* Keeps dividend at 17 Swiss francs per share
* 2014 net profit $3.895 bln, above average forecast
* Share fall more than 4 percent at open
* General Insurance fourth-quarter operating profit drops (Adds CEO, CFO comment, context, shares)
By Jonathan Gould
FRANKFURT, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Zurich Insurance Group’s operating profit at its main division fell short of expectations in the fourth quarter on the back of losses at its U.S. crop business and payouts in Britain and Brazil.
The fourth-quarter performance tarnished Zurich’s 2014 results, which showed a net profit of $3.9 billion, down three percent from a year earlier but ahead of the average forecast of $3.8 billion in a Reuters poll.
Like its rivals, Zurich Insurance is trying to boost profits in the face of weak economic growth and rock-bottom interest rates and has pledged to raise its dividend, though it left the payout for 2014 unchanged at 17 Swiss francs per share.
“All in all the operating business is below our forecast and market expectations,” MainFirst analyst Rene Locher said in a note to clients.
Zurich shares fell 4.6 percent at the open and were down 3.3 percent by 1021 GMT.
The firm said operating profit at its General Insurance division fell to $518 million in the fourth quarter from $736 million a year earlier, well below the average expectation of $767 million in the Reuters poll.
Zurich Chief Executive Martin Senn said the company was not satisfied with its 2014 results and needed to do more to improve profitability in 2015, especially given the backdrop of low yields and low growth that is hampering insurers worldwide.
Senn said Zurich would not invest in Swiss government bonds, which are showing negative yields out to a maturity of 12 years. “This, for us, is not an option,” he said.
Some analysts warned that the global macroeconomic backdrop could hurt Zurich further. RBC said dollar and Swiss franc strength against the euro and sterling was likely to pressure operating earnings, while low interest rates would trim returns.
“We do not believe that these headwinds are currently reflected in the consensus expectations for Zurich,” RBC said in a research note.
Zurich said it still planned to raise its dividend and that the 2014 payout represented about 70 percent of net profit.
Peers such as Allianz and Generali are expected to raise their dividends, returning cash to shareholders they cannot plough into operating businesses, while Belgian insurer Ageas is raising its dividend to 1.55 euros per share from 1.50.
“It is absolutely our intention to raise it, but we won’t raise it until we get the results of the investments we’ve made to generate that growth,” Chief Financial Officer George Quinn told reporters. (Editing by David Clarke)