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UPDATE 2-Generali delays dividend payout, profit beats estimates

(Adds CEO quotes from conference call, details)

MILAN, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Italy’s top insurer Generali said on Thursday it would delay the payment of the second tranche of 2019 dividends to next year to comply with regulatory demands, after reporting nine-month operating profits above expectations.

Italy’s insurance regulator IVASS has asked companies, including Generali this week, not to pay dividends this year following recommendations from the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB) to conserve cash in the coronavirus emergency.

Generali said it still aimed to pay out 4.5-5 billion euros ($5.5-$5.9 billion) in dividends under a three-year plan to 2021.

The insurer will hold a virtual investor day on Nov. 18 to give an update on its strategic plan.

Generali’s Chief Executive Philippe Donnet told analysts he was “a bit surprised” by IVASS’ decision which had “nothing to do with our capital and cash position” but was based on general macroeconomic considerations.

“Italian regulators are not in favour of a new dividend restriction for 2021, they told me a couple of days ago,” he added.

IVASS declined to comment.

Generali’s solvency ratio, a key measure of financial strength, had risen to 207% by Nov. 9, finance chief Cristiano Borean told a media briefing, after reaching a better-than-expected 203% at the end of September.

According to Jefferies analysts, the dividend ban “is somewhat disappointing” given “Generali’s strong underlying performance” which “bodes well for the future”.

In May, Generali paid a first tranche of the 2019 dividend of 0.50 euros per shares out of a total of 0.96 euros.

The insurance group’s nine-month operating profit, the earnings metric most closely watched by investors, beat analysts’ estimates, rising 2.3% to 4 billion euros.

Net profit fell 40% to 1.3 billion euros, after 666 million euros in one-off items, partially related to writedowns on COVID-linked market volatility.

Profits in 2020 are expected to be lower year-on-year due to the pandemic-related negative impact from financial markets and from some one-off expenses, Generali said.

Donnet said that Generali was still interested in small and medium-sized acquisitions and that some opportunities could arise from the COVID-19 crisis.

$1 = 0.8499 euros Reporting by Gianluca Semeraro; Editing by Mark Potter and Pravin Char

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