Swiss insurer Zurich Financial Group said today that net profit in the first quarter to March surged 78% to a better than forecast $1.1 billion (€849m).

The group also said in a statement that its business volume increased 10% to $19.6 billion.

The combined ratio, used by insurance companies to indicate how well they are performing in daily operations, improved to 94.6 from 103.6 year on year.

A ratio below 100 means the company is receiving more money in premiums than paying out in claims.

The net profit figure beat market expectations, with analysts surveyed having predicted it would stand at $1 billion.

The first quarter figures reflected "excellent underwriting performance and a lower level" of major catastrophes and losses, the company said.

"The execution of our strategy continues to be on track. Our acquisitions and alliances have allowed us to deepen our position in several key markets," the company said.

"Last month, we signed a 10-year exclusive distribution agreement to be the provider of wealth insurance products to HSBC clients in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar," chief executive Officer Martin Senn said in the statement.

The company, which in April changed its name from Zurich Financial Services (ZFS), ended 2011 with net profit at $3.8 billion, a 10% increase despite a year marked by natural catastrophes, with earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, severe flooding in Thailand and hurricanes in the US.