By Suzanne Barlyn
(Reuters) - As American International Group Inc reports its fourth-quarter results on Wednesday, investors will be looking to see if the insurer is closing in on an elusive profit target.
AIG's chief executive officer, Brian Duperreault, who took charge of the firm in May 2017, has pledged to turn the company around. His most critical task is the return to profitability of underwriting of risks, a key measure of an insurer's performance that AIG has not achieved since 2007.
In December, Duperreault said that AIG expected to enter 2019 "with a slight underwriting profit" in its general insurance unit. Investors are watching for signs that AIG will make good on that prediction.
"It's something that he's been very vocal about and he really needs to deliver," said James Breece, a portfolio manager and equity analyst for Spears Abacus Advisors LLC. The New York-based investment firm advises the Beehive Fund, which owned 150,250 shares of AIG as of Sept. 30.
It would be surprising for Duperreault to miss the mark, given the seasoned executives he hired to spur change and other restructuring efforts he has led since arriving, Breece said.
The 2018 fourth quarter was challenging for insurers, given the tumultuous financial markets during the period. AIG's shares plunged 26 percent, closing out the year at $39.41, while the S&P 500 Multi-line Insurance Index tanked by 19.5 percent, its biggest drop since 2012.
Insurance investors fretted about everything from the impact of mass catastrophes, such as California's wildfires, on insurers' bottom lines to how the market mayhem affected life insurers' investment portfolios.
The broader S&P 500, in comparison, fell 13.7 percent.
AIG's businesses include both commercial property and casualty coverage and life insurance.
In early December, AIG said it had racked up an estimated $750 million to $800 million in catastrophe losses so far during the fourth quarter.
Analysts said they will be looking at whether those numbers will hold and if AIG's Bermuda reinsurance unit, Validus Holdings, Ltd., will have sustained more than the $60 million pretax loss for wildfires disclosed in December.
So far this year, AIG's stock is up more than 11 percent to $43.83, outpacing gains of the S&P 500 Multi-line Insurance Index and S&P 500 of about 9 percent. Still, its shares are down 36 percent since Duperreault took charge in 2017.
A slight underwriting profit for AIG's general insurance unit would help fuel an 8 percent adjusted return on equity "going into 2019," Duperreault said in December. That would be just a waypoint on a path to a double-digit return on equity, a process that could take up to three years, he said.
Some competitors, including Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc and The Travelers Companies Inc, produced double-digit returns in 2018.
Investors crave details about how AIG will turn itself around, analysts said.
"Someone looking at owning this stock over the next few years will want to know what the path is toward a continued underwriting profit and what the chances are that AIG is going to get there," said Neuberger Berman analyst Michelle Giordano-Valentine.
The quarter will also shine a light on the final stretch of a review by AIG of its reserves for paying future claims.
AIG's chief actuary, Mark Lyons, who was also named chief financial officer in December, said in November that he was about to review the remaining 25 percent of AIG's reserves, including for the financial lines insurance business and some international casualty coverage.
Lyons said at the time that he did not see any "material red flags" in the remaining reserves.
(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn; editing by Neal Templin and Leslie Adler)