By David French
(Reuters) - General Electric Co is working with investment bankers to find ways to shed its insurance business, which has caused it to book hefty charges while sparking shareholder lawsuits and an investigation by U.S. regulators, people familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.
The move comes after GE announced in January it would take a $6.2 billion after-tax charge and set aside a further $15 billion in reserves to help cover liabilities in insurance operations held by its GE Capital unit, mainly concerning long-term care (LTC) policies.
Many providers of LTC insurance, including GE, underestimated the cost of servicing policies, meaning premiums have been unable to cover the spiraling costs of healthcare and longer life expectancy.
While GE's insurance operations have stopped generating new business, existing contracts managed to maturity in a process known as run-off have become a major financial burden for the U.S industrial conglomerate.
GE is hoping investment firms which specialize in acquiring run-off insurance businesses could buy some of the assets, the sources said. While GE is focused on shedding its troubled LTC business, it is open to divesting other insurance assets, including structured settlements and other life and disability products, the sources added.
The sources, who asked not to be identified because the matter is confidential, cautioned that no deal is certain given the liabilities that GE faces in its insurance business. A GE spokeswoman declined to comment.
GE spun out much of its insurance business in 2004 into Genworth Financial , itself currently attempting a sale to China Oceanwide Holdings Group Co for $2.7 billion. That deal has been held up by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a U.S. national security panel.
GE said in January a review of its remaining insurance portfolio showed 300,000 policies needed $15 billion more in reserves to cover potential payouts, or about $50,000 per policy, on top of the charge it took as part of its fourth-quarter earnings. It subsequently disclosed the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had begun probing how it handled its insurance obligations.
Insurance liabilities stood at $38 billion at the end of 2017, according to GE's annual report.
GE has also been sued by shareholders accusing it of concealing mounting insurance liabilities and the SEC probe, arguing this cost investors tens of billions of dollars.
Struggling to maintain profitability and facing calls to be broken up, GE has proposed major cost-cutting and selling or spinning off parts of its business including power, aviation and healthcare as a way to bolster its value.
As part of its drive to shed assets, GE announced an $11.1 billion deal on Monday to merge its transportation business with U.S. rail equipment manufacturer Wabtec Corp , with GE and its shareholders owning just over half of the combined business.
(This version of the story fixes syntax in paragraph 4)
(Reporting by David French in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)