Allianz Seeks to Bulk Up in Asia in Wait for China PermitBy
Asia-Pacific CEO says region will be insurer’s ‘growth engine’
Insurer sees positive signals from regulator on Baidu venture
Allianz SE, the German insurer that stemmed outflows at U.S. asset manager Pimco, is now trying to bulk up on the other side of the world.
“Asia is still a relatively small part of the overall global portfolio but it holds a very big promise,” George Sartorel, chief executive officer of the Asia-Pacific business, said in an interview. “We have kept quiet in Asia for a long time, but our goal is to accelerate growth in the region. We see it really as the growth engine for Allianz.”
While it managed to turn around Pacific Investment Management Co., Allianz has lost ground in recent years to other European insurers in Asia Pacific, where a growing middle-class is driving demand for insurance. The region generates only about 4 percent of its premiums, versus about 36 percent for London-based Prudential Plc and about 10 percent for Axa SA of Paris.
“In terms of premiums and earnings, Asia is almost negligible at Allianz at the moment and compares poorly to Axa and even more so to Prudential,” said Nick Holmes, an analyst at Societe Generale SA who covers all three companies. “Both Axa and Prudential have stronger historic ties to the region.”
Allianz joined with Standard Chartered Plc earlier this year to sell general insurance in the region through the bank’s branches and digital platforms. In China, the Munich-based company is awaiting a license to sell online insurance nationwide in partnership with Chinese search engine Baidu Inc. and asset manager Hillhouse Capital Management.
“While we got positive signals from the regulator, I think we need to be patient,” Sartorel said. “If we pull that off, that is something transformational for us in China, giving us access to 800 million potential customers.”
Allianz teamed up with Baidu and Hillhouse, which oversees about $20 billion of investments, in November 2015. Hillhouse, led by former Yale University endowment employee Zhang Lei, has also joined with Aviva Plc and Tencent Holdings Ltd. to develop a Hong Kong company focused on digital insurance.
It remains to be seen how profitable the partnership with China’s biggest search engine could be for Allianz, SocGen’s Holmes said.
Banking partnerships are no bargain either for insurers. Allianz paid Standard Chartered about $200 million upfront to sell its general insurance products in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and China. And the lender expects to receive at least $1 billion in payments over the 15-year life of the bancassurance agreement, including profit-sharing, people with knowledge of the matter said at the time.
It was still good value, according to Sartorel, 59, who oversaw Italy and Turkey at Allianz before taking on the Asian role in 2014. He declined to comment on the price Allianz paid for the Standard Chartered partnership.
“We’re confident because penetration is quite low and Standard Chartered is committed to the digital business model that we are planning to deploy across the geography,” said Sartorel, who is responsible for markets including China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and the Philippines -- but not for India, Australia or New Zealand.
Allianz is also in talks with a number of potential partners to expand its life-insurance business in China, he said. The company already operates a fully-owned non-life insurer in three provinces and a life business that’s present in eight of 34 provincial-level administrative regions in China. Sartorel ruled out a tie-up with a mainland bank because of low margins for the insurance industry there.
About two thirds of Allianz’s insurance products in Asia are sold through agents and the remainder through partnerships with banks including HSBC Holdings Plc. Likewise, Axa has joined with Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. to sell life insurance in China. It offers non-life products through a joint venture with Tian Ping Auto Insurance Company Ltd.
“We will in the future do more digital partnerships,” Sartorel said, referring to the Standard Chartered agreement. “How do I compete with Ping An Insurance, which has a million agents on the street in China? Forget it.”
— With assistance by Dingmin Zhang