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(Adds CEO comments on potential share buybacks)
By Manya Venkatesh and Jeffrey Hodgson
Nov 13 (Reuters) - Manulife Financial Corp reported slightly lower-than-expected third-quarter earnings on Thursday as weaker Canadian and U.S. insurance and wealth management sales offset strong growth in Asia.
Manulife, Canada's largest insurer, earns the bulk of its profit in North America but also has a fast-growing Asian unit.
Wealth management sales fell 15 percent in Canada and 6 percent in the United States. Insurance sales fell 19 percent in the United States, where Manulife owns John Hancock, and slumped 23 percent in Canada.
This was in sharp contrast to strong sales in markets such as Japan, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
Toronto-based Manulife said insurance sales rose 46 percent in Asia, while wealth management sales surged 74 percent. Core Asian earnings, which excluded hedging costs and other items, increased 17 percent.
"The fundamental case for Asia is unchanged," Chief Financial Officer Steve Roder told Reuters, citing favorable economic and market trends. "I'm not suggesting we will maintain 17 percent, but we'd expect to continue to see healthy growth in Asia."
Total revenue rose 75 percent to C$11.04 billion ($9.76 billion), but missed the analysts' average estimate of C$11.54 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Net income attributed to shareholders rose 6.4 percent to C$1.10 billion.
Core earnings rose 7.2 percent to C$755 million, or 39 Canadian cents per share, just shy of the analysts' average estimate of 40 Canadian cents a share.
Manulife's shares closed down 0.32 percent at C$21.60 in Toronto.
The company said its minimum continuing capital and surplus requirements ratio, a closely watched measure of financial strength for insurers, rose 5 percentage points to 248 percent.
Asked about the possibility of buying back shares, Chief Executive Donald Guloien told analysts buybacks were not high on the list in his discussions with the board about how to deploy capital.
"Our order of priority is to first use excess capital in organic growth, secondly in acquisitions that make good business sense and have high return expectations with moderate levels of risk, and thirdly with increasing the regular dividends," he said.
"The outlook is pretty strong in terms of capital ratios so I think it's safe to assume that after appropriate discussion with the board we will be doing all of the above."
$1 = C$1.13 Reporting by Manya Venkatesh in Bangalore and Jeffrey Hodgson in Toronto; Editing by Savio D'Souza, Lisa Von Ahn and Tom Brown