Safeco handily beat Wall Street's expectations for first-quarter earnings, sending its stock up 3. 4 percent. The Seattle-based insurer reported...

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Safeco handily beat Wall Street’s expectations for first-quarter earnings, sending its stock up 3.4 percent.

The Seattle-based insurer reported a profit of $212 million, down 10 percent from a year ago.

But on a comparable basis, excluding the life and investments operations that the company sold last summer, this year’s quarterly figure beat the profit from a year ago by 14 percent

The good news came from operating profit, which rose 20 percent to $190 million, or $1.48 a share. That was far better than the $1.29 a share expected by a consensus of analysts polled by Thomson First Call.

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The news pushed Safeco stock up $1.64 to $50.06 at yesterday’s close.

Operating revenues from continuing operations, which do not include the businesses sold or net realized investment gains, grew 6 percent to $1.55 billion.

The company’s losses due to catastrophes were lighter than expected, at $24.8 million before taxes, Chief Executive Mike McGavick said during a conference call. That was up from $11.6 million in the first quarter of 2004.

Safeco’s auto-insurance business reported a pre-tax underwriting profit of $30.1 million, up 30 percent from a year ago. Net written premiums increased 10 percent.

But new business in that area was down almost 11 percent from a year ago, a change McGavick blamed on increasing competition.

Safeco’s property-insurance business saw a 9 percent drop in its pre-tax underwriting profit to $56 million. But that business increased its new policies issued by 48.4 percent.

“Having spent much of the past several years fixing the homeowners line, we are finally seeing our ability to grow new business, as well as earn a profit,” McGavick said in a statement.

In its business-insurance area, Safeco reported pre-tax underwriting profit rose 35 percent to $57.1 million.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com