By Sumeet Chatterjee and Cheng Leng
HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese non-life insurers are discovering a silver lining to the cloud spreading over China's economic performance from the coronavirus outbreak - a sharp drop in car accident claims.
Beijing's efforts to contain the new coronavirus have included widespread travel and quarantine restrictions across the country and although these are now being lifted, the loss of economic and social activity meant there were few cars on the road in late January and February.
"There's certainly a decline in auto insurance claims and the settlement ratio due to less traffic and activity amid the virus outbreak," said a senior Beijing-based executive at China Pacific Insurance Group Co Ltd <601601.SS>.
A senior PICC executive based in Ningbo in China's northeast Zhejiang province, the second worst-hit by the virus outbreak, said he expected auto insurance claims and settlements to drop in the first quarter in his city.
The executives declined to be identified as they were not authorised to speak to the media. Representatives for China Pacific Insurance and PICC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Such is the expected drop in motor accident claims, several brokers have raised target share prices for the likes of PICC Property and Casualty Co Ltd <2328.HK> and ZhongAn Online P & C Insurance Co Ltd <6060.HK>.
Motor insurance accounts for about three quarters of Chinese non-life insurers' business while health insurance - where virus-related claims would fall under - accounts for less than 5%, according to Swiss Re.
In contrast, for the non-life insurance sector globally, motor and health insurance each account for about a third of premiums.
While the insurance executives predicted claims from buses, trucks and taxis would rebound as people returned to work in China, brokers still expect the virus-related drop in claims will be enough to boost full-year earnings despite a slowing economy.
ZhongAn's mean target price this month has been raised to HK$26.84, up from HK$24.22 in January, according to a Refinitiv poll of 15 brokerages.
Nomura analysts also lifted their PICC target share price last week by 0.7%. Shares in PICC, the biggest non-life insurer in China, have fallen 15% since the Lunar New Year break, compared to a 12% fall for a broader gauge of Chinese stocks in Hong Kong <.HSCI>.
(Reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee in Hong Kong and Cheng Leng and Zoey Zhang in Beijing; Editing by Jennifer Hughes and Edwina Gibbs)