AXA Group will struggle this year to keep earnings in line with expectations, according to ratings agency Fitch.

A report published last week by the agency said AXA Group would struggle to maintain AA-rated earnings performance for 2001. It also said the French group will have to overcome difficulties resulting from stock market volatility and the 11 September attacks.

Fitch said AXA had an "excellent global business standing" and that it expected the group to "maintain its very strong business position in its primary markets". But it pointed out the company's UK operation had suffered declining income from general insurance last year.

Difficulties were made worse by falling rates for motor business, which accounts for more than half the property and casualty book in the UK, and the need to strengthen reserves.

Fitch noted results had deteriorated for three consecutive years in the UK property and casualty business.

But agency analyst Andrew Mitchell told Insurance Times the UK results should improve.

"We don't expect the trend to continue. They've done a lot to put their house in order and the outlook is probably better than the last couple of years would suggest," he said.

Fitch said the group could be on the lookout for acquisitions.

But Mitchell said this was unlikely in the UK.

He said: "The challenge has moved from achieving scale to making acquisitions work. Having acquired Guardian Royal Exchange the focus is on getting the business to be as efficient as possible."

AXA UK spokesman Philip Hickley said the company did not argue with Fitch's conclusion.

He said: "We've no reason to dispute it, but what they are talking about is the global AXA Group rather than the UK [group]."

Reporting on the global group as part of its regular ratings process, Fitch said: "Investment market volatility during 2001 is unlikely to present the company with the opportunity to harvest significant gains.

"Equally, 2001 earnings are expected to be seriously impacted by the cost of the World Trade Centre claims.

"Consequently, Fitch believes the group will struggle to report overall earnings that are in line with AA range performance."

It maintained its AA rating for the group, which expects to lose $550m (£384m) from the 11 September attacks.

AXA is the third biggest general insurer in the UK.