(Corrects buyback figure in headline, first paragraph)
SYDNEY, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Australia’s No. 1 insurer by premium income, QBE Insurance Group Ltd, on Monday said it would buy back up to A$1 billion ($767 million) of shares over the next three years to return surplus cash to investors after it posted a better-than-expected 1 percent rise in full-year cash profit.
Cash profit after tax increased to $898 million in the 12 months to Dec. 31 compared with $893 million a year ago as the company lifted prices and managed claims better, beating a $769 million forecast of 13 analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. Adjusted for currency changes, cash profit was 12 percent higher than a year ago.
The insurer, which generates almost three-quarters of its premiums abroad, said it expected the market would remain challenging in 2017 though there were indications of a modest improvement.
“The rate of decline in global pricing is easing and, while there is a variation between markets, we anticipate that pricing in markets other than Australia will be broadly flat in 2017,” the company said in a statement.
Gross written premium decreased 2 percent to $14.1 billion, meeting the upper end of its target of between $13.7 billion and $14.1 billion, which was lowered at its half-year results.
The company said gross written premium was expected to remain “relatively stable” this year given a competitive pricing environment and exchange rate volatility. The insurance profit margin of 9.7 percent was near the top end of guidance of 8.5 percent to 10 percent.
QBE has been taking steps to boost earnings and reinstate investor confidence after years of underperformance. Those efforts include cutting costs, putting in place a comprehensive re-insurance plan, changing key management teams and selling non-core or underperforming businesses.
Reuters in January reported that Germany’s Allianz had made an informal takeover approach to QBE but had not named a price, according to sources.
However, on Feb. 17, Allianz played down talk of it making a major acquisition any time soon.
QBE lifted its final dividend by 10 percent to A$0.33 a share, 50 percent franked. ($1 = 1.3031 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Jamie Freed; Editing by Stephen Coates and Alan Crosby)