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AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. (NASDAQ:AFSI)

Q4 2008 Earnings Call

February 19, 2009 10:00 am ET

Executives

Hilly Gross – Vice President, Investor Relations

Barry D. Zyskind - President, Chief Executive Officer & Director

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr. – Chief Financial Officer

Analysts

Bijan Moazami - Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

Dan Schlemmer – Fox-Pitt Kelton

Operator

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the AmTrust Financial Services fourth quarter and year end 2008 earnings conference call. Today’s call is being recorded.

At this time I would like to turn the conference call over to Mr. Hilly Gross, Vice President of Investor Relations. Please go ahead, sir.

Hilly Gross

Thank you, and good morning. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to our fourth quarter earnings conference call. Before I introduce to you both Barry Zyskind, President and CEO of AmTrust Financial Services, and Mr. Ron Pipoly, Chief Financial Officer of AmTrust, I would by your leave read into the record a statement on forward-looking statements.

This morning’s conference call may contain forward-looking statements, which are made pursuant to the Safe Harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. The forward-looking statements are based on the company’s current expectations and beliefs concerning future developments and the potential effects on the company. There can be no assurance that actual developments will be those anticipated by the company. Actual results may differ materially from those projected as a result of significant risks and uncertainties, including non-receipt of the expected payments, changes in interest rates, effect of the performance of financial markets on investment income and fair values of investments, developments of claims and the effect on loss reserves, accuracy in projecting loss reserves, the impact of competition and pricing environments, changes in the demand of the company’s products, the effects of general economic conditions, adverse state and federal legislation, regulations and regulatory investigations into industry practices, developments relating to existing agreements, heightened competition, changes in pricing environments, and changes in asset valuations. The Company undertakes no obligation to publicly update any forward-looking statements.

Having read that into the record, it is now my pleasure to introduce to you AmTrust’s President and Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Barry Zyskind.

Barry D. Zyskind

Thank you, Hilly, and good morning. I am pleased to report that AmTrust had a profitable fourth quarter and a very strong year in 2008 with strong operating earnings and continued premium growth.

Gross written premiums for the fourth quarter was $294 million, an increase of 19% over fourth quarter 2007. Gross written premiums for 2008 was $1.1 billion, an increase of 32%. Our operating earnings for the fourth quarter was $32 million, an increase of 26% over the fourth quarter of 2007.

Operating earnings for the year were $125 million, a 44% increase. Our net income for the quarter was $25 million and for the year was $83 million. Our balance sheet is solid, our cash and liquidity are strong. Our small commercial business segment continues to perform well. They grew by 49% for the year. With the acquisition of UBI from Unitrin, we are continuing to diversify and expand our products.

In addition, as mentioned on previous calls, we continue to see solid growth from our relationship with CardinalComp. Through this strategic agreement with CardinalComp, we have been able to further expand our presence in New York and other parts of the Northeast where we have had a successful history of doing business. We will continue to explore additional opportunities to grow this segment in other geographic areas as well.

Because we primarily focus on small businesses, we continue to see positive trends in our small worker’s comp activities. We monitor claims very carefully. In terms of payroll, which are the basis of workers comp premiums, we have seen only a small decrease and the frequency and severity of these claims are stable. We attribute these strong components to our focus on small businesses and niche markets.

We also continue to see very strong renewal rates. Our middle market program has done well and we have established new programs which we believe will grow significantly in a hardening market. We are well positioned to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves as a result of the current dislocation in certain areas of the insurance market.

Our specialty risks and extended warranty segment continues to perform well through the establishment of new programs both in the United States and Europe. Although writings decreased for the quarter due to the currency exchange and decreased sales of some of our customers, this segment grew for the year by 36%. We continue to aggressively add new customers and through this we believe that the segment will continue to grow and experience strong results in 2009 and beyond. We have expanded our team in this segment and feel we are uniquely positioned to take advantage of opportunities as competitors experience challenges in the market.

In all segment lines, as we successfully grow our business, we continue to be focused and disciplined. For the year we have successfully grown all of our segments. Our diversified platform allows us to quickly recognize and take advantage of market opportunities while allocating capital in the most efficient manner. In addition, we see signs that the market has stabilized in terms of pricing. We feel we can grow gross premiums written of at least 10% in 2009 and possibly more.

We are pleased to report that our fixed income investment portfolio remains strong and has stabilized from the third quarter to the fourth quarter. It continues to increase in value in the first quarter of ’09. During the fourth quarter, we had some realized losses in our equity portfolio. Our equity investments currently comprise of 2% of invested assets. Of our approximately $1.4 billion portfolio, we have approximately $1.3 billion of bonds, cash, and short term investments.

