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MetLife Cautious on Buybacks Amid Regulatory Uncertainty

MetLife Inc. Chief Executive Officer Steven Kandarian, who last month announced the insurer’s first stock buyback since 2008, said it’s hard to commit to additional repurchases as he awaits clarity on U.S. capital oversight.

“We were cautious and remain cautious in terms of the capital management because of the uncertainty,” Kandarian told analysts today. “Returning capital to shareholders is a high priority for us. We have to do that consistent with a regulatory environment in which we find ourselves, and as we learn more about that we’ll have more to say.”

MetLife said last month that it would buy back $1 billion of shares, a sum that Kandarian called “modest.” The repurchase offsets the dilution of units that were converted into common stock as part of the 2010 purchase of American Life Insurance Co. Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., a smaller rival, yesterday increased its buyback plan to about $2.8 billion for this year and next.

Kandarian’s company, the largest U.S. life insurer, is in the final stage of review by U.S. regulators to determine whether it is a potential threat to the financial system. Such a designation would subject New York-based MetLife to oversight by the Federal Reserve and possibly stricter capital standards, though final rules haven’t been written.

Randy Binner, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets, asked Kandarian on a conference call whether he could conduct buybacks beyond those needed to offset equity dilution.

Difficult Answer

“Until we have more information it’s going to be difficult for us to answer that question,” the CEO said.

MetLife declined 3.4 percent to $52.60 at 4:04 p.m. in New York trading, erasing its gain for the year. The insurer late yesterday announced second-quarter profit that missed analysts’ estimates as profit in the Americas group-benefits unit fell on costs tied to dental insurance and disability claims.

The insurer said results have been pressured in Russia, which has faced sanctions from the U.S. and other nations in a bid to halt President Vladimir Putin’s backing of rebels in Ukraine.

“Our overall growth in the region is below the level that we expected to be at,” said Michel Khalaf, who leads the Europe, Middle East and Africa region for the company. “We are seeing an impact, but we are also able to adjust our expense structure. So as long as the impact is short-term it is not impacting our bottom line in Russia. We are obviously monitoring the situation very closely.”

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