The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and five-year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon have provided frequent reminders that we live in a world of uncertainty.
Because each had devastating results, reminiscence is painful. Yet we find them impossible to ignore because we remain stunned that these tragedies took place.
Human loss is the greatest concern. But those events also changed the landscape for investors in energy, insurance and banking companies, who now take the concept of risk more seriously.
Governments and companies have pledged to be diligent, especially because federal forecasters expect above-average hurricane activity this season. Concern is always present because the Gulf of Mexico is vital to energy supplies and vulnerable to severe weather.
"There is no free lunch, so you have to be in the Gulf of Mexico and operate efficiently there throughout the year even though you know that you'll be under the gun from June through November," said Kimberly DuBord, energy analyst with Briefing.com in Chicago. "Energy producers are trying to ramp up production, and the best way to do that is to be in the `hot spots' offering the most rewards, which include the Gulf of Mexico, West Texas, offshore Nigeria and Indonesia."
Although oil refiners shut down much longer than expected last year due to floods and mud, DuBord said, this ultimately resulted in much higher profit margins because of higher prices.
A slowing economy and high oil prices set a dramatic stage for any possible disruption of supply caused by natural disaster.
In insurance, for example, premiums and deductibles for wind coverage have risen and insurers are more selective in accepting coverage. Ruling in one of a raft of lawsuits against insurers, a federal judge found that Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. was correct to deny the majority of a claim filed by a Gulf Coast couple because their home was destroyed by flooding, which is not covered in most standard homeowner policies.
"Insurance expectations for storm losses have gone up, and the price of both catastrophic reinsurance and homeowners' costs for hurricane-prone areas have increased dramatically," said Cliff Gallant, insurance industry analyst with Keefe Bruyette & Woods in New York. "But while companies are paid better to take risk than a year ago, ultimately what the weather does will determine if they have a bad year or not."
Banks in the Southeast were hit hard by Katrina, but have learned to take precautions and act quickly.
"Ever since Hurricane Andrew in 2002, regional banks in the Southeast have taken pains to reinforce their ability to withstand severe weather and are much better prepared than in the past," said Tony Davis, managing director of Ryan Beck & Co. in Richmond, Va. "For example, serious problems such as interrupted service, dislocated customers and damaged facilities require the consolidating of branches and extending of hours."
Because all the risks are now on the table, investing in companies that might be affected by severe weather may not be as risky as you'd think.
In energy, deep-sea markets provide the best opportunity for greater production, which is why DuBord recommends stock of offshore driller Transocean Inc. and natural gas producer Devon Energy Corp. The oil services industry is benefiting because money flowing into major energy companies is now being put back into the field to drive production.
In the insurance sector, "over the next couple of months it is all a bet on the weather," Gallant said. "But looking over a five-year period, you should be asking questions about each company such as who has a better business mix, who underwrites better and who tends to perform better when there are storms."
Reinsurance firms have gained increased attention. In reinsurance, one insurance company agrees to indemnify another insurance company in whole or in part against risks that the first company has assumed. The original contract of insurance and the reinsurance contract are separate.
Catastrophic reinsurance firms RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd., Montpelier Re Holdings Ltd. and IPC Holdings Ltd. are companies Gallant considers worth tracking for potential investment. Even more speculative, PXRE Group Ltd., pummeled by huge losses last year and a stock price plummet, could potentially be interesting, he believes.
Investors should also watch banking.
"Since you can't handicap or forecast acts of God, banking companies in these areas will have less-predictable earnings, revenues and cash-flow streams," Davis said. "Banks in the Southeast, such as those in New Orleans and Mississippi, have seen their stock prices negatively impacted, while merger activity in Florida has increased the stock prices of banks there."
Demographic trends in many Southeastern markets remain highly attractive, Davis acknowledged, but he isn't recommending any Florida regional banks right now because he believes their stock prices have risen too high. He is generally expecting increased banking consolidation in the Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana markets.
Whatever the near-term weather, things will never be the same in energy, insurance or banking again.
Andrew Leckey is a Tribune Media Services columnist.