62% of our bond portfolio is AAA rated and 91% is A rated or better. Shareholders equity at the end of 2008 was up slightly. We anticipate further book value growth during 2009 and beyond from successful operations and as our bond portfolio increases in value and credit markets stabilize, we will regain our unrealized losses, enabling our book value to grow at a faster rate than our earnings.

We feel very good about the prospects for all of our three segments, and believe we are in an excellent position to build on our success in 2008 as we continue our adherence to carefully managed growth, disciplined underwriting and pricing, strategic acquisition, and diligent cost control. We benefit from economies to scale and increasing efficiencies. We have set a specific goal to continue to reduce expenses and ensure our continued strong efficiencies in 2009.

In summary, we are very proud of both our fourth quarter performance as well as our 2008 results among which is our milestone achievement of over $1 billion in gross written premium. We continue to see strong opportunities for accretive acquisition. As some companies find themselves in difficult financial situations, we believe that we are in a very good position to take advantage of these opportunities as they arise.

In a climate of volatility we remain stable, focused, and disciplined. In an economically challenging period in our own industry as well, we have emerged profitable, strong, and financially positioned to take advantage of opportunities that we are currently seeing in the marketplace. We look back with pride at our performance in 2008 and we face 2009 with confidence with regards to our growth and profitability.

Now I’d like to turn the discussion over to our Chief Financial Officer, Ron Pipoly, to report on our fourth quarter and year end financial highlights.

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

Thank you, Barry. Good morning. For the quarter, the company generated operating earnings of $32.3 million or $0.54 per share compare to $25.6 million or $0.43 per share for the same period last year.

On a year-to-date basis, operating earnings were $124.9 million or $2.08 per share compared to $87.1 million or $1.45 per share for 2007. We are pleased to announce that gross written premiums for the year increased by $271.2 million or 32.3% from $839.4 million for 2007 to $1.1 billion for 2008. All three of our segments grew during 2008.

The small commercial business segment grew by $150 million or 48.6%. This was driven by both the UBI acquisition as well as the CardinalComp relationship. The specialty middle market segment grew by $11.6 million or 5.2%. The specialty risk and extended warranty segment grew by $109.6 million or 35.8%. This was driven by the company’s continued success both domestically and internationally.

For the fourth quarter, our gross written premium increased by $47.1 million or 19.1% from $246.4 million for the fourth quarter of 2007 to $293.6 million for the fourth quarter of 2008. The small commercial business segment grew by $80.5 million or 109.9% which again was driven by both the UBI acquisition as well as the CardinalComp relationship.

The specialty middle market segment grew by $8.9 million or 14.8%. The specialty risk and extended warranty segment decreased by $42.3 million or 37.5%. This decrease was a function of both a slight decline in domestic writings as well as the effect of a stronger dollar on our European business. Despite the decline in the fourth quarter premium volumes, we remain very confident regarding this segment’s ability to continue to grow.

Our net written premium for the quarter was $166 million. This compares to $126.4 million for 2007. We ceded $82.6 million of premium to Maiden during the fourth quarter of 2008. On a year-to-date basis, our net written premium was $554.9 million compared to $419.9 million for 2007. We have ceded $376.5 million of premium to Maiden.

Net earned premium was $133.4 million for the fourth quarter of 2008 compared to $113.3 million for the fourth quarter of 2007. We ceded earned premium of $80.1 million to Maiden during the quarter. Net earned premium by segment was as follows for the fourth quarter: small commercial business was $52.6 million in 2008 compared to $54.1 million in 2007. Specialty middle market was $33.9 million in 2008 compared to $19.4 million in 2007. Specialty risk and extended warranty was $46.8 million in 2008 compared to $39.7 million.

On a year-to-date basis, we had net earned premium of $439.1 million compared to $442.2 million in 2007. We ceded $286 million of earned premium to Maiden. We earned $23.6 million of ceding commission revenue from Maiden during the quarter and $112.5 million for 2008.

The overall combined ratio for the fourth quarter was 77.3 compared to 75.4 for the fourth quarter of 2007. In terms of the components of our combined ratio, the loss ratio for the fourth quarter was 53.9% compared to 57.5% in the fourth quarter of 2007. The expense ratio for the fourth quarter was 23.4 compared to 17.8 for the fourth quarter of 2007.

