February 6, 2018 / 9:53 PM / 6 months ago

Exclusive: Manulife mulls U.S. asset sales, rejects John Hancock IPO - sources

TORONTO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Manulife Financial Corp (MFC.TO) is weighing the sale of a number of U.S. insurance assets after conducting a strategic review of its U.S. operations including John Hancock, people familiar with the plans told Reuters this week.

FILE PHOTO: The Manulife Financial Corporation logo appears at the company's Annual General Meeting in Toronto May 1, 2014. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill/File Photo

Canada’s biggest insurer has decided not to pursue an initial public offering or an outright sale of the John Hancock unit, after conducting the review, the people added.

Manulife is looking to monetize its less-attractive insurance assets in the United States, according to the people who spoke on condition of anonymity as the information was not public.

The sale of these assets, including variable annuity and long-term care businesses, could bring “several billions of dollars,” the people added, declining to give the precise value of the assets likely to be sold.

“We have a long-standing policy to not comment on rumor or speculation,” a Manulife spokesman said. Manulife reports fourth-quarter results on Wednesday.

Chief Executive Officer Roy Gori told Reuters in November that Manulife was “looking at all options” for John Hancock. There has been speculation in recent years that the business could be sold.

North American insurance companies have been evaluating their businesses as they attempt to bolster earnings at a time when global interest rates have been at historical lows, with life insurance and annuity operations in particular focus. Some have spun off their life insurance operations into separate units, as MetLife (MET.N) did with Brighthouse Financial (BHF.O) last year, while a number of companies have sold off blocks of assets, in particular annuities, to private investors that aim to boost returns through cost cutting. Manulife acquired Boston-based John Hancock, one of the biggest life insurers in the United States, for C$15 billion ($12 billion) in 2004 in a deal that doubled the size of the Canadian insurer.

However, it has in recent years made the high-growth Asia market a priority, and last year picked Gori, head of its Asian unit, to lead Manulife. After his appointment, Gori said Manulife has capital tied up in the United States that could be better used.

RBC analyst Darko Mihelic last year estimated the book value of Manulife’s U.S. legacy businesses, including its long-term care policies, to be C$12.5 billion.

Instead of seeking a whole-business solution for John Hancock, Manulife plans to start offloading blocks of business in the next few months that it regards as unattractive from a returns perspective, according to the sources.

These blocks, which stem both from John Hancock and Manulife’s legacy U.S. operations, are currently being organized internally and would likely include its variable annuity business and parts of its life insurance operations, the people said.

Its asset management operations would not be part of the sales process, they added.

Manulife would also like to offload its U.S. long-term care unit, but it would be challenging to find a willing buyer for the business, the people said, even if it was offered at a substantial discount to book value.

Long-term care is considered one of the most difficult parts of the insurance market, as providers struggle to meet the escalating expense of backing policies due to rising healthcare costs and life expectancy.

Additional reporting by Matt Scuffham; editing by Denny Thomas and Tom Brown

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