NEW YORK (Reuters) - MetLife Inc (MET.N) forecast 2010 earnings that could beat average Wall Street expectations, helped by cost cuts, improved investment returns and higher revenue, but said it did not see a return to historical growth levels until at least 2011.
The largest publicly traded U.S. life insurer said it expects full-year 2010 operating earnings to rise by about half to between $3.3 billion and $3.6 billion, or $4.00 to $4.40 a share.
The average Wall Street forecast is $4.11 a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
MetLife shares rose about 1 percent, or 35 cents, to close at $35.68 on the New York Stock Exchange.
MetLife Chief Executive Robert Henrikson said at an annual investor conference the company sees revenue growing by up to 8 percent in 2010 as it lures customers away from weaker rivals.
"It is about a flight to MetLife," said Henrikson. "It is a good story."
Life insurers were particularly susceptible to the upheaval in credit markets in 2008 and early this year, which led to large losses on the sector's holding of trillions of dollars in investments. But as markets have recovered, MetLife and its next biggest rival, Prudential Financial Inc (PRU.N), have emerged stronger than some peers, helping each to win more business.
MetLife said it expects improved investment profit and lower expenses will also help its bottom line in 2010. The company met its target of $400 million in cost savings a year ahead of schedule and raised its forecast for savings in 2010 to $600 million.
While it expects "meaningful" earnings recovery in 2010, it does not expect to return immediately to the level of growth it notched up before the credit crisis.
"We are a long way from where the company can perform," said Chief Financial Officer William Wheeler. He added that the company's earnings performance would not be "back to normal" until 2011 or 2012.
The company forecast an operating return on equity in 2010 of 10 percent -- significantly below the 15.2 percent operating ROE it posted in 2007, before the worst of the credit crisis.
For the fourth quarter, the New York-based insurer forecast operating earnings of 90 cents to 95 cents a share. Analysts' average forecast is 91 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Operating earnings exclude some investment losses and are the most common measure used by Wall Street analysts.
Meanwhile, Henrikson said MetLife is "wide open to really accretive" acquisitions, or deals that could significantly bolster growth. He declined to speak about specific deals.
In July, a source told Reuters MetLife was interested in buying Alico, a large life insurance unit owned by bailed out insurer American International Group Inc (AIG.N).
Henrikson said MetLife would be able to afford the $14 billion price tag suggested by Citigroup analyst Colin Devine for Alico and added the company would be willing to pay a lot for a "transformational deal," the clearest acknowledgment from MetLife yet that it may be a potential buyer.
Alico, which was founded in 1921, sells life insurance and retirement products to 19 million customers in 54 countries. About half its revenue is generated in Japan.
MetLife's shares have more than tripled since hitting a 52-week low of $11.37 in March as investor fears about the capital position of U.S. life insurers eased.