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The Travelers Companies, Inc. (TRV - Analyst Report) reported earnings of 72 cents per share in the fourth quarter of 2012, surpassing the Zacks Consensus Estimate of 4 cents per share. However, results plunged 51% from $1.48 earned in the year-ago quarter. Operating income of $278 million dipped 54% the reported quarter.

The year-over-year downside was largely attributable to higher catastrophe losses mostly due to Hurricane Sandy. However, higher underlying underwriting margins and higher net favorable prior-year reserve development limited the downside to some extent.

Cat loss in the quarter was $689 million or $1.78 per share.

Including net realized investment gains of $26 million or 6 cents per share, the company reported net income of $304 million or 78 cents per share, comparing unfavorably with net income of $618 million or $1.51 a share. The year-ago quarter included net realized investment gains of $9 million.

Operational Update

Net written premiums during the quarter were $5.4 billion, up 2% year over year.

Net investment income increased 5.7% year over year to $689 million during the quarter, largely attributable to better performance at non-fixed income portfolio, partly muted by reduction in fixed income returns.

Travelers posted underwriting loss of $338 million, comparing unfavorably with profit of $187 million in the year-ago quarter. Combined ratio deteriorated 950 basis points year over year to 105.4% in the reported quarter. The deterioration was due to higher catastrophe losses, partially muted by higher underwriting margins and higher net favorable prior-year reserve development.

Total revenue in the quarter under review was $6.5 billion, increasing 2% year over year, driven by the augmentation in premiums earned and net investment income. Revenues surpassed the Zacks Consensus Estimate of $6.3 billion.

Full Year Highlights

Operating earnings of $6.21 per share outpaced the Zacks Consensus Estimate of $5.56 and year ago earnings of $3.28.  The upside stemmed from a combination of lower catastrophe losses, higher underwriting margins and higher net favorable prior-year reserve development.

Including net realized investment gains of 9 cents, the company reported net income of $6.30 per share, surging from $3.36 a share earned in 2011.

Total revenue increased 1% year over year to $25.7 billion. It also outperformed the Zacks Consensus Estimate of $25.2 billion.

Underwriting gains of $296 million reversed the year-ago loss of $745 million. Combined ratio improved 800 basis points.

Segment Update

Business Insurance: Net written premium increased 6% year over year to $2.78 billion in the quarter, largely driven by increases in renewal rate change.

The combined ratio deteriorated 770 basis points year over year to 103.5%, mainly due to higher catastrophe losses.

Operating income slid 27% year over year to $326 million in the fourth quarter of 2012, primarily attributable to higher catastrophe losses.

Financial, Professional & International Insurance: Net written premium in the quarter under review improved 2% year over year to $808 million, driven by a 6% increase in net written premiums in the International business.

The combined ratio deteriorated 100 basis points year over year to 80.2% in fourth quarter 2012, attributable to higher catastrophe losses.

Operating income descended 13.8% year over year to $131 million, attributable to higher catastrophe losses, partly offset by higher underlying underwriting margins

Personal Insurance: Net written premium skidded 3% year over year to $1.79 billion, primarily due to lower new business volumes.

The combined ratio deteriorated 1540 basis points year over year to 89.7% in the fourth quarter of 2012, largely driven by higher catastrophe losses.

Operating loss of $114 million compared unfavorably with profit of $77 million in the year-ago quarter largely due to higher catastrophe loss.  However, higher underlying underwriting margins and higher net favorable prior-year reserve development limited the downfall.

Dividend and Share Repurchase

Travelers spent $400 million to buyback 5.4 million shares in the quarter, taking the tally to $1.45 billion spent to buyback 22.4 million shares in 2012. The company is still left with $2.159 billion remaining under its authorization.

The company also paid $178 million in dividends.

Additionally, the board approved a quarterly dividend of 46 cents, payable Mar 29, 2013, to the shareholders of record as of Mar 8, 2013.

Our Take

Travelers continues with the trend of delivering positive earnings surprise.

Though its exposure to cat loss weighs on the results, prudent underwriting practices and favorable prior-year reserve development managed to limit the adverse affect.

High retention rate, pricing gains, positive renewal rate changes, and a strong capital position are among the other positives, which are likely to support Travelers perform better going forward.

Travelers’ continuous share buyback strategy has a positive impact on earnings per share and also bolsters shareholder value.

Further, Travelers recently increased its stake in J. Malucelli Participações em Seguros e Resseguros S.A., a market leader in the surety insurance business in Brazil.  Further, it made some useful investments to augment its technology platform. It scores strongly with the rating agencies as well.

Travelers presently carries a Zacks Rank #2 (Buy). Among other property & casualty insurers carrying a favorable Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy), Cincinnati Financial Corp. (CINF - Analyst Report) is scheduled to release its fourth-quarter results on Feb 7, before the opening bell, while Fidelity National Financial, Inc. (FNF - Snapshot Report) will report on Feb 19, after the closing bell. First American Financial Corporation (FAF - Snapshot Report) is scheduled to release its fourth-quarter results on Feb 21.

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