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Manulife softens spinoff speculation amid leadership transition

File photo of the Manulife Financial headquarters in Toronto.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Manulife Financial Corp.'s CEO is on his way out, but the insurer's United States-based business may not follow him through the door.

In his last quarterly call with analysts on Thursday, retiring leader Donald Guloien addressed reports that the company is contemplating a spinoff of its Boston-based U.S. insurance and wealth management division John Hancock Financial Services Inc., which first surfaced in the The Wall Street Journal in July.

After taking a month to contemplate how John Hancock could be teased apart from the other business lines in Asia and Canada, several analysts came prepared with questions that edged up against the line between operational facts and what company management called "the hypothetical." Manulife's U.S. business was coming off a strong quarter with $575-million (U.S.) in profit, and solid increases in insurance sales and wealth-and-asset-management portfolios. Over all, the insurer posted earnings that beat market expectations.

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Mr. Guloien would not rule out hiving off the division, if Manulife deemed that such a move would improve shareholder value. "When you run a public company, you have got to look at every perspective in a dispassionate way," he said.

Still, some call participants walked away with tempered enthusiasm for a potential sale, initial public offering or other separation of the John Hancock business. "While we cannot completely dismiss the potential of a U.S. spinoff by Manulife, we believe that a) the probability of such an outcome is lower than previously thought; and b) the value creation of a spinoff is not as clear," wrote Gabriel Dechaine, analyst at National Bank Financial Inc., in a note to clients.

Investors don't need to read tea leaves to know there are some product lines that Manulife would like to get rid of, especially U.S. long-term care insurance and variable annuities, which have been less lucrative for the company.

"We've been very clear on many occasions that we have some challenging blocks of legacy business," Mr. Guloien said. "As we repeatedly said, we regularly investigate all opportunities of improving shareholder value. We believe this is good governance, plain and simple."

But Manulife may not be willing to part ways with its its healthier U.S. wealth-and-asset-management operations in order to make a sale more appealing. Right now, the United States accounts for about half of its wealth-and-asset-management segment when measured by assets. Mr. Guloien said he couldn't envision a time when the company wouldn't offer some U.S. products.

"I don't think you'll find a large-fund manager located anywhere in the world that doesn't offer a U.S. product, right?" he said. "Obviously, one could separate the U.S. business, if one chose to, but you wouldn't be participating in the biggest market in the world, you wouldn't benefit from some of the advances and product developments and all the other things that make it the leading market in the world. So there would be obviously pros and cons – not impossible – but it would have other negative impacts."

One thing is for sure, however: Change is coming to Manulife.

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Incoming chief executive Roy Gori said on the call that he wants better returns from the company's businesses, and plans to get them by taking steps such as pushing to expand wealth-and-asset-management businesses that are less capital-intensive and have higher returns, cutting costs, and doing something about those legacy blocks of business that aren't yielding decent profits.

"I couldn't be more excited to lead Manulife as we work to transform the company into a digital, customer-centric market leader," he said on the call.

Video: How critical illness insurance helped a woman with MS (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Financial Services Reporter

Jacqueline Nelson is a financial services reporter at the Report on Business. Prior to that she was a staff writer at Canadian Business magazine, covering news and writing features on a wide variety of subjects. More

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