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ZURICH, May 9 (Reuters) - Zurich Insurance generated $9.33 billion in property and casualty premiums in the first quarter, up 5 percent in dollar terms but down 1 percent like for like as Europe's fifth-biggest insurer focused on profitability, it said on Wednesday.
Gross written premiums for the property and casualty business (P&C) had been expected at around $9.1 billion, according to a Reuters survey of three analysts.
"The group continues to make good progress toward our 2017 to 2019 targets and remains strongly capitalised after returning around $3.8 billion to shareholders year-to-date through the increased dividend and the previously announced anti-dilution measures," Chief Financial Officer George Quinn said.
For the flagship P&C business, growth in Asia Pacific and Latin America was mainly offset by curtailed activity in North America.
"Rates improved particularly in North America, which continued the positive momentum seen in the fourth quarter of 2017. Overall the group saw rate increases of around 2 percent in the first quarter of 2018," it said.
"During the quarter claims related to natural catastrophes have been only slightly above historical first quarter levels," it added.
After a record year in 2017 for insurance losses from natural disasters, rates have not risen as much as some insurers had anticipated. Bad weather has continued to hit firms such as U.S. insurer AIG in the first quarter.
Zurich's life insurance premium sales rose 13 percent like-for-like to $1.25 billion on an annual premium equivalent basis, which takes account of policies with large single payments as well as those with regular annual payments.
The new business margin for life insurance was 25.2 percent and the new business value was stable at $273 million, it said. (Reporting by Michael Shields and Carolyn Cohn; editing by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi)