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American Safety Insurance Holdings, Ltd. (NYSE:ASI)

Q2 2008 Earnings Call

July 28, 2008 9:00 am ET

Executives

Stephen R. Crim – President, Chief Executive Officer

Joseph D. Scollo, Jr. - Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer

William C. Tepe - Chief Financial Officer

Analysts

David Lewis - Raymond James

Kenneth Billingsley - Signal Hill Group

John Gwynn - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

Steve Vick - Cutahee [ph] Management

Operator

Welcome to the American Safety Insurance second quarter 2008 earnings results conference call. (Operator Instructions) It is now my pleasure to introduce your host, Steve Crim, President and CEO of American Safety Insurance.

Stephen Crim

Welcome to our conference call to discuss our results for the second quarter of 2008, which were issued prior to the market opening today. In addition to those participating on this telephone conference, this conference call is being broadcast over the internet.

With me in the room are Joe Scollo our Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer and Bill Tepe our Chief Financial Officer.

Before we begin I would like to remind everyone that this conference call will contain forward-looking statements. Forward-looking statements involve risks and uncertainties that may cause actual results to differ materially. For a description of some of the reasons that results may differ, please see our Form 10-Q for the quarter ended March 31, 2008 as filed with the SEC.

Now turning to the results for the second quarter, net earnings declined 7% over the same period in 2007 due to the impact of the soft market on underwriting profitability. The decline in underwriting profits was driven primarily by three factors. First, net premiums earned in construction lines, which has historically been one of the most profitable products for the company continued to decrease due to a slowing housing market and our decision to let business go and in an increasingly competitive market.

Second, the profitability in assumed reinsurance was negatively impacted by our decision to increase the ultimate loss ratio on a D&O treaty related to the potential for sub prime exposure. This treaty was terminated effective January 1 of this year.

Third, we experienced $1.5 million of prior year reserve development in our environmental business line related in large part to New York Claims. Earnings for the quarter were positively impacted by a $2.8 million decrease in corporate and other expense resulting from a reduction in accrued warranty liabilities related to our former real estate project in Florida, which was substantially completed in 2005.

Gross premiums written from new products added in connection with our product diversification strategy totaled $29.5 million, which is 41% of the total gross premiums written for the quarter compared to $12.2 million or 21% of the total for the second quarter of 2007. The largest contributor was assumed reinsurance which generated $20 million of premium in the quarter. Approximately 40% of the assumed reinsurance premiums stemmed from one large transaction involving our participation on reinsuring healthcare and pest control risks. I am also pleased with the immediate contribution of our new healthcare product which added over $3 million of premium in the quarter.

The combined ratio for the quarter increased to 103.7% from 94.4% in the first quarter of 2007. The increase was driven by a higher expense ratio, which was primarily due to higher acquisition costs associated with assumed reinsurance and specialty programs. We are shifting our new business focus in assumed reinsurance from quota share to excess of loss, which we expect to lower acquisition costs over time. The loss ratio in the quarter was adversely impacted by the reserve strengthening in our environmental line.

Over the past two years we have made investments in five new products through the acquisition of underwriting teams and one company. These newer products have allowed us to achieve growth while maintaining underwriting discipline in the midst of a very competitive insurance market. The new products have also created greater diversity in our product mix as we reduce our concentration in construction and shift the premiums in shorter tail lines of business. The investments in these newer products are key to our future success as they create a broader platform for growth and increased underwriting profitability when market conditions improve. In the interim, our focus will be on improving the profitability of our business through a combination of lowering acquisition expenses and assumed reinsurance by writing less core share business, keeping approved terms in our seated reinsurance, and reducing operating costs through improved operational efficiency.

I will now turn the call over to Joe Scollo to provide you with an update on our insurance operations.

Joseph Scollo

All comparisons are for the quarter ended June 30, 2008 to the same period in 2007 unless otherwise noted.

