Investment column: CGU

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The Independent Online
CGU SHARES have been volatile of late as the UK composite insurer got into difficulties over its stake in Societe Generale, the French bank embroiled in a messy bid battle. It raised its holding, only to have the purchase frozen by irate French stock market regulators. There was relief all round yesterday when CGU beat forecasts with a 5 per cent rise in interim operating profits. The pounds 420m headline figure follows both higher life and pensions sales and bigger costs savings from branch closures following last year's Commercial Union and General Accident merger. Chief executive Bob Scott's primary task is to steer CGU through the cut-throat insurance market, where competition has forced premiums to fall below claims costs.

Things are improving. Motor rates are up 18 per cent and while that is bad news for motorists, it is a more realistic reflection of the real cost of providing insurance which has soared now the NHS charges insurers for hospital bills. UK underwriting losses were cut by pounds 21m indicating that attempts to smarten up underwriting performance are coming through.

So far so good. The problem is what more to expect. The speed with which he has bedded down the merger justifies his Hurricane Bob nickname. He now expects year-on-year merger savings of pounds 320m, albeit at a higher one- off cost of pounds 380m.

Meanwhile UK general insurance rates have much further to move. CGU has to cope with a UK market in which no one is making money from underwriting. Nevertheless, its acquisition of Nuts Ohra in Holland and success in the privatised Polish pension market suggest its attempts to expand in other European markets are bearing fruit.

From here, the investment case for CGU rests on prospects it will emerge as one of the winners from further consolidation in the UK insurance industry. Royal & Sun Alliance has so far declined Mr Scott's overtures. But there is clearly a lot he could do with the group, given half a chance. Analysts expect operating profits of around pounds 922m and earnings of 47p this year. Notwithstanding the French debacle CGU, at 840p, up 11.5p yesterday, CGU is a long-term buy.