The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. (NYSE:HIG) Q4 2023 Earnings Call Transcript February 2, 2024
The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. isn’t one of the 30 most popular stocks among hedge funds at the end of the third quarter (see the details here).
Operator: Good morning. My name is Rob, and I will be your conference operator today. At this time, I would like to welcome everyone to the Fourth Quarter and Year-End 2023 The Hartford Financial Results Webcast. All lines have been placed on mute to prevent any background noise. After the speakers’ remarks, there will be a question-and-answer session. [Operator Instructions] Thank you. Susan Spivak, Senior Vice President, Investor Relations, you may begin your conference.
Susan Spivak: Good morning and thank you for joining us today for our call and webcast on fourth quarter and full year 2023 earnings. Yesterday, we reported results and posted all of the earnings-related materials on our website. For the call today our participants are Chris Swift, Chairman and CEO of The Hartford; Beth Costello, Chief Financial Officer; Jonathan Bennett, Group Benefits; Stephanie Bush, Small Commercial and Personal Lines; and Mo Tooker, Middle & Large Commercial and Global Specialty. Just a few comments before Chris begins. Today’s call includes forward-looking statements as defined under the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. These statements are not guarantees of future performance, and actual results could be materially different.
We do not assume any obligation to update information on forward-looking statements provided on this call. Investors should also consider the risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ from these statements. A detailed description of those risks and uncertainties can be found in our SEC filings. Our commentary today includes non-GAAP financial measures. Explanations and reconciliations of these measures to the comparable GAAP measures are included in our SEC filings as well as in the news release and financial supplement. Finally, please note that no portion of this conference call may be reproduced or rebroadcast in any form without The Hartford’s prior written consent. Replays of this webcast and an official transcript will be available on The Hartford’s website for one year.
I’ll now turn the call over to Chris.
Chris Swift: Good morning and thank you for joining us today. I will start with a summary of our fourth quarter and full year 2023 results, which are simply stellar. Then I’ll turn the call over to Beth to dive deeper into our financial performance and key metrics, after which I will close our prepared remarks with a review of expectations for 2024. We then will be joined by our business leaders as we move into Q&A. So let’s get started. The Hartford is pleased to report an excellent fourth quarter, capping another outstanding year of financial performance and achievement of our strategic objectives. These results demonstrate the power of the franchise and in particular, our superior underwriting execution, depth of distribution relationships and unmatched customer experience.
I am grateful for the commitment, dedication and hard work of our 19,000 employees who show up every day to deliver for our customers, partners and shareholders. Let me call your attention to some highlights for both the quarter and the year. Top line growth in Commercial Lines was 9% for the quarter with an underlying combined ratio of 86.6%, and growth was 10% for the year with an 87.8% underlying combined ratio. We achieved strong renewal written pricing increases across P&C during the quarter and for the year, including notable double-digit increases in commercial property, personal auto and homeowners in the quarter. Group Benefits fully insured premium growth was 6% for the quarter with a core earnings margin of 9.8%, and growth was 7% for the year with a core earnings margin of 8.1%.
We delivered strong investment performance with an 80 basis points increase in the portfolio yield, excluding limited partnerships for the full year. All these items contributed to an outstanding and industry-leading core earnings ROE of 15.8%. Now let me share a few details from each of our businesses. Our Commercial Lines business completed its third straight year of double-digit top line growth and underlying margin expansion. Written premium growth of 10% for the year was driven by meaningful exposure growth, pricing increases across most lines and strong new business growth in each of our three businesses. As expected, underlying margins improved 0.5 point as slight headwinds in workers’ compensation were more than offset by earned pricing, exceeding loss cost trends across the rest of the portfolio and by improved expense leverage.
Small Commercial remains a highly profitable growth engine for The Hartford. 2023 included record-breaking annual written premium of $5 billion and a decade-long trend of annual sub-90 underlying combined ratios. Spectrum, our best-in-class package product, continues to outperform in a competitive marketplace, contributing to annual new business premium growth up 20% over prior year. I’m incredibly pleased with the overall performance in Small Commercial, a business we expect will sustain outstanding results with industry-leading products and unmatched ease of conducting business and unrivaled pricing accuracy. Moving to Middle & Large Commercial. The performance has also been truly exceptional. Our team has improved annual underlying margins by approximately 10 points since 2019, while adding over $900 million in written premium at a 7% compounded annual growth rate.
In 2023, written premiums grew 9%, reflecting strong rate execution and new business growth. Submissions, quotes and the hit rate are all up over prior year as we leveraged advanced underwriting capabilities, particularly within the low end of Middle Market. The stellar results in this business are a direct result of data science advancements, pricing expertise and industry-leading tools. Combining these advantages with our best-in-class talent and the strength of our distribution relationships, we are well positioned to sustain profitable growth in this business. In Global Specialty, advanced underwriting capabilities and continued discipline are driving targeted market share gains with excellent underlying margin performance that has hovered in the low to mid-80s for the past seven quarters.
Our competitive position, breadth of products and solid renewal written pricing drove an 11% increase in net written premium for the year, including 33% in our Global Reinsurance business and mid double-digit growth in U.S. professional liability and international marine and energy. New business growth of 7% for the year and 20% for the fourth quarter was driven by significant increases in both submissions and quotes and wholesale. Renewal written pricing continues to accelerate in wholesale excess casualty, and property pricing has been above 20% all year. We remain excited about our position in the wholesale market and across Global Specialty with execution that has never been stronger. Looking across Commercial Lines. We are particularly pleased by the growth in property lines, a key area of focus.
We will continue to capitalize on favorable market conditions with a thoughtful and disciplined approach. Property written premium of $2.5 billion for the year was approximately 20% higher than 2022. Turning to pricing. Commercial Lines renewal written pricing was 6%, an increase from 5.5% in the third quarter. Excluding workers’ compensation, renewal written pricing rose four-tenths to 8.5% with strong property pricing at 11%, auto closing in on double-digits and many liability lines in the high single-digits. Public D&O pricing remained pressured, although the fourth quarter result was the lowest pricing decrease since the second quarter of 2022. In workers’ compensation, renewal written pricing continues to exceed expectations, remaining slightly positive in the quarter.
All in, ex comp renewal, written pricing in Commercial Lines remains comfortably on top of loss costs trends in the fourth quarter. In summary, Commercial Lines produced an exceptional quarter, closing out a very successful 2023. Moving to Personal Lines. I’m pleased with our continued progress to address elevated loss costs trends in both auto and home. During the quarter, we achieved auto renewal written price increases of nearly 22% and new business rate adequacy in over half the states, representing two-thirds of our new business premium. In homeowners, renewal written pricing of 14.7% during the quarter, comprised of net rate and insured value increases, outpaced underlying loss cost trends. Our focus on the preferred market within the Personal Lines business is a competitive advantage with our modern, innovative and digitally enhanced offering, Prevail.
This product and platform are currently available in 41 states with additional states coming online in 2024. Turning to Group Benefits. We had an exceptional year, delivering record core earnings of $567 million and an outstanding core earnings margin of 8.1% and strong fully insured ongoing premium growth of 7%, demonstrating focused execution, a resilient economy, improved mortality trends and continued strong disability results. 2023 disability loss ratio of 67.1% reflects low long-term disability incidence trends and favorable claim recoveries. In 2023, group life mortality trends have improved, though they remain above pre-pandemic levels. We expect the Group Benefits market to remain dynamic with digital transformation, product innovation and increasing customer demands.
As a result, we are investing in this business and have a clear road map that I’m confident will only strengthen our market leadership position. For example, building on our historically strong presence in national accounts with an enhanced approach for small to midsized employers, we view this as a key strategic initiative, leveraging our unique expertise in these markets. In addition, as we have discussed before, we struck a partnership with Beam, a dental and vision company to expand our product offerings for small to midsized employers. Overall, the strength of our Group Benefits diversified product portfolio, our commitment to outstanding customer experience using data and technology resonates in this marketplace, cementing our leadership position.
Now I’ll turn the call over to Beth to provide more detailed commentary on the quarter.
Beth Costello: Thank you, Chris. Core earnings for the quarter were $935 million or $3.06 per diluted share with a 12-month core earnings ROE of 15.8%. Commercial Lines had a very strong quarter and year with core earnings of $723 million and $2.2 billion, respectively. And an underlying combined ratio of 86.6 for the quarter and 87.8 for the year. Small Commercial continues to deliver excellent results with premium growth of 8% and an underlying combined ratio of 85.8 compared to 87.5 in the prior year fourth quarter. For the year, growth was 10% and the underlying combined ratio was 88.6. Middle & Large Commercial delivered its third straight quarter of written premium over $1 billion with 11% growth and an underlying combined ratio of 90.3. For 2023, growth was 9% with an underlying combined ratio of 89.3 compared to 92.1 in the prior year.
Global Specialty’s fourth quarter underlying combined ratio was an exceptional 82.9 and for the year improved 30 basis points to 84.3. In Personal Lines, core earnings for the quarter were $36 million with an underlying combined ratio of 99.5, including a strong homeowner’s underlying combined ratio of 67.3. The fourth quarter auto underlying combined ratio of 113.5 was better than our expectations due to lower auto physical damage losses. This result is an improvement of 5.1 points from the fourth quarter of 2022 once that quarter is adjusted for the adverse development recorded in the first half of 2023 related to the fourth quarter of 2022. Also, I will point out that during the fourth quarter of this year, we made no adjustments to loss reserves for prior accident years.
As Chris indicated, we continue to pursue rate increases to offset the lost cost trends we are experiencing. Written premium and personal lines increased 12% over the prior year driven by steady and successful rate actions. In Auto, we achieved written pricing increases of 21.9% and earned pricing increases of 15.5%. In addition, we received approval for an 18.7% rate increase in California that was effective in January. In homeowners, written pricing increases were 14.7% for the quarter and 14% on an earned basis. The total Personal Lines expense ratio improved by 10 basis points, primarily driven by the impact of higher earned premium, partially offset by higher direct marketing cost. With respect to CATs P&C current accident year catastrophes were $81 million before tax, which compares to catastrophe losses of $135 million in the prior year quarter.
Total net favorable prior accident year development within core earnings was $102 million, primarily concentrated in commercial lines as reserve reductions in workers’ compensation, catastrophes and bond were partially offset by reserve increases in assumed reinsurance and commercial auto liability. We completed our annual asbestos and environmental reserve study in the fourth quarter, resulting in an increase in reserves of $194 million comprised of $156 million for asbestos and $38 million for environmental. All of the $194 million was ceded to the adverse development cover. The increase in asbestos reserves was primarily due to an increase in the cost of resolving asbestos filings and a modest increase in the company’s share of loss on a few specific individual accounts.
The increase in environmental reserves was mainly due to higher estimated site remediation costs, including an increase in the estimates for PFAS exposures. After taking into consideration this year’s study, as of December 31, we have $62 million of coverage remaining on the A&E ADC and a deferred gain of $788 million. For our Navigators ADC, We have previously ceded the full limit of $300 million, of which $209 million has been recognized as a deferred gain within other liabilities. In 2024 we expect to start collecting recoveries on the ADC and as a result, amortization of the deferred gain is expected to begin in the first quarter. Based on our estimate of payment patterns, we expect total amortization of the deferred gain in 2024 will be approximately $125 million pre-tax, with the remaining balance amortized in 2025.
This will positively impact net income and have no impact to core earnings. Before turning to Group Benefits, I would like to review the January 1 reinsurance renewals. Overall, we were very pleased with the placements and terms and conditions for our program. Our expiring core per occurrence catastrophe protection was renewed at an approximate 5% decrease in cost on a risk adjusted basis, which based on publicly available information, compares favorably with the overall market and speaks to the quality of our book of business, strong reinsurer relationships and favorable experience. There were some minor changes in the treaty that provides coverage for certain loss events under $350 million, but overall the structure of our property CAT program did not change significantly.
Additionally, we secured another $300 million layer on top of our program through a combination of traditional reinsurance and sponsorship of a catastrophe bond. The addition of CAT bond protection furthers our goal of securing diversified, strongly rated protection that affords durability in both cost and availability. The majority of our occurrence protection is secured on a multiyear basis. As of January 1, we have protection up to a gross loss event of $1.4 billion. We also renewed our aggregate treaty under the same structure and terms with favorable pricing from a risk adjusted perspective. You’ve heard Chris reference our strategic growth in property writings. These changes ensure a consistent level of protection in keeping with that growth.
We have summarized these changes in the slide deck and in addition to our property catastrophe program, we also successfully renewed several other reinsurance treaties that experienced limited changes in terms, conditions and rates. Moving to Group Benefits. We achieved record core earnings of $174 million for the quarter and $567 million for the full year. Core earnings margin of 9.8% in the quarter and 8.1% for the full year reflects strong premium growth, improved life results and continued strong disability performance. The group disability loss ratio of 63.6 for the quarter improved 1.9 points over prior year, reflecting continued strong long-term disability claim recoveries. For the year the group disability loss ratio improved 1.2 points to 67.1. The group life loss ratio of 83 for the quarter improved 6.1 points versus prior year, reflecting an improving mortality trend.
For the year the group life loss ratio improved 3.9 points to 83.5. The expense ratio improved 0.8 points for the quarter and 1 point for the year, reflecting strong top line performance and expense efficiencies somewhat offset by continued investments to meet our customers evolving needs. Fully insured ongoing sales in the quarter of $71 million contributed to a full year sales total of $839 million. This, combined with excellent persistency at above 90%, resulted in fully insured ongoing premium growth of 6% for the quarter and 7% for the year. Our diversified investment portfolio produced strong results. For the quarter net investment income was $653 million. Our fixed income portfolio is continuing to benefit from higher interest rates and we continue to be pleased with a positive 150 basis point differential between our reinvestment rate and the yield on sales and maturities.