Gross written premiums for the quarter increased approximately $15 million or 26% to $73 million with growth in our assumed reinsurance segment representing approximately $11 million of this increase. Premiums from our newer product lines developed in conjunction with our product diversification strategy, which includes the assumed reinsurance segment, contributed 41% of our gross written premiums for the quarter and more than offset a 34% decline in our construction line.

For the six months ended June 30, our construction lines premiums represented 16% of our total gross written premiums versus 29% for the same period in 2007. Market conditions continued to be very competitive during the quarter in nearly all of our product lines.

Gross written premiums within our excess and surplus line segment increased $2.6 million to $36.3 million, a 7% increase. Premiums from our newer healthcare property, excess and product liability lines generated a combined increase of approximately $6 million in gross written premiums, with most of this increase coming in our healthcare and property lines.

Within our core product line, our environmental premiums grew by $1.2 million or 10% for the quarter, driven by growth in affinity types environmental products offered through our ProStar and Lines system. We continue to reduce our exposure to New York as written premiums in that state declined 48% to $1.6 million for the first six months of 2008.

The decline in our construction premiums was due to the continuation of the slowing housing market and our exercise of underwriting discipline in a very competitive insurance market. Our surety premiums increased $1.1 million due primarily to the specialty surety program we launched in the third quarter of 2007 and increases in our environmental maturity premiums.

Gross written premiums in our alternative risk transfer segment increased by approximately $900,000.00 or 6% due to an increase in premiums in our specialty program line. Premium production from new programs added in 2007 and 2008 more than offset declines in premium volume experienced in our more mature programs due to the impact of the soft markets.

Premiums in our construction ramp up program, which ensures project specific residential construction projects, declined $5.7 million due to the slowing housing market and delays in the funding of new projects. One new program, a professional liability program from municipal employees, was added during the quarter.

In addition, we expect that the municipal excess liability program added in the fourth quarter of 2007, will be recording approximately $12 million of gross written premiums for July. Premium production under this program is heavily tied to a July 1 effective date. We take no underwriting risk on this program and instead receive fee income for acting as the policy-issuing carrier for another insurance company. The reserves established for this program are fully collateralized.

We believe we will achieve overall growth for the year in our alternative risk transfer segment as premium production builds from the new programs added in 2007 and 2008. We continue to make excellent progress in our assumed reinsurance segment with reinsurance premiums reaching $20.1 million, an increase of over 130% from the same period in 2007. The team in Bermuda has done a good job of leveraging their existing relationships and building a strong premium base. We’ll be adding an experienced reinsurance executive to the team in August who brings significant experience in the healthcare sector. Our focus in this segment is on traditional and structured reinsurance solutions for small specialty insurers, risk retention groups, and captives [ph].

The strategy to achieve growth in a soft market by building small books of business through a diversification of our product portfolio is continuing to produce results. Despite double-digit declines in premiums in our construction and specialty premium program lines for the first six months in 2008, our total premiums during this period increased by 12%. We continue to focus our efforts on maintaining underwriting discipline and improving our efficiencies to preserve profitability over the long term.

I’ll now turn the call over to Bill Tepe for a review of our second quarter financial performance.

William Tepe

Net earnings for the quarter were $6.8 million or $0.63 per diluted share compared to $7.3 million or $0.69 per diluted share for the same period of 2007. Total revenues for the quarter were $57 million compared to $48 million in 2007. Net premiums earned increased $9 million from the $48 million due to the growth of new lines of business implemented as part of our diversification plan.

Net premiums earned from specialty programs increased $2 million from higher retention and assumed reinsurance earned premiums increased $13 million. These increases were partially offset by a $6.4 million decrease in earned premiums from our excess and surplus lines due primarily to an $8.5 million decrease in our construction line. The combined ratio for the quarter was 103.7% composed of a loss ratio of 63.1% an expense ratio of 40.6%. This compares to a combined ratio for 2007 quarter of 94.4% with a 59.9% loss ratio and a 34.5% expense ratio.

