Asian market helps Manulife and Sun Life in latest quarters

Both companies have offices in Waterloo Region


Two of Canada's largest insurance companies got lifts from the Asian market in their latest quarter.

Sun Life Financial Inc. said its overall net income surged 24 per cent to $719 million in its fourth quarter, with its Asian operations contributing $136 million, or nine per cent more than in the same period the year before.

The company also racked up $361 million in Asian insurance sales, a 44 per cent or $110-million increase compared to the same period in 2018. By contrast, insurance sales in Canada rose four per cent while U.S. sales were down four per cent.

The earnings come as Sun Life — like many other insurers — have been focused increasing attention on the Asian market. Sun Life recently formed a 15-year partnership with Tien Phong Commercial Bank in Vietnam, signed a distribution agreement with Nobu National Bank in Indonesia and also launched sales of sharia-based products with Bank Muamalat in the region.

Asia is highly under-penetrated for insurance so it's really a distribution game, Neil Haynes, the company's chief financial officer and senior vice-president of Sun Life Financial U.S.

"It's not a pricing game in Asia, so we feel good about the profitability of our products and as the scale continues to come through, we are expecting to see this benefit of scale flowing through in our new business strain," he said.

"Our bigger markets are Hong Kong and the Philippines and they're both profitable markets. As we continue to build scale there in particular you would expect some of the benefits to come from there, in particular."

Meanwhile, another Toronto-based insurance business, Manulife Financial Corp. shared that its earnings were also helped by opportunities in the continent.

The company boosted its quarterly dividend 12 per cent after it capped a stronger 2019 with double-digit growth in Asia.

Manulife said it would increase its payout by three cents per share to 28 cents, payable on or after March 19 to shareholders of record on Feb. 25. It added that it earned $1.23 billion for the three months ended Dec. 31, up from $593 million a year earlier.

Last year's net income included a restructuring charge. Excluding one-time items, core earnings increased 10.5 per cent to $1.48 billion from $1.34 billion.

Those earnings came after Manulife launched in Vietnam and Cambodia its ManulifeMOVE program, which uses a mobile app and tracking devices to monitor how much consumers walk and offer them discounts on insurance plans based on their number of steps. It also debuted an online insurance platform in collaboration with DBS Bank for the Singapore market and enhanced its electronic claims platform in Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Japan, where it was hampered by lower new business volumes and changes to tax rules.

"Despite the headwinds in Japan...we were able to deliver a resilient five-per-cent core earnings growth in quarter four and 11 per cent for the full year," said Anil Wadhwani, Manulife Asia's president and chief executive on a Thursday call with analysts.

"We continue to see very strong momentum in geographies like Hong Kong...So despite some of the challenges....we're pretty pleased with the resilient performance that we showed in Asia."

Sun Life's earnings equalled $1.22 per share in the three months ended Dec. 31, up from 96 cents per share or $580 million a year earlier. For the full year, its net income rose by 3.8 per cent to $2.62 billion.

Manulife earned 73 cents per diluted share up from 65 cents per share in the prior year and one cent below analyst forecasts, according to the financial markets data firm Refinitiv.

Story by Tara Deschamps - The Canadian Press

***Manulife and Sun Life both have offices in Waterloo Region***