Manulife won't up dividend till its leverage drops

Wed Mar 28, 2012 1:46pm EDT

* Canada's No. 1 insurer halved payout in 2009

* Leverage ratio has grown

* No comment on interest in ING assets

March 28 (Reuters) - Manulife Financial, which slashed its shareholder dividend three years ago, is unlikely to consider raising the payout until it lowers a key debt ratio, the company's chief risk officer said on Wednesday.

Manulife, Canada's biggest insurer and owner of U.S. insurer John Hancock, halved its dividend in August 2009 to preserve capital after weak financial markets devastated its profit.

Since then, the company has hedged its market exposure and pulled back from unprofitable business lines. However, its leverage ratio is well above its target of 25 percent. It was 33 percent at the end of 2011.

Leverage is the use of financial instruments or borrowed capital to try to increase investment returns.

"What you will see is we'll want to bring that leverage ratio down a little bit over time before we look at maybe dividends," Chief Risk Officer Rahim Hirji told a financial conference in Montreal.

Manulife, which eked out net income of C$129 million ($129.5 million) in 2011, currently pays a quarterly dividend of 13 Canadian cents a share.

Hirji would not comment on reports that Manulife may be interested in purchasing the Asian insurance and asset management arms of Dutch firm ING Groep, but he said Manulife in general is interested in buying assets in Asia.

Manulife has hired bankers to advise it on a possible purchase of the ING assets, sources familiar with the situation have told Reuters.

ING must spin off its insurance and investment management operations by the end of 2013 in return for European Commission approval for the 10 billion euros ($13.3 billion) in Dutch state aid it received in 2008.

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