The 3.2 percentage point increase in the loss ratio is primarily attributable to reserve development in the build [ph] market segment of our environmental product line of $1.5 million due in large part to New York business. The 6.1 percentage point increase in expense ratio is primarily the result of two factors: first acquisition expenses were higher due to the changes in the mix of earned premiums from construction to assumed reinsurance where we pay a higher commission rate; second the specialty program reinsurance coverage was changed from a quota share treaty where we received the CD commission to an excess of loss treaty where there is no CD commission. As a result of these changes, acquisition expenses as a percentage of earned premiums increased to 24.8% from 19.6%.

Payroll and related expenses increased $1 million due to normal salary increases and increased headcount largely attributable to new lines of business. Other underwriting expenses increased $700,000 primarily due to increased appreciation and professional services expense.

Corporate and other expenses were -$1.9 million due to a $2.8 million reversal of a warranty accrual established in 2004 in connection with our real estate development project, which was essentially completed in 2005. Without this reversal corporate expenses for the 2008 quarter were basically flat compared to the 2007 quarter at approximately $900,000.00.

Cash flow provided from operations was $2 million compared to $27 million in the 2007 quarter, due to the funding of the casualty reinsurance treaty and a change in the mix of business with more premiums from assumed reinsurance segment where payment is received in arrears. Due to the timing of the cash settlement of certain reassumed reinsurance transactions, we expect cash flow to improve in the second half of the year.

In the second quarter we repurchased 116,650 shares of common stock for $1.9 million. We have approximately 100,000 shares remaining under a previously announced share repurchase program and expect to have the program completed during the balance of the year. Several investments were $597 million at June 30 compared to $617 million at December 31, 2007 due to the change of unrealized gains and losses and the acquisition per cash of our healthcare segment.

At June 30 the portfolio had unrealized losses of $6.7 million compared to unrealized gains at December 30 of $5 million. This [indiscernible] showed a $530 million or 89% of the portfolio with an average rating of AA, a tax equivalent yield of 5.3% and the modified duration of 5.03. Mortgage backed securities issued by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Jennie Mae totaled $156 million. The portfolio also contains $26 million of common stock, $5 million of preferred stock, and $36 million of short-term investments.

The effective tax rate for the quarter was less than 2% as a majority of the income occurred in our Bermuda subsidiaries. With the way this rate will increase over time due to improved profitability of our US subsidiaries. Quote value per share and diluted book value per share at June 30 were $21.92 and $21.35 compared to $21.53 and $20.81 at December 31, 2007 respectively. These book value increases were despite the negative impact of $0.94 in the book value per share and $0.91 diluted book value per share due to the tax effective $11.7 million increase in unrealized losses on the investment portfolio.

Return on average equity was 11.2% compared to 14.1% for the 2007 quarter.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Your first question comes from David Lewis with Raymond James.

David Lewis - Raymond James

Steve maybe talk a little bit about what you see on some of the pricing trends. Clearly the market’s been soft; you’re starting to see some opportunities in some of these new lines. I guess my concern is are you getting adequate pricing and what do you think your pricing that new business had on a combined ratio basis.

Stephen Crim

As far as our direct products, do you want to address that Joe?

Joseph Scollo

Yes I mean the market continues to be soft. We are seeing rate declines in the US business so it is anywhere between 5% and 15% with the lower end of that range being on our ProStar products and the higher end being obviously in our construction and middle market environmental business. The market is pretty much status quo in terms of the degree of softness. I don’t think we saw any significant acceleration in the softening so it’s pretty much status quo with what we saw last quarter and I think Steve probably has something about the reinsurance side.

Stephen Crim

Well on the reinsurance side a lot of the different programs that we’ve been participating on thus far are risk retention groups, captives and they ten do write smaller businesses and risks for smaller accounts so I think those are going to be less impacted by the market and a little less rate sensitive than some larger business. We then, as I mentioned on the call, we’ve been writing mostly quota share treaties. We are looking at shifting that over time. We’re bringing in a new chief underwriter starting next month and he’s going to be focusing more on excess of loss treaties. While on one hand it does create the potential for a little more volatility in the earnings it will have a higher margin and will give us a lower acquisition cost. I think that will bring better balance to the reinsurance book as we look forward.

