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The Independent Investor: Who Pays for Japan?

By Bill Schmick

It appears that the ongoing disaster in Japan will not end up on the doorstep of the world’s insurance industry. Total damage estimates now range from $200 to $300 billion but insurers will “only” be saddled with 10 to 20 percent of those costs. That still makes it one of the costliest disasters in the history of the insurance sector and there are some nagging details that could cost them even more.

Considering the spate of natural disasters so far this year (New Zealand’s earthquake and Australia’s flooding), not to mention the wave of calamities since 2004, Hurricane Katrina, erupting volcanoes in Iceland, earthquakes in Chile and Haiti – it is a wonder the insurance industry is still around to pay anyone.

The earthquake claims alone (excluding the tsunami and radiation damage) against reinsurers (insurance companies who insure insurance companies) are estimated to run as high as $35 billion. This just may further deplete an industry whose capital is dwindling daily and just about guarantees a first quarter loss for most companies in that industry with exposure to Japan.

Big reinsurance companies are starting to total up their exposure. Swiss Re says they face $1.2 billion in claims, while AIG allows for at least $700 million. Munich Re and Hannover Re, two large European insurers, aren’t ready to guess and the French reinsurer, Scor SE, believes its losses will total no more than $262 million. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. also has some exposure through its reinsurance companies, but has not yet released estimates.

One reason the big insurers have escaped the majority of catastrophe claims is the insular nature of the Japanese. Unlike most countries, the Japanese prefer to insure their own property and businesses against catastrophes and other risks. Unfortunately, analysts believe that Japan historically has tended to under-insure most of its productive assets such as auto factories, semiconductor plants, consumer manufacturers, farm land and everything in between.

Nuclear risks like the present fallout from the Fukushima plant tend not to be insured by private companies. The quasi-government-owned Japan Earthquake Reinsurance Company will most likely bear the brunt of those losses (although this government agency might only insure half of the losses or less).

Actually, few if any insurance companies worldwide will insure against a nuclear accident, which makes the ongoing concern over the Indian Point nuclear unit in New York that much more serious. The reactor sits atop a fault line, that if worst came to worst could conceivably expose radiation to 6 percent of the nation’s population and a comparable amount of this nation’s assets.

Of far more serious concern to the insurance industry are supply chain disruptions that are occurring, and will continue to occur thanks to the devastation in Japan. The prospects of long-term supply disruptions are highly probable as Northern Japan’s factories have been shut down by limited power supply and are failing to produce and ship parts and products that are essential to high tech, electronic, auto and other industries worldwide. By some estimates, Korea, for example, depends on Japanese parts for 23 percent of its finished products.

On Thursday, for example, Toyota told its plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico to prepare for a possible shutdown due to the lack of parts availability. General Motors has already stopped production of a truck plant in Louisiana and a related engine plant in New York.

Business interruption coverage is a routine insurance product which insures a business against just such an interruption. Just about every business worth its salt has such a policy or policies. While a business’s supply chain  generally has a few weeks of safety stock supplies, there isn’t a lot of time for companies to find new suppliers, shift production or try to make spot purchases before they run out of parts. Costs skyrocket as several companies in the same line compete for scarce parts.

Possible shortages of Japanese-made components can significantly impact profits across the globe as businesses fail to deliver products to market on time. You can be sure that some insurance company somewhere will be on the hook to make up for that cost of lost production. It is this supply chain problem that has the managements of insurance companies staying awake at night.

The insurance industry is keeping mum about this potential problem. I can understand their reticence, but until we get all the facts I would not go bottom fishing in that sector.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.

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