Our expense ratio in the fourth quarter of 2008 without the effect of the Maiden ceding commission was 25.3%. It was 24.5% for the fourth quarter of 2007. The combined ratio for the fourth quarter for the small commercial segment was 79.1% which was made up of a loss ratio of 52.1% and an expense ratio of 27. The combined ratio for the specialty middle market segment was 92.6% which was made up of a loss ratio of 64.6 and an expense ratio of 28.

The combined ratio for the fourth quarter for the specialty risk and extended warranty segment was 77.3 which was made up of a loss ratio of 53.9% and an expense ratio of 16. On a year-to-date basis, combined ratio for the small commercial business segment was 74.5 which was comprised of a loss ratio of 52% and an expense ratio of 22.4%.

The year-to-date combined ratio for the specialty middle market segment was 87.6% which was comprised of a loss ratio of 62% and an expense ratio of 25.7. The year-to-date combined ratio for the specialty risk and extended warranty segment was 64.6% which was comprised of a loss ratio of 51.2% and an expense ratio of 13.4.

On a year-to-date basis net operating earnings for the year was $124.9 million or $2.08 per share. Net income was $82.9 million or $1.38 per share. For the fourth quarter, investment income was $14.5 million and after tax realized losses were $7.4 million.

For the year our investment income was $57.6 million and our after tax realized losses were $42 million. Annualized return on equity on operating earnings for the year was 32.3%. On a year-to-date basis, the companies generated over $65 million in positive cash flow from operations.

Our total shareholders equity was $392.6 million which represents a book value of $6.54 per share. We also paid a quarterly dividend of $0.05 per common share during the quarter and $0.18 for the year. Total assets as of December 31 were approximately $3.2 billion. Total invested assets were approximately $1.4 billion. Fixed maturities comprised 70.5% of the portfolio. Cash and short term investments 26.4%. Equity, securities 2.1%, and other investments, 1%.

With that I will turn it back over to Hilly Gross.

Hilly Gross

Thank you Ron and thank you Barry. Both Mr. Zyskind and Mr. Pipoly have indicated a willingness to respond to questions from those of you in our conference call audience. To facilitate that process, I will now turn it back to our operator who will outline for you how you can ask your question.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Your first question comes from Bijan Moazami with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

Bijan Moazami - Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

I have a number of questions. First, Ron, do you have any reserve releases this quarter?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

No, we did not.

Bijan Moazami - Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

No reserve releases. Could you quantify a little bit the impact of foreign exchange on your book value and the way you performed during the quarter?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

On a quarterly basis, the effect of foreign currency on our other comprehensive income position was approximately $0.17 on OCI for the quarter. It was about $0.20 on a year-to-date basis.

Bijan Moazami - Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

I was wondering if Barry could make a few comments about the bond market and what you’ve been seeing so far this year and what we should be expecting the bond portfolio to do or to be composed of going into 2009.

Barry D. Zyskind

From what we’re seeing at least on our bond portfolio, as I mentioned, we saw stability between September 30 and December 31 where the bonds stayed in a very tight range. So far the beginning of this year, we’ve seen some of the unrealized losses from last year started to come back and what you see in the papers are happening, spreads are narrowing and people are starting to be able to go out to the bond market again.

Some of the lower rated bonds obviously yields are significant but overall we’re seeing that on our portfolio which as we mentioned is 61% AAA and 91% A, we’re seeing a very, very nice turnaround and that’s why we believe as things stabilize and continue to get better, our book value will grow in excess of our earnings going forward, especially now that equity is 2% and we have no intention of increasing the equity as part of the portfolio and we feel very good that the portfolio is in very good position and will allow us to have really a very solid balance sheet.

Bijan Moazami - Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

Where are you guys putting new money?

Barry D. Zyskind

In the bond market we’re seeing some opportunities. We continue to put in the bond market. We keep a nice amount of cash on hand but we’re seeing some opportunities in some of the corporates, industrials, spreading them around. We’re seeing nice yield that we think overall in terms of earnings will help the earnings power of the company and at the same time, well-diversified and with good credit ratings.

Operator

Your next question comes from Ken Billingsley with Signal Hill.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

Wanted to ask just a few follow up questions as well. Ron, what was the ceded earned premiums to Maiden?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

The ceded earned premiums to Maiden for the year were approximately $286 million.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

What was it for the quarter?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

For the quarter was approximately $80 million.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

Can you talk about the tax rate? As we’re looking going forward, it’s obviously had some fluctuation in here. Is the reason that it was at 23% when the expectations may be higher, is it a mix of business and geography?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

It’s a combination of both a mix of business and geography and there’s certain tax efficiencies in our structure that we’re able to take advantage of.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

Is it invested asset deployment as well?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

That’s absolutely a factor in the effective tax rate.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

When I was looking at the net premiums written to gross premiums written for the quarter, I was about 57% which is quite a bit higher than what we saw for the first three quarters. Could you talk about what’s going on there?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

I think some of the fluctuation you may be seeing in terms of just looking at our gross written premiums and multiplying that times 40% to try to arrive at a cession for Maiden for the quarter. There are programs in which Maiden does not participate. We have some kind of legacy programs in which we have 100% that we’re really just acting as a front on, so on a quarter to quarter basis that can cause some lumpiness in that calculation with Maiden.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

So you’re seeing some pretty strong growth I guess in some of those lines that Maiden does not participate in?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

Yes.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

Lastly, on the AOCI, you said it was about $0.17 came from the foreign exchange?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

For the quarter, yes. If we were to reconcile book value at the end of September 30 which was $6.46 per share to the $6.54 that we’re currently at, the currency effect of that would be a negative $0.17 per share.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

Okay, so there was about another $3 million or $4 million of some unrealized losses that were booked in the quarter then?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

Correct.

Operator

Your next question comes from Dan Schlemmer with FPK.

Dan Schlemmer – Fox-Pitt Kelton

Couple questions on just the premium growth. First of all, what was the contribution during Q4 from the Cardinal relationship? I don’t know what date that started to hit your books or even if it did. Can you clarify that?

Barry D. Zyskind

It was around $60 million of CardinalComp coming in the fourth quarter.

Dan Schlemmer – Fox-Pitt Kelton

$60 million written, okay. Then can you give us any more I guess on the FX impact on the written premium? What would it have grown under a stable dollar to Euro, pound, whatever the measure, whatever the premium’s coming in at? Do you have any benchmarks on that?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

Yes, on the foreign currency exchange effect on the specialty risk segment, for the quarter, it was about $11 million USD of premium and on a year-to-date basis it’s about $42 million.

Dan Schlemmer – Fox-Pitt Kelton

So basically no change in the dollar during the quarter. It would have been $11 million added to the top line?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

Correct for the quarter.

Dan Schlemmer – Fox-Pitt Kelton

Then on the loss ratio, you said there’s no prior reserve development during the quarter. Just to be clear, I’m assuming that means there’s no changes to your prior accident years. Was there any true up relative to the first three quarters of the year or was the 53.9 was truly just the actual experience during the quarter?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

That was the actual experience during the quarter.

Dan Schlemmer – Fox-Pitt Kelton

Can you give us any, I guess, what’s driving the decrease? Obviously you had a real low loss ratio the prior quarter although that was at least partially reserve development, but what’s bringing the loss ratio down? Is there anything specifically that’s driving that that you can point to?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

In terms of the loss ratio, from a specialty, risk, and extended warranty segment, we’re currently in the quarter in the low 50s and really that is a combination of both increased writing in the US where we have traditionally written the business at a lower loss ratio so the US component of the overall segment is increased, and also our two foreign subsidiaries, AIUL and IGI, both had very strong quarters in terms of their loss ratios. From a workers compensation or small business perspective, again we just continue to see very solid trends in our losses and in terms of severity and frequency and I think the improvements in our loss ratio, I would attribute a great deal of it to I think a very good claims operation that we have.

Barry D. Zyskind

If you think about the last couple of years with trends of frequency and severity coming down and we did a good job of keeping our rates sort of stable, so we’re seeing the benefit of having the premium, not taking the premium down, and having the benefits of what happened nationwide, to some of the severity and frequency trends.

Dan Schlemmer – Fox-Pitt Kelton

Specifically on the warranty business, you were just talking about the severity trends in particular I guess and specifically on the warranty business, the view is that warranty business may get hurt somewhat by the weakening economy, but does your model result in better severity in a weak economy just because the cost to you of whatever you’re doing which is sometimes refurbishing I think limited cases as you replace it. Does that actually drive the severity down in a weak economy or is that just… I don’t know if that’s something you can capture in your…

Barry D. Zyskind

I think one of the things about the warranty is it’s something that’s a very, very short tail line. You earn it every month and you see exactly what your claims are. There’s a very short time period to be able to make a claim and therefore by us watching it very carefully, if we see a product or we see a customer where we’re seeing increased severity or frequency, we’re able to react quickly and up the pricing on certain products.

So I would say right now we are not seeing an increased severity or frequency on the warranties. It’s been very, very stable from our standpoint and we believe that yes, there are going to be decreased sales. We’re seeing that already because of our customers selling less product; however, we’ve done a good job last year over the year. You can’t look at only the fourth quarter for the entire year of bringing on new customers, and that’s what we’re continuing to do now for ’09.

We feel very good about a lot of the customers we have in the hopper, a lot of things that we’re signing contracts, and some of the customers that we brought on last year that takes a few months and are starting to produce in the first quarter of ’09. So it’s a line of business that has its positives and it’s a great line of business and we continue to grow in it and we watch numbers very carefully, and if there is an increase in frequency or severity, we’re going to adjust the pricing appropriately.

Dan Schlemmer – Fox-Pitt Kelton

I’m sorry, I think I lost the last part of that question and sorry if I didn’t ask it very clearly. I’ll just ask it a different way. Are you going to have lower replacement costs or refurbishment costs due to a weakening economy or does that not really play into your actual cost to provide the replacements that you do?

Barry D. Zyskind

I think in theory what you’re saying makes sense. We haven’t seen it yet but people who have cost of labor which is one of the components that go into fixing these products, clearly is going to go down as people are hungrier. In a booming economy they don’t have time. Now people will be more eager to fix things at a cheaper rate. People need to move product and sell products so when you have to replace something you can’t do a better deal, so I think all in all, I think what you’re saying makes sense. We haven’t seen it yet but we’ll watch it carefully and see if that does pan out.

Operator

Your next question comes is a follow up from Ken Billingsley with Signal Hill.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

What is the premium mix? Like what percentage of your premium is workers comp and what premium is from the warranty side?

Ronald E. Pipoly, Jr.

The mix on the year-to-date, for the workers comp segment the total premium for the year was $458 million and our total writings were $1.11 billion and the total writings for the specialty risk segment were $415.9 million.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

On the workers comp side, what are you seeing with pricing? I believe you just commented that you had held your pricing up a little bit higher than others. Where is pricing now as you’re expanding into New York and to the northeast?

Barry D. Zyskind

We’ve always been very consistent on our pricing. I think we’re seeing what we believe is a stable market where the last couple of years you’ve seen a couple of players become more competitive in certain lines of business and certain geographic areas and now you’re seeing, I wouldn’t say a hardening of the market but you’re seeing stability where people are keeping their prices flat, maybe up, depending on what class it is and what geographic area it is, so we’ve been very consistent on our pricing and we feel very good where the book is priced and where price is compared to last year and the year before a well, so we’re keeping our prices stable and we’ll receive the opportunity depending on the region or the class to take pricing up. We’re taking it up.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

My understanding is you guys write smaller accounts on the workers comp side so from a payroll standpoint, if that’s holding steady, obviously price should normally be in line with prior quarters. But with the economic slowdown, are you seeing your customers increase their deductible just trying to limit their at least cash expense on the insurance side?

Barry D. Zyskind

The beauty about comp is for what we do, we do dollar one on the small stuff, so there’s no increase in deductible. In terms of payroll, we’re seeing a very slight decrease in payroll and we think that really is one of the characteristics of small business is the fact that they never really over expand, they never really give big salaries, if you look at small businesses, so in this economic environment, you’re not seeing much of a decrease.

You see a little bit of a decrease, a business goes out, so on and so forth, maybe they let go of an employee, but it’s not something where you’ll see a mass layoff of a middle market or a larger company where you’re seeing much stronger decreases in payroll. In our business it’s pretty stable and that’s one of the things we’re very, very pleased about.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

You just said that just about all that you do is Dollar One comp.

Barry D. Zyskind

Yes.

Kenneth Billingsley – Signal Hill Group, LLC

Very good. Thank you.

Operator

Your next question us a follow up from Dan Schlemmer with FPK.

Dan Schlemmer – Fox-Pitt Kelton

Barry, tell me if I got your comment wrong. I think you said plus 10% on gross written for 2009. Just want to clarify, assuming I got that right, that’s organic, you're not assuming any acquisitions when you put that number out?

Barry D. Zyskind

Yes, that’s organic. Obviously if we do an acquisition, which we’re always looking for, then the growth would be stronger.

Operator

That concludes our questions for this time. Mr. Gross, I’ll turn the call back over to you for any additional or closing remarks.

Hilly Gross

Thank you and that concludes our earnings conference call this morning. We thank Mr. Zyskind, we thank Mr. Pipoly, and we thank you, our audience, for joining us this morning. Have a good day.

Operator

That does conclude today’s conference call. We thank you for your participation and you may disconnect at this time.

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Source: AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. Q4 2008 Earnings Call Transcript

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