William Tepe

And just to add to that, a lot of the growth is coming from these newer products and the new teams that we’ve brought on and they’re just building their books of business and they’re all small books of business, so certainly from a pricing perspective, we’re cherry picking the risks that we feel hit our underwriting guidelines.

David Lewis - Raymond James

And you feel like you’re pricing that business below 100% combined in this environment or what’s your thoughts?

Stephen Crim

Well when you talk about the loss ratio, the issue that we’ve had in the quarter, the quarter was impacted somewhat by some reserve development and we have had some higher acquisition costs but over time we think we can get those acquisition expenses down a little bit and so yes we should be able to get them.

David Lewis - Raymond James

Can you talk a little bit more about the assumed reinsurance charge you took in the quarter related to the sub prime exposure? I think you mentioned that.

Stephen Crim

It was basically one treaty that we entered into about January of ‘07 and it was a D&O treaty that had historically been very profitable. We took a very small piece of an excess layer on that and what we determined after the whole sub prime issue came out, we decided that it would be prudent to increase our reserve, so we actually really significantly increased the ultimate loss pick on that. That treaty was not renewed on January 1 of this year, so it is in run off. So, whatever adverse impact that we’re having, that will be completely run off by this year and next year will not be an issue.

David Lewis - Raymond James

I assume that’s a claims made policy so you’ve got an indication of what kind of claims have been made on that policy?

Stephen Crim

Yes we do and that’s a great point. We’re certainly going to wait and see what it looks like at the end of the year and so I think we’ll have a much better picture by the end of this year because it is claims made. We have already done one claims audit and we’ll be doing another just to check and make sure we’re comfortable with the case reserves. We haven’t seen anything that would lead me to believe that there is an issue beyond what we’ve already put up at this stage; it is really more assessing what it looks like at the end of the year to get a clearer picture.

David Lewis - Raymond James

Now are these claims associated with lawsuits by shareholders or what have you as the sub prime issues have kind of flowed through the market and pressured the financial company evaluations, is that the primary jest of it?

Stephen Crim

So far we haven’t seen those losses coming through. We’ve had some of those and we anticipated some more activity on that and that’s why we put up the reserve, but we haven’t necessarily seen that materialize yet.

David Lewis - Raymond James

I guess where I’m going with that, the question out there is, is D&O coverage something that should be hit from a claims standpoint relating to sub prime? Because I guess the way I look at D&O coverage, is it’s a company specific type issue where the Ds and Os or some are fraudulent where sub prime was basically a bad business decision. So I don’t know and time will tell what the courts are going to do, but the question is whether that’s something that ultimately pays out, particularly from the excess side. If you’re not going to have to pay any of the legal expenses is there an alternate settlement? Or do you have any thoughts on that?

Stephen Crim

No, I don’t have any direct thoughts. I think time will tell and all I can say is what I’ve already talked to you about, to say that we haven’t seen those losses even materialize. To the extent that they do materialize we’ll have to see how they play out, but I think by the end of this year we’re going to have a pretty good picture on them.

David Lewis - Raymond James

Tax rate outlook was a little lower than I was expecting in the quarter. Any thought on what we should assume in the second half?

William Tepe

Obviously the tax rate is below 2% and I believe the rate is going to increase a little bit in the second half, but it is going to be below the 10% rate that we’ve been saying in the past.

David Lewis - Raymond James

So something on the upper single digits, probably a good starting point?

William Tepe

Yes I think so.

David Lewis - Raymond James

And how quick do you think the expense ratio can start to trend down a little from the second quarter, any thoughts on that? I know your new underwriter doesn’t come on until next month, so it’s probably more of a 2009 impact, is that the way to look at it?

