Insurers see growth potential in Asian markets as middle class grows

By Ian Bickis, Canadian Press | February 10, 2022 | Last updated on February 10, 2022
3 min read

Canadian insurers Manulife Financial Corp. and Sun Life Financial Inc. said Thursday that they see significant potential for Asian markets as the region’s middle class continues to grow.

While results were mixed among specific countries, both insurers reported their Asian divisions helped prop up fourth-quarter results as they invest further in the region.

“We’re scaling our business to grow across the diverse markets in Asia,” said Manulife chief executive Roy Gori on an earnings call.

Manulife saw core earnings for its Asian division up 2.6% from the third quarter, though down from the same quarter a year earlier, while its U.S. and Canadian divisions saw declines compared with both the third quarter and a year earlier.

In December the insurer started a 16-year partnership with VietinBank, one of the largest banks in Vietnam to further expand in the country.

“Vietnam has significant growth potential with one of Asia’s highest GDP growth rates, a high proportion of working-age population and life insurance penetration rates that are well below other emerging and developed markets in Asia,” said Gori.

Sun Life reported its Asian division saw underlying net income climb 12% in the last quarter, ahead of the 9% in Canada, while its U.S. operations saw a 51% decline on higher deaths from Covid-19.

Chief executive Kevin David Strain said that the company is investing in digital distribution in the region, which is helping increase sign-ons despite Covid-19 disruptions in some markets.

“We see that the ASEAN countries, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia with this growing middle class as being a great opportunity.”

The company also reported that wealth sales in Asia were up 20% in the fourth quarter compared with a year earlier, despite pullback in some international hubs, ahead of gains in its North American divisions.

Barclays analyst John Aiken noted that Manulife’s core earnings of 84 cents per share were above consensus of 82 cents, as the company’s global asset and wealth management division saw a boost from the region.

“Manulife came in ahead of expectations on the back of ongoing growth in its Asia platform,” he said in a note.

The company, however, saw a significant pullback in life insurance sales in Japan, with annual premium equivalent down 44% in the fourth quarter compared with a year earlier, following policy changes in the country.

Manulife’s Gori said diversification in the region was an important part of its strategy.

“Our presence in 13 markets in Asia demonstrated the benefits of geographic diversification as strong top line growth in Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam balance the impacts of Covid-19 and regulatory changes in China, Japan and other emerging markets.”

RBC analyst Darko Mihelic said that the business environment in Hong Kong and China remain a concern for both companies, but that Hong Kong, along with the U.S., helped boost new business volumes for Manulife. He noted Sun Life’s earnings for Asia came in slightly below expectations as Covid-19 hit some countries, including the Philippines where it is a leading provider.

Sun Life also saw total insurance sales decline 14% for Asia while they climbed in North America. But Scotiabank analyst Meny Grauman noted that was mostly from a 51% decline in sales at its International Hubs division, which includes Hong Kong, Singapore and Bermuda. Local Markets sales were up 18% year over year thanks to strong growth in Vietnam, Indonesia and China.

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Ian Bickis, Canadian Press

Ian Bickis is a reporter with The Canadian Press, a national news agency headquartered in Toronto and founded in 1917.