* Net loss EPS C$0.14 vs estimated loss C$0.31
* Pushes back profit target
* Company takes C$1 bln charge
* Stock falls 1.5 percent, underperforming rivals
By Cameron French
Nov 8 Manulife Financial Corp on T hursday reported a narrower loss in the third quarter due to improved financial markets-related results but said it has delayed its profit goal of C$4 billion by a year to 2016, citing macro-economic conditions.
The loss, which came amid stronger-than-expected results at Canadian insurance rivals Sun Life Financial and Great-West Lifeco, put additional pressure on Manulife's already struggling shares.
Canada's largest insurer and also owner of U.S. insurer John Hancock, Manulife warned last quarter that it was rethinking its goal of C$4 billion in net profit by 2015.
The company now projects to hit the C$4 billion level by 2016 and says it is a goal for "core" profit, rather than net profit. It admits net profit could be lower than the core earnings, which exclude the direct impact of financial markets as well as certain other items.
The shift is just the latest setback for a company that has endured sharp quarterly losses over the past four years, due to the impact of weak stock markets and low bond yields.
"It's a long road traveled (for Manulife) that seems to be getting longer with the push back of the core earnings target," said Gavin Graham, president of Graham Investment Strategy.
Under Canadian accounting rules, life insurers must mark-to-market their huge investment portfolios each quarter to make sure they can cover long-term policy obligations. If they cannot, they must take reserves to make up the shortfall.
Manulife Chief Executive Donald Guloien has worked to reduce the company's exposure to markets and said o n T hursday the company had achieved its equity and interest rate hedging targets two years ahead of 2014 goals.
"This hedging comes at a cost, but it's a cost worth bearing, as it substantially reduces the volatility of our earnings going forward," he said on a conference call.
C$1 BILLION CHARGE
However, past market movements still took a toll on the company's results for the quarter, as Manulife took a C$1 billion charge due to a shift in actuarial assumptions related to certain insurance products. It also took a C$200 goodwill charge.
All told, Manulife's net loss was C$227 million ($228 million), or 14 Canadian cents per share, though that was much narrower than the company's year-earlier loss of C$1.28 billion, or 73 Canadian cents per share. The result also topped analysts' estimates of a net loss of 31 Canadian cents per share.
"It was pretty much an in-line quarter, which is unusual," said National Bank Financial analyst Peter Routledge, referring to market-related volatility in recent quarters.
The results took an C$88 million hit from equity market and interest rate movements during the quarter, but that compared with a much larger C$889 million markets-related loss in the year-earlier quarter.
Core profit, a new measure for Manulife, slipped to C$556 million from C$624 million, driven in part by weakness in Manulife's Asian division, which is the segment where it expects the strongest growth in the future.
The result follows a stronger-than-expected profit by rival Sun Life Financial late o n W ednesday and similar results by Great-West Lifeco on Thursday.
Sun Life, Canada's No. 3 insurer, said it swung back to a third-quarter profit from a year-ago loss due to stronger markets.
Great-West, the country's second-largest insurer, earned a net C$520 million ($521.07 million), or 55 Canadian cents a share, in the quarter ended Sept. 30, ahead of expectations of a profit of 51 Canadian cents a share.
Shares of Manulife, which have risen by 9 percent so far this year but trade at barely a quarter of their all-time high from 2007, fell 1.5 percent to C$11.82 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
That lagged Sun Life, which rose 3.9 percent, while Great-West, which has considerably less market exposure than its rivals, gained 0.4 percent.
Graham said despite Manulife's profit issues he felt the shares were a good buy at current levels.
"If you are seeing no further fall from these levels for long-term bond yields and maybe even a little rise... then you will actually see these stocks go substantially higher," he said.