UPDATE 1-About 75% of Manulife China employees back in offices, CEO says

(Recasts to lead with China employees returning to work)

TORONTO, March 23 (Reuters) - Most of Manulife Financial Corp’s employees in China have returned to work in its offices, as the spread of the new coronavirus slows, the chief executive of the Toronto-listed insurer said on Monday.

“Four weeks ago we had less than 25% of our people coming into the office,” Roy Gori said at a webcast TD Securities event. “As at Friday of last week, we had nearly 75% of employees back in the office.”

Mainland China on Monday reported a drop in its daily tally of new coronavirus cases, reversing four straight days of increases, with most new infections in recent days coming from travelers arriving from overseas.

As of Sunday, the total number of cases in mainland China stood at 81,093. The death toll rose to 3,270, up nine from the previous day.

“Obviously folks are still trying to get their houses in order in China and figuring out how to navigate in this new world,” Gori said. But “there is a shift we’re starting to see in China, more of a normalization is taking place there.”

Manulife has accelerated its efforts to enable 12,000 agents in China to interact with clients digitally, and is also recruiting new agents virtually, he said, adding that Manulife also does a lot of its sales remotely in China.

On the broader market impact of the outbreak, Gori said Manulife sees opportunities to acquire the debt of good U.S. companies, thanks to the widening of credit spreads following the Federal Reserve’s interest rate cut to near zero.

“That’s a big part of our focus, so that’s an opportunity we will definitely continue to focus on and capture,” Gori said.

While Manulife’s focus is to grow its existing businesses, it will also look elsewhere if opportunities exist, he said.

“In times like these, if there is are opportunities to transact at good value, as long as they are aligned with our strategic priorities, we will consider those,” he said.

Gori also said that Manulife has diversified its portfolio and exposure since the global financial crisis, and that it is less sensitive to interest-rate changes and equity market volatility than it was during the global financial crisis. (Reporting By Nichola Saminather; Editing by Denny Thomas and Sam Holmes)