MILAN Italy's largest insurer Generali (GASI.MI) said on Tuesday it will buy out the rest of an eastern European joint venture it holds with Czech group PPF for 2.5 billion euros ($3.3 billion), increasing its exposure to the fast-growing region.
It is the first major deal struck by Generali's new chief executive, Mario Greco, who was appointed in August to improve profitability at Europe's third-largest insurer behind Allianz (ALVG.DE) and Axa (AXAF.PA), and review its portfolio of assets.
Generali said eastern Europe was now its fourth biggest market and growing faster than western Europe, with gross premiums totaling 4 billion euros at the end of 2011, from 1 billion euros in 2007.
Generali has a long-standing and sizeable business in eastern Europe, where economic growth is faster and insurance levels are lower than in mature western European markets.
German-based Allianz and France's Axa also have a strong presence in the region. Axa has said it aims to increase profits coming from the region.
Analysts have long said Generali needed to decide on the future of its relationship with PPF, which had an option to sell its 49 percent stake in Generali PPF Holding (GPH) to Generali or a third party. Generali's shares rose 1.25 percent to 14.5 euros after the buyout was announced.
"The deal provides clarity and greater certainty over our strategy in central and eastern Europe," Greco told analysts in a conference call.
The purchase of the stake Generali does not yet own in GPH will be carried out in two stages, with Generali buying a 25 percent stake by 28 March 2013 and the rest at the end of 2014.
Generali will use the cash it has raised through a recently issued 30-year bond to finance the first tranche of the deal, whose negative impact on the group's solvency ratio - a key measure of financial strength - will be offset by the debt issue.
Generali forecast a pro-forma solvency ratio of 150-155 percent for the end of 2012, up from 140 percent in September, and Greco said the group would need no external resources to fund the second tranche of the deal.
"It's a totally manageable amount of money," said Greco, who will present the result of his strategic review to investors in London on January 14.
Generali is expected to beef up its financial war chest through the sale of Swiss-based private bank BSI, which some analysts have said could fetch as much as 2 billion euros, and its U.S. reinsurance business.
Chief Financial Officer Alberto Minali told analysts the group was about to receive non-binding offers for both units, and the disposal process was going according to plan.
Analysts said the deal with PPF removed uncertainty and provided a better view on Generali's ability to finance the acquisition.
"It should put an end to the rumors related to a capital increase aiming at funding the purchase of the minority stake in one go," Mediobanca said in a note.
However, it added the disposals of BSI and the U.S. reinsurance unit would not be easy and that the recent bond issuance made Generali the highest leveraged company among large European insurers and reinsurers.
Generali said it would discuss the buyout deal with rating agencies and did not expect it to worsen its credit profile.
Under the terms of the deal, PPF will acquire the insurance operation of GPH in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan for 80 million euros.
The agreement also includes a no-cash equity swap that will allow Generali to raise its stake in Russian insurer Ingosstrakh INGSI.RTS to 38.5 percent by acquiring a stake held by PPF. PPF will in turn take ownership of Generali's interest in two private equity businesses.
Generali will install its own management at GPH upon payment of the first tranche and PPF said the deal included a 352-million-euro dividend payment in the first quarter of 2013.
PPF, which had borrowed 2.1 billion euros from a pool of banks using its stake in GPH as collateral, could use the proceeds of the sale to Generali to repay debt and free up funds for further investments. ($1=0.7634 euros)
(Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi, and by Jason Hovet in Prague; editing by Mike Nesbit and Louise Heavens)