WR Berkley Earnings Call Nuggets: Pricing Outlook and Book Value Per Share

WR Berkley Corp (NYSE:WRB) recently reported its fourth quarter earnings and discussed the following topics in its earnings conference call.

Pricing Outlook

Amit Kumar – Macquarie: My first question relates to the topic of pricing. Rob said that rates, I guess, will remain the same or probably increase from here. If I go back to the comments you made previously, you have said that pricing could 8% to 10% up by year-end 2013. Do you still think you are on track for that or has that thought process changed?

W. Robert Berkley, Jr. – President and COO: It’s Rob. I don’t recall exactly the words, but what I was trying to suggest is that we think the level of rate increase that we are getting today or in the second quarter if you like which was 6.5% we believe that you will continue to see that and it is likely to build from here, which sort of ties into the comments later in my commentary that if you look at the economic model of an insurance company, much of the rate increases people have been seeking stem from their concerns having to do from loss activity. The impact which is even more leveraged of investment income declining is likely to force people to raise rates even beyond what they have done to-date.

William R. Berkley – Chairman and CEO: I think his comments really (indiscernible) what I was talking about which is that price increases will continue at the 6.5% or higher. So, I would expect what I said before is our view as well. We still are optimistic that seven eights percent give or take will would be the level of increases by the end of the year.

Amit Kumar – Macquarie: So we have gone down because as I said previously we were – again, I don’t want to parse the word fear, but we were thinking o8% to 10%?

W. Robert Berkley, Jr. – President and COO: Being more cautious as I was at the second quarter of last year because always we have surprised that the second quarter, you may recall my comments the second of last year. I was a little cautious because the rate increases were not as much and they came back to be in the second half of last year. I’m little more cautious, but in principle I don’t have any different feeling. You are trying to think you are part of (indiscernible) 7 or 8 or 8 to 10, the answer is the mid-point to serve an 8% kind of rate increase so we’re really quite optimistic.

Eugene G. Ballard – SVP and CFO: A typically don’t breakout this level of detail, but if you look at our rate monitoring for domestic insurance it’s pretty much there right now. So the 65.5% that we shared with that include activities outside of the United States if we focus on the reinsurance in the U.S., its right where we’re talking about it would be.

Amit Kumar – Macquarie: Maybe just going back to the discussion previously on new entrant in this space. Can you sort of refresh us or may be just talk about what impact you might be seeing form the new entrant?

William R. Berkley – Chairman and CEO: What company you’re talking about?

Amit Kumar – Macquarie: Are you seeing the team is or that matter of accounts…

William R. Berkley – Chairman and CEO: There is no new entrant in our space. That’s why – as for a country – if you talk about Berkshire Hathaway, there are in a lot of people space, but generally not in our space. They may come in some of our space, but our space is much more people intensive, broker intensive. They are not interested in our space. They have few good people writing large risks. It’s not the heart of what we do. Our biggest risk is probably not big enough to be their smallest risk. Will they eventually move into areas that we do business? Could well be. But for now, they are just not in our space.

 

Book Value Per Share

Joshua Shanker – Deutsche Bank: My question is for Gene. I wanted to walk through a little bit of the book value per share move between this quarter and last quarter. I assume it’s obviously mostly investment losses and what not, but can we go to where that’s happening?

Eugene G. Ballard – SVP and CFO: Where the investment declines are?

Joshua Shanker – Deutsche Bank: Yeah. So is that munis, is that corporates that’s across the whole book.

Eugene G. Ballard – SVP and CFO: It’s across the book, munis and corporates would be the majority of it, because that’s where lot of our investments are, but it’s across the book, fixed income book…

Joshua Shanker – Deutsche Bank: Does that mean, and maybe it’s – comps are for better pricing, that it’s going to be difficult to grow book value in a rising and straight environment? Obviously we know that’s true intuitively, but is that – is this core anomalistic or does a 35 basis point increase in rates eat up and invent of possibly a book value growth?

Eugene G. Ballard – SVP and CFO: We don’t – in a short period towards the end of the quarter, 65 basis points or 75 basis point change in interest rates is sort of a normal change and we don’t think it’s continuing. Clearly, if we have 65 basis points or 75 basis points increase in rates given the short duration of our portfolio and new cash flow our rising investment income would very quickly offset that. Obviously, we kept the relatively modest duration in our portfolio. So, it is painful, but it is reality. There is good and there is bad, higher investment income and your unrealized gains go down in the bond portfolio. That’s how life is at the moment.

Joshua Shanker – Deutsche Bank: On the currency translation I am surprised there was a currency translation gain in the P&L in such a tough quarter. Maybe there is something behind it that I don’t understand?

William R. Berkley – Chairman and CEO: Nobody gave us any credit for the fact that sterling went down at the end of last quarter it came back in the past quarter and that was the biggest single part of it. We have a lot of money invested in sterling.

Eugene G. Ballard – SVP and CFO: We also have some foreign branches that have functional currency is there, local currency and they have investments in U.S. dollars and in the case of the Australian branch, for example, the U.S. dollar appreciated and that’s FX gains for them.

A Closer Look: WR Berkley Earnings Cheat Sheet>>