The week's winners

Aviva up 10.4%
Zurich Financial Services up 9.9%
Royal & SunAlliance up 9.2%

The week's losers

Highway down 7%
Amlin down 5%
Atrium down 5%

Three years of losses on world markets have slashed insurers' investment returns.

The worst markets for more than 70 years have come just as the industry is striving to cope with the biggest claims in history.

With insurers owning about a fifth of the shares quoted on the London Stock Exchange, it's no wonder the sector is out of favour.

But it's not just investors who don't like the word `insurance' right now.

This week's news about Britannic, the life company that axed bonuses for a million savers on endowments and pensions, only piled more pressure on an industry facing distrust among a public not used to distinguishing between life and non-life companies.

R&SA's bosses appear to think their salvation may lie in selling off its private medical insurance business, if reports in a Sunday newspaper are to be believed.

Such a plan, unconfirmed by the company, could free up between £250m and £300m of cashflow, but runs the risk of being seen as a bid to sell the family silver.

But there is a glint of hope for anyone interested in seeing insurance stocks rise again.

The table below shows how a basket of insurance stocks have done over the past year compared to the FTSE 100.

It does not tell a happy story - both lines end the year lower than where they started - but it is notable that insurers outperformed the London Stock Exchange's 100 biggest players.

Given the hardest rates in memory, 2003 should be the year when insurance storms back into favour.