Canadian insurer Manulife to invest in own business after capital boost

TORONTO (Reuters) - Manulife Financial Corp MFC.TO, Canada's biggest insurer, has the flexibility to invest capital into its own businesses after improving its leverage ratio and freeing up billions of dollars, executives said on Thursday.

Manulife, which on Wednesday missed analyst expectations for its fourth-quarter earnings, has been on a push to increase efficiencies and free up capital from its legacy business, which includes annuities and long-term care.

It has amassed C$5.1 billion ($3.9 billion) of capital through measures including new and renegotiated reinsurance transactions, real estate deals and asset sales, it said on Wednesday.

The company achieved its medium-term leverage ratio target of 25% in the past quarter, from 28.6% in 2018, and boosted its quarterly dividend by 12%.

The current leverage ratio means “we have quite substantial financial flexibility,” Chief Financial Officer Phil Witherington said on an analyst call on Thursday.

“Our highest priority is the opportunity to organically invest... If there are inorganic opportunities out there, we may consider them, but one thing you can be assured of, is we’ll be very disciplined.”

The executives did not expand on specific opportunities.

Leverage ratio is the sum of long-term debt, capital instruments and preferred shares divided by the sum of long-term debt, capital instruments and total equity.

Manulife shares were down l.2% in early afternoon trade.

“Business has been good and they want to take the opportunity to tidy up what needs tidying up,” said John Kinsey, portfolio manager at Caldwell Securities, who owns Manulife shares. “This may be long overdue.”

As part of its push to cut costs, Manulife has also delivered C$700 million of its C$1 billion target for expense efficiencies, Chief Executive Roy Gori said on the call.

It cut 1,900 employees over the past two years, about 5% of its total workforce, through its restructuring initiatives, including early retirement and voluntary exit programs, he added.

Rival Sun Life Financial Inc SLF.TO reported core earnings of C$1.34 per share on Wednesday, beating analyst estimates of C$1.30. Sun Life executives said on Thursday the coronavirus outbreak could increase claims in a "material way" if the situation deteriorates rapidly, but it is too early to gauge the impact.

Sun Life shares were down 0.3%.

Great-West Lifeco Inc GWO.TO on Thursday posted adjusted earnings per share of 80 Canadian cents, slightly beating estimates.

Reporting by Nichola Saminather; Editing by Lisa Shumaker