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Generali Targets Higher Earnings in 2012 as Profit Drops

Assicurazioni Generali SpA, Italy’s biggest insurer, said operating profit may rise as much as 15 percent this year on growth in its life and non-life operations. The company missed profit estimates after incurring writedowns.

Operating income will at least match last year’s 3.9 billion euros ($5.2 billion) and may reach 4.5 billion euros in 2012, according to a presentation on the Trieste-based insurer’s website today after it reported earnings. Generali expects operating income of as much as 2.8 billion euros in the life segment and as much as 1.9 billion euros in non-life.

The shares fell as the company’s outlook disappointed some analysts, even as Chief Executive Officer Giovanni Perissinotto said he expects “strong” profit growth this year. The insurer is expanding in emerging markets and eastern Europe to boost earnings following the financial crisis, while cutting costs, improving efficiency and selling assets to strengthen capital.

“Despite the positive outlook for non-life, Generali has announced quite cautious guidance,” Atanasio Pantarrotas, an analyst at Cheuvreux, wrote in a report today.

Generali declined 32 cents, or 2.4 percent, to 12.85 euros at 11:20 a.m. in Milan trading. The stock has risen 11 percent this year, trailing the 21 percent advance in the 28-company Bloomberg Europe 500 Insurance Index.

“We are already seeing signs of recovery in the first months of 2012,” Perissinotto said during a conference call. “Generali expects a reduction of the significant level of non-recurring components that affected results in 2011.”

Dividend Cut, Writedowns

Generali cut its dividend by 25 cents to 20 cents a share. Net income declined to 856 million euros from 1.7 billion euros a year earlier, missing the 1.1 billion-euro average estimate of 21 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

Profit was hurt as the insurer wrote down the value of Greek bonds by 76 percent. It also wrote down its stake in Telco SpA, the largest investor in Telecom Italia SpA, bringing total impairments above 1 billion euros last year. The gross exposure to Greek sovereign debt at the end of the year was 700 million euros, the insurer said.

Generali’s solvency ratio, a measure of its capacity to absorb losses, reached 117 percent at the end of December. It climbed to 132 percent by March 1 because of a rebound in Italian government bonds, the insurer said. The combined ratio, a measure of claims and costs as a proportion of premiums, improved to 96.5 percent from 98.8 percent a year earlier.

PPF Joint Venture

Generali may buy the 49 percent stake in its eastern European venture it doesn’t own from PPF Group NV, using “internal resources,” Perissinotto said. Generali would buy the stake should its partner exercise a put option giving it the right to sell in 2014, he said.

Generali and Amsterdam-based PPF formed a joint venture in 2007, combining their insurance assets in eastern Europe to create a company with 9 million customers in 12 countries. PPF’s put option is valued at 2.5 billion euros to 3 billion euros, according to 2010 Generali’s annual report.

Perissinotto said Generali is also considering buying the stake with a partner, as he received “several expressions of interest.”

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