A Swiss insurance company says disasters caused an estimated US$350 billion in economic losses around the world in 2011.

Swiss Re says those combined natural and man-made disasters wrought "the highest catastrophe-related economic losses in history."

But global insurers paid out only $108 billion to clients for insured losses, according to preliminary estimates released Thursday.

Swiss Re expects that total to move higher as claims from ongoing floods in Thailand are assessed, and as Europe gets deeper into winter.

The $108-billion running total was more than twice the amount insurers paid out in the wake of man-made and natural disasters in 2010, but still less than the 2005 record of $123 billion.

Swiss Re says 2011 would have been the most costly year on record for the industry had Japan been more heavily insured when it was hit by a devastating quake and tsunami in March.

In a statement, Swiss Re chief economist Kurt Karl said a lack of insurance has left many people relying on their government or other organizations to help them move on with their lives.

"Unfortunately earthquake insurance coverage is still quite low, even in some industrialized countries with high seismic risk, like Japan," Karl said.

"So on top of people losing their loved ones, societies are faced with enormous financial losses that have to be borne by either corporations, relief organizations or governments and, ultimately taxpayers."

Swiss Re said it was also the most costly year on record for earthquake-insured claims, which totalled $47 billion.