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(Adds CFO, analyst comments)
By Cameron French
TORONTO, May 1 (Reuters) - Manulife Financial Corp said on Thursday its first-quarter profit surged more than 50 percent as a stronger investment performance and higher wealth management fees more than offset weaker insurance sales.
Manulife, Canada's biggest life insurer, said net income attributed to shareholders was C$818 million ($745.36 million), or 42 Canadian cents per share, compared with C$540 million, or 28 Canadian cents a share, a year earlier.
Core profit, which excludes one-time items and market-related gains and losses, rose to 37 Canadian cents a share from 32 Canadian cents. Analysts' average estimate was 39 Canadian cents a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
"It was pretty much an in-line quarter," said Peter Routledge, an analyst at National Bank Financial.
"We like their momentum in wealth management, particularly in North America (and) they have just very, very high capital. And we think that will persist," he said.
Insurance sales in the quarter fell 15 percent to C$537 million. Wealth sales climbed 5 percent to C$13.8 billion, Manulife said, with gains in Canada and the United States well exceeding declines in Asia.
Besides its Canadian operations, Manulife owns U.S. insurer John Hancock and is growing in Asia, where it has a presence in about a dozen countries.
The company has spent the last few years reducing its exposure in financial markets after taking billions in losses during the financial crisis.
It has also been slowly shifting its business away from life insurance and toward wealth management, which has lower capital requirements, predictable fee-based income and the promise of more clients as baby boomers approach retirement and increasingly need money management.
While Canada and the United States are the main drivers of the company's profit, Manulife has targeted Asia as a key growth area, and continues to eye acquisition opportunities on the continent, including potential bancassurance deals, said Steve Roder, the company's chief financial officer.
"We continue to be particularly interested in opportunities where we can do deals quietly without some big grandiose auction process. And if you look at our history, the best deals we've done have been where we've done some quiet bilateral deal," he said in an interview.
Investment-related profit, excluding amounts included in core earnings, was C$225 million, up from C$97 million a year earlier.
Manulife stock, which fell more than 75 percent between 2007 and 2012, rebounded 55 percent last year. The shares, which have fallen slightly so far this year, were up 0.8 percent at C$20.74 on Thursday.
$1 = 1.0975 Canadian dollars Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bernadette Baum