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Canadian insurers upbeat about 2021 after beating fourth-quarter profit expectations

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Nichola Saminather
·2 min read
FILE PHOTO: The Sun Life Financial logo is seen at their corporate headquarters in Toronto
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By Nichola Saminather

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's top two life insurers expressed optimism about 2021 on Wednesday despite continued uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic after both reported better-than-expected fourth-quarter profits, buoyed by strong wealth management gains.

Insurers globally have seen payouts rise due to claims related to the coronavirus pandemic, but strong equity markets growth, driven in part by record low interest rates, has helped soften the blow, while those with operations around the world have also benefited from re-openings in some markets.

Canada's top insurer Manulife Financial Corp expects Asia to contribute half of its core earnings by 2025, Chief Executive Roy Gori told Reuters, from about 38% in 2020. Manulife has been on the lookout for M&A opportunities in Asia to boost the fast-growing region's contribution to the group's overall earnings.

"It really is a very uncertain and challenging environment that we’re embarking upon (in 2021), but there is a lot to be optimistic about," Gori said.

Manulife paid about C$390 million ($307 million) in claims for coronavirus-related deaths in 2020, Gori said, while Sun Life Financial, Canada's No. 2 insurer, paid nearly C$200 million, its CEO Dean Connor said in an interview.

"The world has seen lot of positive news on (the vaccine) front," Connor said. While challenges remain, "the world has to be in a more positive state now than it was six months ago."

Strong performance in wealth and asset management units helped offset declines in new business and sales in some markets due to challenges posed by renewed lockdowns, the two insurers said in separate statements.

Earnings from Manulife's global wealth and asset management unit rose 15% from a year earlier, while Sun Life's climbed 19%, helped by its recent acquisitions.

That was offset by lower group benefits sales in Canada, higher expenses in some areas and an impairment charge in its Indian joint venture for Sun Life.

Sun Life reported underlying profit of C$1.47 a share in the three months through December, compared with analyst estimates of C$1.38.

Manulife saw declines in new business in Asia and lower sales in Canada and the U.S., driven in part by lockdowns.

Manulife posted core earnings of 74 Canadian cents a share, versus analyst expectations of 72 cents.

($1 = 1.2695 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Nichola Saminather; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Aurora Ellis)