Group Chief Financial Officer George Quinn said: "The war in Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis that it has triggered are almost beyond comprehension. The Group and the Zurich Foundation have provided financial and logistical support. We are especially proud of our colleagues who have opened their homes to families fleeing the war. Although the effects of the war are expected to lead to significant losses for the insurance industry, we do not expect insurance claims to be significant for the Group. In fact, the Group has made a strong start to the year and expects to exceed all financial targets for 2022. We saw a rise in premiums across the Group, most notably in our North American Property & Casualty business, where crop insurance and rate increases drove double-digit top-line growth. Despite inflationary pressures, we expect rates to exceed loss-cost trend well into 2023. The positive operating trends in the first quarter, together with the Group's very strong balance sheet, give us confidence that we will successfully conclude the current strategic cycle later this year."
In Property & Casualty, growth was supported by higher premium rates, driven by commercial insurance. Higher prices for agricultural commodities contributed 2 percentage points to growth.
In Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), gross written premiums increased 8% on a like-for-like1 basis. Growth was driven by a strong performance in a number of countries, most notably in the UK, Switzerland and Germany. Premium rates increased 9% in commercial insurance and 2% in retail insurance.
North America grew 17% on a like-for-like1 basis compared with the previous year, with crop insurance contributing about 40% of the growth. An overall strong performance was supported by a 9% increase in rates.
In Asia Pacific, gross written premiums increased 11% on a like-for-like basis compared with the previous year. Rebounding travel insurance sales in Australia, higher retail sales in Japan and further growth in commercial insurance across the region were the main contributors.
In Latin America, gross written premiums increased 21% on a like-for-like basis, benefiting from growth in both retail and commercial insurance, albeit from a low base in the prior-year period.
In Life segment, growth was driven by higher sales in capital efficient savings and protection products. In U.S. dollar terms, APE (annual premium equivalent) increased 8% compared with the prior-year period, with growth in local currencies partially offset by U.S. dollar appreciation against major currencies.
In EMEA, APE grew 14% on a like-for-like basis, compared with the same period in 2021. This was primarily driven by growth in corporate pensions in Switzerland and unit-linked business in Germany, which more than offset a reduction of low-margin individual savings in Spain.
In North America, APE grew 49% on a like-for-like basis compared with the same period in 2021, driven by corporate protection products.
In Asia Pacific, APE was 12% below the previous year on a like-for-like basis, driven by lower sales in Japan due to competitive market conditions and product re-pricing, in addition to reduced sales activity in Malaysia due to lockdown measures to stem the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
APE in Latin America increased 17% on a like-for-like basis driven by protection, with all major units contributing to growth.
New business margin remained attractive at 25.7% in the first quarter, down from 31.8% in the previous year which benefited from a large corporate protection contract. The lower margin also reflects the impact of a less favorable product mix within Zurich's preferred lines of business, and economic variances in Asia Pacific and Latin America. This resulted in new business value of USD 225 million, 8% below the prior year on a like-for-like1 basis.
As previously anticipated, COVID-19 mortality claims continued to fall. In the first quarter, the business recorded USD 11 million of COVID-19-related claims, compared with USD 195 million in the full year 2021. Claims were mainly in Asia Pacific and Latin America and showed an improved monthly trend within the quarter.
The Farmers Exchanges, which are owned by their policyholders, reported an increase of 29% in gross written premiums in the first quarter of the year. Growth was driven by a contribution of USD 0.9 billion from the unit of MetLife acquired in the second quarter of last year, USD 0.4 billion of higher volumes of commercial rideshare business and continued improvement in most lines of business. Gross earned premiums, which lag written premiums, increased 23% in the same quarter.