

Stan Galanski

Hey Scott.

Scott Heleniak - RBC Capital Markets

Just a couple of quick questions, first is the, on expense ratios, that was a little better than we expected, was there some start up costs that you had over the past few quarters, you did not see or restructuring. What kind of run rate do you think you are looking for the 2009, is that going to be low 30s, or mid 30s. How do we look at that?

Frank McDonnell

We actually are thinking to adjust the fourth quarter expense ratio for some foreign exchange gains. We had about $2 million of favorable foreign exchange movement impacting the ratios; once you adjust for that I think you are looking at a pretty reasonable run rate.

Scott Heleniak - RBC Capital Markets

Okay so still kind of warrant the same, 33% to 34% range.

Frank McDonnell

I do not think that would get you up to 33% or 34% but that's the adjustment.

Scott Heleniak - RBC Capital Markets

Alright, okay. It’s been a few quarters since you reported any claims from sub-prime did you see any in the fourth quarter and I guess no change in outlook really there?

Frank McDonnell

Yeah no change in outlook, no additional claims I think the one claim in 2008 was just reported in the second quarter.

Scott Heleniak - RBC Capital Markets

Okay, and then just final, last question was, just you guys raised the limits on the some of the D&O policies. How many different lines was that you raised limits on and any plans to do that in other lines within 2009?

Stan Galanski

Look we will always react to opportunities in the market, so I can not tell you what's going to happen in June. But I think we are very comfortable with both the gross and net capacities that we write on our business and the biggest capacity we put out really is in our marine liability business and in our NavTech area, both of which protect it with very, very substantially reinsurance.

So I would say we really have not experienced an increase in our net lines other than the strategies we undertook in marine and specialty over the last couple of years and I would not expect to see a meaningful change in that. Now again, we will respond to what the market opportunities are, but I think we are very comfortable with the gross in that lines we have today.

Scott Heleniak - RBC Capital Markets

Okay thanks.

Operator

And the next question comes from the line of Dean Evans. Please proceed.

Dean Evans - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Inc.

Yes thanks, with the number of hires you brought on particularly on the underwriting side could you comment on sort of what your view is or maybe where you are hiring from troubled competitors and how you see that as an potential opportunity?

Stan Galanski

Well Dean, I think the trade press is doing a pretty good job of telling you how many people have left various companies on a weekly basis. So I guess I wont comment on that, but I think what we have tried to identify is people who fit our underwriting culture who are less focused on short-term production as I got to hit my budget this month and really looking at supporting the ongoing expansion of our business. So we think the environmental casualty for example is a great fit. We are not talking about super fund size here.

As you might have 20 years ago, when it was all about chemical plants and hazardous waste site, but really middle market businesses and we had a lot of that ranging from our construction book to marine operations where we just never had a solution for that internally.

So it's very elegant, if you will cross sell, it fits in nicely to our product portfolio and it’s a special image, the underwriters are generally environmental engineers, they have a very deep technical understanding of the business and that makes sense to us. We like, when our underwrites can really get their hands dirty and really assessing risk and have that kind of deep know how. So that's kind of where our focus has been and it's been in businesses that we think are attractive to us.

The primary investments have been in the international D&O teams as well as US D&O business professional liability, environmental casualty and then continuing to build out our excess casualty business. There we have done very, very well since starting that unit late in 2004.

But we have done very well with wholesalers and there is no surprise there because we have very small team of underwriters, they can only handle so many brokers. So the wholesale market has been a great efficient place for us and we have wonderful relationships there, that we are appreciative of. But not every type of umbrella goes to a wholesale broker. And by making some investments here we will be better able to reach out to retail brokers to see business that we simply otherwise wouldn’t see.

Dean Evans - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Inc.

Okay, could you give a little more breakdown of the favorable reserve development in the quarter I know you mentioned $12.5 million came from the California construction. But what was where did the rest come from and what were the years kind of across the board?

Frank McDonnell

The reserve take downs were primarily 2005 and prior and it was concentrated in the construction liability as well as marine liability.

Dean Evans - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Inc.

So, $12.5 million in the construction liability and basically the rest in marine.

Frank McDonnell

Pretty much, yes.

Dean Evans - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Inc.

Okay.

Frank McDonnell

And again '05 and prior.

Dean Evans - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Inc.

Thank you that's all I have.

Stan Galanski

You bet.

Frank McDonnell

Thanks Dean.

Operator

(Operator Instructions) And the next question comes from the line of Amit Kumar, please proceed.

Andrew Terry - Fox-Pitt, Kelton Cochran Caronia Waller

Hi guys this is [Andrew Terry] for Amit Kumar.

Frank McDonnell

Hi Andrew.

Stan Galanski

Okay Andrew.

Andrew Terry - Fox-Pitt, Kelton Cochran Caronia Waller

Just curious, if you guys are expecting any changes or seeing any changes in the insurance buying behavior of the energy companies due to the fall in oil prices?

Stan Galanski

That's really an interesting question I am not sure I really can give an answer on that, look, falling oil prices impact our business in a lot of different ways right, and impacts everything from what we are likely to collect as a premium on a policy written on a reporting basis to our shipping business. Our Bluewater hull business based on the jobbers and so on how much activity M&A surround the transport of oil and packs our cargo business with commodity prices.

Look, the issue for energy companies is how much wind are they going to buy in the Gulf, what's the market going to charge, how much are they willing to pay for it, and how much are they willing to assume.

Our view is, they were two very fortunate years there 2006 and 2007, and you happen to be a hedge fund to get into that business in those years and got out, you look like a genius. But in over the five years, it's a tough business and there have been plenty of non-cat attritional losses in energy.

So the market will be what it is, and we will see how the customer buying behavior is. But again, that's a portion of our business that it will go up or down with the cycle and we will manage through that.

Andrew Terry - Fox-Pitt, Kelton Cochran Caronia Waller

Okay. All right, it's very helpful.

Operator

(Operator Instructions). And there are no further questions at this time. I would now like to turn the presentation back over to Mr. Stan Galanski for closing remarks.

Stan Galanski

We really do not have anything. Thanks very much for joining the call. We appreciate your time and your interest in the company. Thanks.

Frank McDonnell

Thank you.

Operator

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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