UPDATE 2-Manulife Financial surprises with dividend hike as profit triples

Thu Aug 7, 2014 9:25am EDT
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(Adds analyst, CFO comments, background)

By Cameron French

TORONTO Aug 7 (Reuters) - Manulife Financial Corp unexpectedly hiked its dividend for the first time since the financial crisis on Thursday, as it reported quarterly profits that jumped on stronger financial markets but was just shy of analysts' expectations.

Investors have awaited an improved dividend since Canada's largest insurer halved the payout in 2009 as it struggled to preserve capital amid plunging markets and unprofitable products.

The company had hinted that a dividend hike was possible in 2015 at the earliest.

"We believe that this is a distinct positive and may come somewhat of a surprise to the market," Barclays Capital analyst John Aiken said in the note.

In an interview, Manulife Chief Financial Officer Steve Roder said the company decided to hike the dividend early due largely to a faster-than-expected decline in the company's leverage ratio, and growing comfort with the regulatory environment, including capital rules for insurers.

Net income attributed to shareholders was C$943 million, or 49 Canadian cents a share, compared with C$259 million, or 12 Canadian cents a share, a year earlier.

The result benefited from C$267 million in investment-related gains, due to strong returns on alternative long-duration assets and the redeployment of government securities into higher-yielding assets, and also from higher fee income on increased assets under management, the company said.   Continued...