Insurer finds the right niches

INVESTMENT COLUMN

Interim figures from Independent Insurance seemed to justify the high esteem in which some brokers are starting to hold the small niche insurer. Floated in November 1993, the shares have risen by a half since coming to market and yesterday's 58 per cent jump in pre-tax profits to pounds 16m pushed them 10p higher to 328p.

Key to progress has been Independent's deliberate targeting of niche markets. Although it says it is willing to quote for all risks, a glance at the changing ratio of standard to non-standard business on Independent's books tells a different story.

Take motor accounts. In June 1994, just over half of the company's business was "standard" risk - the average Escort driver, where competition for business has driven premiums sharply down. By June this year, more than two thirds of business was non-standard - older drivers and specialist niches such as antique cars, even the Williams Formula 1 racing team.

A similar picture emerges on the home account, with non-standard risks, such as thatched homes, growing from 13 to 20 per cent of the business over the same period.

Although competition for commercial business remains tight, particularly in property, gross written premiums rose by 34 per cent to pounds 69.8m compared with the same period last year.

Independent's willingness to use reinsurance, and gain access to outside capital to build up its market presence, has been a big bonus.

In an otherwise flat market, Independent's earnings growth profile looks unusually buoyant and quite at odds with a prospective p/e of only 7. Partly that reflects little support from a market average dividend yield and a sizeable share price premium to forecast net assets of 263p this year. But, on a roll, the shares still look attractive.

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