Insurer downplays fears of Hong Kong move prompted by new European capital rules and reports 13% first-half rise in profits
Prudential boss Tidjane Thiam indicated on Friday that the company would remain based in the UK despite fears that it might relocate to Asia because of new capital rules for European insurers.
Britain’s biggest insurer warned in March that the Solvency II rules under discussion in Brussels risked destroying its American business and could force it out of the UK, with Hong Kong seen as the most likely new domicile.
But Thiam said today that negotiations had been going well and that the UK government and the Financial Services Authority had been “very supportive”.
If Brussels does not recognise US regulations as an “equivalent” regime, Prudential could be forced to hold billions of pounds of extra capital against its American life insurance business, Jackson. This would put it at a severe disadvantage to its US rivals, and Prudential remains committed to the world’s largest retirement market.
While the outcome of Solvency II is still uncertain and Prudential’s review of its domicile is ongoing, Thiam said: “It seems to indicate we’ll get US equivalence.” He added, however: “If that issue is not resolved, we would have to reconsider where to be domiciled, and Hong Kong is an option.”
Hong Kong was Prudential’s largest business in Asia for a long time but has now been overtaken by Indonesia.
The insurer, which was founded in London in 1848, reported a 13% rise in pre-tax profits to £1.3bn for the first half of the year. Prudential once again tapped into the Asian boom, where burgeoning middle classes are snapping up life insurance and savings products.
The company wants to expand its foothold in south-east Asia, which it describes as its “sweet spot”, with a population of 500 million, and has plans to enter Cambodia while Burma is also on its radar. Asian profits climbed 26% to £409m.
Thiam said that in the region, “the man from the Pru is often a 28-year-old Asian woman”, referring to the insurer’s door-to-door salespeople. Prudential employs 260,000 agents across Asia, excluding India, and more than 100,000 are female. In Britain, the man from the Pru has made a comeback after being axed a decade ago, in the shape of advisers who visit existing customers approaching retirement.
Prudential has scaled back its UK business to focus on individual annuities and with-profits products.
UK operating profits were flat at £353m, as a drop in corporate pension sales offset an increase in individual annuities. Jackson in the US made a £442m profit, up 30% on last year. Prudential lifted its interim dividend by 5.7% to 8.4p a share.
City analysts welcomed the results, with Barrie Cornes at Panmure Gordon describing them as impressive. Richard Hunter, head of equities at stockbrokers Hargreaves Lansdown, said there was “little not to like” and added that the UK figures were “something of an achievement given the circumstances”.