Travelers Companies Inc. (TRV) - Get Report posted stronger-than-expected first quarter earnings Thursday as the property and casualty insurer rode improved underwriting and sharply lower catastrophe losses to just under $800 million in net income.

Travelers said core earnings for the three months ending in March came in at $2.83 per share, up 17% from the same period last year and well ahead of the consensus forecast of $2.72 per share. Group revenues, Travelers said, rose 5.2% to $7.67 billion and again beat the Street estimate of $7.1 billion. Catastrophe losses fell 45.5% from last year to $193 million, the company said, while written premiums jumped 3.5% to $7.06 billion.

The Dow component also boosted its quarterly dividend by 6.5% to 82 cents a share. 

"We produced a strong underlying underwriting result thanks to continued underwriting excellence and also through top-line growth and thoughtful expense management, both benefiting from the successful execution of our strategic initiatives," said CEO Alan Schnitzer. "Our strong first quarter performance in terms of both profitability and production is a terrific start to the year, and we continued to make significant progress on our ambitious innovation agenda."

"As we discussed in our annual letter to shareholders, our formidable competitive advantages remain the foundation of our success, and by innovating and investing for tomorrow, we will be well positioned to continue delivering industry-leading returns over time," he added.

Travelers shares were marked 3.25% higher at the start of trading Thursday to change hands at $140.53 each, a move that would boost the stock's year-to-date advance to around 18% each.