A.M. Best Assigns Ratings to Stewart Group
|December 24, 2009|
A.M. Best Co. has assigned a financial strength rating of B++ (Good) and issuer credit ratings (ICR) of "bbb+" to the members of Stewart Title Group (collectively known as Stewart). A.M. Best also has assigned the ICR of "bb+" to the parent holding company, Stewart Information Services Corporation. The outlook assigned to all ratings is stable.
Stewart's ratings reflect its adequate capitalization as evidenced by its fairly moderate underwriting leverage, the ratings firm reported. Although statutory surplus on a reported basis declined approximately 35 percent in 2008, causing an increase in the group's net premium to surplus ratio, this measure still remains relatively moderate compared to that of the title insurance industry as a whole. The drop in surplus was in part due to accounting charges taken against Stewart's deferred tax asset resulting from recent unfavorable operating earnings. However, statutory surplus for the group is expected to increase at year-end 2009 primarily due to retirement of short-term debt held at the subsidiary, Stewart Title Guaranty Company, the lead underwriting company in the group, from the proceeds of longer-term debt issued by STC in fourth quarter 2009 in the form of convertible senior notes.
Furthermore, surplus also is expected to be bolstered by a partial recovery of the aforementioned deferred tax asset due to recently enacted favorable tax legislation. Given the title insurance industry's dependence on real estate market conditions, Stewart's underwriting losses in 2008 were caused by the slowdown in real estate markets, which has resulted in declining premium volume of approximately 25 percent that has outpaced the group's expense reductions during 2008. Moreover, underwriting results in 2009 have been negatively impacted from continuing reserve strengthening actions undertaken by the group, largely due to an increase in claims from prior policy years, along with large title claims, including those resulting from agency defalcations.
Stewart retains a considerable franchise value as the third-largest writer of title insurance in the United States, with a market share of approximately 14 percent. It also writes business in approximately 40 countries including Canada, United Kingdom, Mexico and Australia, thus enhancing geographical diversification of its products. The group also has initiated additional expense and risk management efforts in recent quarters, which are expected to mitigate the impact from the prevailing economic environment and housing market conditions. The outlook is based on Stewart's adequate capitalization, as well as its significant business profile.
The FSR of B++ (Good) and ICRs of "bbb+" have been assigned to the following members of Stewart Title Group: