An aerial view of ruined structures at the port on August 5 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/HAYTHAM EL ACHKAR
An aerial view of ruined structures at the port on August 5 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/HAYTHAM EL ACHKAR

Dubai/FrankfurtSome of the world’s biggest reinsurers are bracing for potential losses running into tens of millions of euros after last week’s explosion that ravaged much of downtown Beirut.

Property damage alone from the blast, which killed at least 171 people and triggered the collapse of Lebanon’s government, could exceed $7bn, according to the Institute of International Finance. Although only a fraction of the losses are covered by insurance, the blast’s financial effect still could blow holes in reinsurers’ balance sheets. Insured losses at the port and nearby vessels and cargoes could reach $250m, according to Guy Carpenter & Co, a US brokerage.

“We are currently assuming that this will be a major loss for us,” Christoph Jurecka, Munich Re’s CFO, told reporters in an August 6 conference call. He declined to estimate the size of the loss, but Munich Re classifies total payouts of more than €10m for one incident as “major”.

Hannover Re, another Germany-based reinsurer, also anticipates a loss of at least €10m, a company board member, Sven Althoff, said last week in a call with analysts.

The Lebanese cabinet’s resignation on Monday prolongs uncertainty about the size and timing of any eventual payouts. The government was still investigating the cause of the August 4 explosion when its members quit. The judiciary plans to question finance and public works ministers in office since 2013, when a stockpile of ammonium nitrate that caused the blast was first unloaded at the port.

An official conclusion that blames terrorists would nullify many of the claims, but for now, insurers, reinsurers and property owners alike are in limbo.

The explosion walloped a nation already reeling from its worst financial turmoil in decades. Soaring inflation and a rapid devaluation of the Lebanese pound have made many imports prohibitively expensive. With the coronavirus stifling businesses, the economy may shrink by a quarter this year, according to the IIF, a Washington-based trade group for financial institutions.

Reinsurers are particularly exposed to claims from large industries near Beirut’s downtown docks and wharves, as those are more likely than homes and small firms to be covered for property damage, Guy Carpenter said in a note.

Claims will be “exponentially higher” than $250m if the official investigation rules out terrorism as the cause of the blast, said Fateh Bekdache, chair and CEO of Lebanon’s Arope Insurance SAL. That’s because few policyholders are insured against acts of political violence, he said. “Usually it’s multinational companies or big Lebanese firms that take this cover.”

Insurance customers who pay out of their own pockets to repair damage to their property face a separate challenge. Most Lebanese insist on getting paid in dollars for goods and services. Yet the scarcity of hard currency in the country’s banking system means insurers may reimburse customers with dollar checks that the claimants won’t be able to cash at face value.

Such checks for “Lollars” — as Lebanese refer to these notional greenbacks — can only be converted on the black market, where they lose as much as 65% of their value. As a result, construction contractors charge more for repair work unless they get paid dollars in cash.

Officials at one insurance company said a client seeking to replace some shattered glass received two different price quotes from the same contractor: $8,000 in cash or $20,000 through a bank. The officials asked not to be identified because the matter isn’t public.

Bob Jabra dreads getting a check as reimbursement for about 250 tonnes of rice that his food-importing firm lost in the explosion. “If you want to cash it, you don’t get the same amount — you get one-third of it,” he said.


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