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5 Insurance Stocks in Hurricane Sandy's Crosshairs

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- While 2012 has been a much better year for property and casualty insurers than 2011, Hurricane Sandy could change that, with its surprising timing, direction, and possibly its duration.

"Insured catastrophe losses are down somewhere in the order of 50% from last year," when U.S. insurers saw roughly $32 billion in losses, according to Insurance Information Institute president and economist Robert Hartwig, storm and flooding activity have declined from 2011, who adds that "Hurricane, or Tropical Storm Sandy could alter that, but it's too soon to tell."

Insurers have fared much better this year, but "there have been major economic losses from some extreme weather, the national drought being the greatest, with most of the losses falling on the government," through the federal crop insurance programs, says Ceres Coalition spokesman Peyton Fleming.

"Let's hope the forecasters are wrong," Fleming says, "but Hurricane Sandy is sounding very similar to Hurricane Irene a year ago, which hit parts of the country for long durations, that were quite unusual." Hurricane Irene caused $4.3 billion in insured losses, "many of which were in northern Vermont and New Hampshire -- places that rarely deal with hurricanes." The Vermont flooding was caused in part because Irene lingered, with heavy rains falling for an unusually long period.

In a report published last month, the Ceres Coalition -- a nonprofit sustainability advocacy group - said that the accelerating trend for extreme weather observed over recent years is continuing, which "could undermine some insurers' ability to manage and, in some cases, even survive, future catastrophic, weather-related loss events," and that "extreme weather is already causing more businesses and properties to be uninsurable in the private insurance markets, leaving the higher risks and costs to governments, taxpayers and individuals."

According to Ceres, "since 1990, total government exposure to losses in hurricane-exposed states has risen more than 15-fold to $885 billion in 2011.4."

Underlining how unusual Hurricane Sandy may turn out to be for the Northeast and the New York City area, Hartwig points out -- when speaking from Long Island -- that "it is almost surreal to look at the track of a hurricane at the very end of October, slamming into the northeast -- the very same area on almost the same day, got a blizzard last year, on Oct. 29 and 30, with widespread power outages, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. So we have freakish weather two years in a row, just in time for Halloween."

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