The total annualized portfolio yield, excluding limited partnerships was 4.3% before tax, 20 basis points higher than the third quarter. Looking forward to 2024, we are expecting 15 to 20 basis points of improvement reflective of the current yield environment. This increase combined with portfolio asset growth is expected to contribute approximately $135 million to net investment income before tax, excluding LPs. Our annualized LP returns were 7% in the quarter. Full year 2023 LP returns were 4.8%, reflecting the resiliency of our private equity portfolio, which helped offset the slightly negative returns in the real estate equity portfolio. The overall credit quality of the portfolio remains high with an average credit rating of A+. Fixed maturity valuations increased in the quarter as a result of lower interest rates and tighter spreads.
Net credit losses, including intent to sell impairments remain insignificant along with a modest increase of $5 million in the allowance for credit losses on the mortgage loan portfolio. All of our mortgage loans continue to be current with respect to interest and principal payments. Turning to capital. As of December 31 holding company resources totaled $1.1 billion. For 2024, we expect total dividends from the operating companies of approximately $2.2 billion. During the quarter, we repurchased 4.7 million shares under our share repurchase program for $350 million and we expect to remain at that level of repurchases in the first quarter. As of year-end, we had $1.35 billion remaining on our share repurchase authorization through December 31, 2024.
To wrap up, 2023 business performance was strong and we are well positioned to continue to deliver on our targeted returns and enhance value for all of our stakeholders. I will now turn the call back to Chris.
Chris Swift: Thank you, Beth. Let’s now pivot forward. Strong fourth quarter results capped a year of outstanding financial performance, positioning us to sustain these results in 2024. In Commercial Lines with our diversified and expanding product portfolio and innovative mindset, we are primed to continue to build market share at highly attractive margins. We expect total renewal written price increases in Commercial Lines, excluding workers’ compensation to be consistent with 2023. Workers’ compensation and renewal written pricing, which is composed of net rate and average wage growth is projected to be flat to slightly negative. We expect underlying margins to be consistent with 2023, reflecting our steadfast commitment to disciplined underwriting while sustaining industry-leading results.
While we anticipate slight headwinds in workers’ compensation, earned pricing is projected to remain on top of loss costs trends across the remainder of the Commercial Lines book. Turning to Personal Lines. We expect annual renewal written pricing in both auto and home to be consistent with the fourth quarter results. In auto, as a result of the significant written pricing actions that will earn into the book combined with moderating severity trends, we expect meaningful underlying loss ratio improvement of five to six points during 2024. Earned pricing in home is expected to remain above loss costs trends. As we navigate this inflationary period across Personal Lines, we are focused on balancing rate adequacy, quality of new business and marketing productivity.
Overall, I am confident we have the right execution plan to return this business to targeted profitability in 2025. In Group Benefits, we expect the 2024 core earnings margin to be between 6% and 7%, consistent with our long-term outlook for this business. In closing, let me summarize why I’m so bullish about the future. First, 2023 financial results demonstrated the effectiveness of our strategy and the ongoing investments in our business. In particular, underlying margins in Commercial Lines were excellent with meaningful top line growth, and we produced record core earnings in Group Benefits with strong premium growth. Second, Personal Lines results have stabilized. We are achieving necessary rate increases and expect 2024 margins to improve towards our targeted profitability.
Third, we expect our book of diversified, but complementary businesses will continue to sustain superior results. With our outstanding underwriting and pricing execution, exceptional talent and innovative customer-centric technology, we will continue to outperform. Fourth, investment income remains strong, supported by rising yields and a diversified and durable portfolio of assets. And finally, in the last three years, we have returned $6.2 billion of capital through repurchases and dividends, and we will continue to proactively manage our excess capital to be accretive for shareholders. All these factors contribute to my excitement and confidence about the future of The Hartford. Quarter-after-quarter, we are delivering industry-leading financial performance with a sustainable core earnings ROE anchored at 15% while creating value for all our stakeholders.
Let me now turn the call back over to Susan for Q&A.
Susan Spivak: Thank you, Chris. We have about 30 minutes for questions. Operator, can you please repeat the instructions for asking a question?
See also 15 Highest Quality Fast Food Burgers in the US and 15 Highest Quality Bluetooth Speakers for 2024.
To continue reading the Q&A session, please click here.