William Tepe

Well as you know the expense ratio is calculated on earned premiums, so it’s going to come down as the premiums flow through, so it’s definitely going to be next year. I really don’t see much happening this year that could move the needle.

Operator

Your next question comes from Kenneth Billingsley with Signal Hill.

Kenneth Billingsley - Signal Hill Group

I wanted to ask you about, without the new business that came on in the second quarter, I guess a lot of it assumed, was it gross premiums written have been down about 15% over a six month period year-over-year?

Stephen Crim

Did you say 15%?

Kenneth Billingsley - Signal Hill Group

Yes.

Stephen Crim

Just to make sure I understand your question is that excluding assumed reinsurance all together or just taking out the growth that we saw in the assumed [interposing].

Kenneth Billingsley - Signal Hill Group

—taking out the growth and mainly just using new business, not all of it being assumed.

Stephen Crim

I don’t think it would have been down that much.

William Tepe

There is a slight up tick in growth I think, Ken, if you did that. I haven’t done the calculations so we would have to actually do that, but it would be flat to slightly higher from what I could see.

Joseph Scollo

Yes just at quick glance I don’t think it would have been negative.

Kenneth Billingsley - Signal Hill Group

You don’t think it would have been negative?

Joseph Scollo

No. Our US premiums were down; I believe 3% over last year.

Kenneth Billingsley - Signal Hill Group

Okay and when you do the shift from quota share to excess of loss, are you targeting new customers or rewriting the policy?

Stephen Crim

Yes I think it would be a combination of both. We have some treaties now that we’re participating in on a quota share basis and we’re looking at the renewals to see if it makes more sense to restructure those on an excess of loss basis. So I think it’ll be a combination. Clearly I would say that the majority of that will be new business as we’re brining in a new underwriter, he had his own contacts, his own markets and that’s predominantly what he has focused on in the past and what he will continue to focus on.

Kenneth Billingsley - Signal Hill Group

And this growth for the quarter then, was this one time in nature for the size or should we see that over the next few quarters as well?

Stephen Crim

I think that it’s somewhat anomalous. There was an $8 million transaction that I mentioned briefly in my opening remarks that it was actually three programs controlled by one program manager that were pest control and healthcare related, that was about $8 million. I don’t see that type of transaction recurring. I think you’ll see going forward, that that one expects some growth, but I think that will level off. Next year on the assumed reinsurance I think you’re going to see, as we make that transition, we’ll be taking some of our quota share treaties and if we can’t restructure those we may actually let some of those go and replace them with excess of loss to goods where we’ll get better balance.

Kenneth Billingsley - Signal Hill Group

In those quota shares, some of the new ones you take, have you ever taken a higher percentage then who is seeding it?

Stephen Crim

No we will be taking lower percentages in all those cases. That business, even though the margin is not quite as high as the excess of loss, the other side of it is there is less volatility in the result, so there are trade offs either way.

Kenneth Billingsley - Signal Hill Group

You were obviously buying back shares, how much is remaining in the buy back?

William Tepe

About 100,000 shares.

Kenneth Billingsley - Signal Hill Group

And so you see any change in your future use of capital?

William Tepe

We expect to complete the share repurchase by the end of the year, but right now that’s our only plan.

Kenneth Billingsley - Signal Hill Group

And the remainder is just to support growth opportunities?

William Tepe

Yes.

Operator

Your next question comes from John Gwynn with Morgan, Keegan.

John Gwynn - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

Steve, the transition from quota share to excess, are we talking about your primary healthcare business principally there?

Stephen Crim

No we’re talking about the assumed reinsurance line. The primary healthcare business is a direct business that came about from an acquisition earlier this year; that’s a completely different segment. The assumed reinsurance is all over the map in terms of different types of risks and I’m talking about the assumed reinsurance piece.

John Gwynn - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

And that assumed reinsurance is primarily liability or casualty business?

Stephen Crim

Yes, it primarily is liability and casualty business, mostly liability; a lot of general liability specifically in there. Again it’s targeted risk retention groups, captives, small specialty insurance companies, that’s really the market.

