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Hannover Re sees stable premiums, chance of more shareholder payouts

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(Reuters) — German reinsurer Hannover Re S.E. will focus on boosting earnings rather than premiums this year and may pay out more special dividends to shareholders, Chief Executive Ulrich Wallin said Thursday.

The world's third-largest reinsurer posted record 2015 net profit of €1.15 billion ($1.27 billion) and raised its total dividend by 12% to €4.75 ($5.23), beating analysts' average expectation in a Reuters poll by 10 cents.

"The decisive thing is to keep profit, rather than revenue, firmly in view in 2016," Mr. Wallin told a news conference. The reinsurance market has been oversupplied and suffering price declines for several years as insurance company clients choose to keep more risk on their own books.

Mr. Wallin predicted premiums would be stable to slightly lower this year, after they rose by nearly 20% in 2015, helped by a stronger dollar against the euro.

Hannover Re, like peers Munich Reinsurance Co. and Swiss Re Ltd., has been returning capital to shareholders that it cannot plough into the business.

"We'd rather use our capital to take advantage of growth opportunities but if that doesn't pan out, a special dividend would again be likely," Mr. Wallin said.

Mr. Wallin pledged net profit of at least €950 million this year, despite weak pricing power among reinsurers and rock-bottom interest rates, which cut earnings from the company's investment portfolio.

"We believe we have raised the underlying profitability of the Hannover Re group to (around) €1 billion," he said.

RBC analyst Kamran Hossain said the outlook compared favorably to RBC's net profit forecast of €948 million this year. "This ... suggests that there could be some small upgrades to come for 2016 earnings," he said.

Shares were trading 5.9% higher at the top of the Mdax index of mid-cap German companies, outpacing a 2.9% rise in the STOXX Europe 600 insurance index by 1340 GMT.

"The higher-than-expected DPS and the slightly increased 2016 outlook are positive surprises," Equinet analysts said in a note to clients.

The general climate for reinsurers will remain challenging in the current financial year, Hannover Re warned.

"There will likely be little change in the fierce competitive intensity or the low interest rate level," it said.

Hannover Re's dividend payout for 2015, amounting to 50% of net profit, will be divided into a regular dividend of €3.25 ($3.58) per share and a special dividend of €1.50 ($1.65), the company said, adding that its standing goal remains to pay out between 35%-40% of net profit as a dividend.