Lloyd's set to seek help on Continent

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LARGE continental insurance companies are studying ways of bringing financial assistance to Lloyd's of London in an attempt to relieve underwriting members of large parts of their pounds 2bn worth of losses.

Among the insurance groups that a senior Lloyd's team is expected to approach for cover are the Munich Re, the Swiss Re and the Zurich group, all specialists in taking on part of other insurance groups' risks.

The move comes as pressure mounts on Lloyd's ahead of an extraordinary general meeting on 27 July, called by members facing the largest losses, to provide a package of aid for those facing financial ruin.

At present 17,500 of Lloyd's total membership of 22,800 are participating in at least one syndicate in the market that has been unable to close its accounts because of trading uncertainties caused by the unknown quantity of insurance claims that are likely to arise.

All Lloyd's members participate in syndicates, the business units into which they are grouped to trade insurance. Those members who are on syndicates with 'open' accounts are liable for insurance liabilities even if they decide to leave the market.

Because many members are fearful of the losses they have decided to remain at Lloyd's, although many regard themselves as 'locked in' until their liabilities are discharged.

Last year Lloyd's set up an in- house insurance group called CentreWrite. This was designed to offer insurance quotes to syndicates unable to close their books. In this way a syndicate unable to close its account would be able to buy an insurance policy that would insure it against future liabilities, allowing its accounts to be closed.

But the scheme has been criticised because it is expensive and has limited financial resources. CentreWrite has an underwriting limit of pounds 50m, which is tiny in relation to the market's current total losses of pounds 2bn, allowing only 500 underwriting members to close their books in any year. It is expected that between 2,000 and 4,000 Lloyd's members will want to leave the market this year.

Earlier this year a report prepared by the insurance broker David Rowland on the future of Lloyd's over the next several years suggested that CentreWrite should be 'refocused' so that it could offer quotations to any individual underwriting member rather than entire syndicates of members. The Rowland report also suggested that CentreWrite should co-operate jointly with the commercial insurance market to provide extra resources for financial help.

One suggestion under consideration among insurance specialists is that all members should pay a large premium to CentreWrite, which could buy its own insurance protection from international insurance groups. This could allow CentreWrite to lend money to the Lloyd's central fund of last resort, designed to protect policyholders, to ensure that all insurance claims are met. Lloyd's has recently boosted its central fund from pounds 500m to pounds 1bn. But there are fears that this might not be sufficient.

'If reinsurers came in behind CentreWrite it would have to be a very attractive solution for Lloyd's,' said Chris Hitchings of Hoare Govett Investment Research, a leading insurance analyst.

Ian Fagelson, a partner with the City solicitors Warner Cranston, which acts for several large European insurance groups, said: 'Lloyd's should be urgently exploring the possibility of working together with major insurance companies to ensure that its short- term liquidity issues are properly tackled.'

Such a solution might, if adopted, head off a possible rebellion at the extraordinary meeting, where members are to be asked to support a vote of confidence in the market's ruling council. A range of other resolutions have been framed by 110 members, which call for reforms and financial help for the hardest-hit individuals.