John Gwynn - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

Okay and is that brokered business?

Stephen Crim

Yes, it is brokered; all that is through reinsurance intermediaries, Benfeld, Aon, recognized names.

John Gwynn - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

And the reserve strengthening, was this a recurrence of that stuff from a couple of years ago?

Joseph Scollo

No that was in our construction line actually.

John Gwynn - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

Okay, thanks Joe, so this is a new deal.

Joseph Scollo

It’s environmental business that we wrote in New York, a similar type of loss though, in the action over labor loss stuff.

John Gwynn - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

Is this a source of litigation?

Stephen Crim

Well those cases are litigated, but that’s not a new thing, we’ve had that forever. I think the issue is just that we had a book of New York business that’s developed more adversity than we expected and that’s when we had some development there, but I think it’s important to recognize that we significantly reduced our exposure. That we started two years ago, in the environmental books, specifically shifting out of New York and in Joe’s opening remarks he talked about, I think what are we at $1.6 million?

Joseph Scollo

Yes, 48% lower than last year.

Stephen Crim

So for all intents and purposes we’re out of New York not only in construction, which is what we originally talked about, but also in environmental. So, we’ve had a bad experience in both and I think going forward we don’t expect to have those recurring issues.

John Gwynn - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

Steve, did the HEC block trade during the quarter?

Stephen Crim

Yes it did. They sold 100% of their position in the company and my understanding is that just based on the filings that just based on the filings that that was now taken over by Argo

Group out of Bermuda.

Operator

Your last question comes from Steve Vick with Cutahee [ph] Management.

Steve Vick - Cutahee [ph] Management

I have a couple of questions regarding the total investments, $597 did you say it was $5 million perhaps [ph] and $36 million in short-term investments?

William Tepe

Yes the investments were $530 million and we had Borden [ph] stocks that totaled about $156 million, so fixed majorities were about $530 million; mortgage backs were $156; we had $256 million in common stock, $5 in preferred stock and $36 million in short-term.

Steve Vick - Cutahee [ph] Management

Very good, so it seems like there is a deleveraging in the Fannie and Freddie area?

William Tepe

We have reduced our investment slightly.

Steve Vick - Cutahee [ph] Management

Right and then as far as the roll down in the credit ratings has there been a shift downwards still or is that consolidated around the AA area?

William Tepe

It’s all consolidated around the AA area.

Steve Vick - Cutahee [ph] Management

Okay, because at 1.2 is a movement downwards and that’s actually slowed down, is that the basis?

William Tepe

Yes, it has slowed down.

Steve Vick - Cutahee [ph] Management

I didn’t quite catch what you said about the access in the $12 million in June or July at least?

Stephen Crim

Right, we have a program that ensures excess municipal liability for self-insured pool that we added in the fourth quarter of last year. Those policies that are written under that program are heavily tied to a July 1 date. We have been informed by the program manager that they will be reporting about a $12 million writing for the month of July.

Steve Vick - Cutahee [ph] Management

Is that going to be going forward? I mean that’ll be everything happening in July from here on wards or?

Stephen Crim

There are some October dates as well, but I would say 90% to 95% of the premium for the year will be transacted in July. Just to clarify, we don’t take risk, underwriting risk on that program, we front it for another insurance company and we receive the income and they collateralize the reserves that we establish back in the form of a trust.

Steve Vick - Cutahee [ph] Management

So will that frustrate your net premiums earned or what will be the pretension there?

Joseph Scollo

There will be no impact on net earned premiums because we secede 100% of the premium back to the insurance company that we front for and then they just pay us a fee for doing that.

Stephen Crim

I just have a couple of corporate matters. We will be filing the 10-Q on a timely basis by the August 11 deadline and our next conference call is scheduled for Monday October 27 at 9:00 a.m. Eastern. Thank you very much.

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Source: American Safety Insurance Holdings, Ltd. Q2 2008 Earnings Call Transcript
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