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MORE FOREIGN FIRMS ENTER ASIAN MARKET

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LONDON-Foreign insurers continue to make inroads into the growing Asian market, as two new joint ventures win approval from the Vietnamese and Thai governments.

Vietnam's first operating license involving foreign insurers was granted to a joint venture insurance company in which London-based Commercial Union Assurance Co. P.L.C. and Tokio Marine & Fire Insurance Co. of Tokyo each hold 24.5% stakes. Bao Viet, the Vietnamese state insurer, will hold a 51% stake in the company.

The new insurance company, Vietnam International Assurance Co., based in Ho Chi Minh City, is expected to concentrate on general industrial, commercial and marine cargo business and also on the insurance needs of foreign investors in Vietnam, which typically place their insurance offshore.

VIA, which is capitalized at $6 million, still requires an investment license before it can begin underwriting, but this is expected to be granted within three to four months. Mike Ridding, CU's overseas director, said he hoped VIA would begin underwriting by the second quarter.

Mr. Ridding said he expects premium volume to reach approximately $10 million during the first three years of operation, which compares with total premiums in the Vietnamese insurance market of $100 million.

Although Vietnam passed legislation in 1994 to open up its financial services industry to foreign investors, the operating license granted to VIA would make it the first such venture to compete with the country's state-owned insurers.

Meanwhile, Zurich-based Swiss Reinsurance Co. has announced the formation in Thailand of SR Risk Management Services Ltd., a joint venture with 10 local insurance companies. The Swiss reinsurer will have a 49% stake in the firm, with the others each holding 5.1% shares.

A spokesman for Swiss Re said the Bangkok-based risk management venture was started partly because of anticipated difficulties of getting Thai approval for a stand-alone branch office of Swiss Re.

The Thai partners in SRS are: Bangkok Insurance Public Co. Ltd., The Dhipaya Insurance Co. Ltd., Insurance One Ltd., Muang Thai Life Assurance Co. Ltd., Phatra Insurance Public Co. Ltd., Safety Insurance Public Co. Ltd., The Samaggi Insurance Public Co. Ltd., The Siam City Insurance Co. Ltd., The Thai Commercial Insurance Public Co. Ltd., and Thai Insurance Public Co. Ltd.

Swiss Re, which has said it would like to build up Asia into its third main market after Europe and North America, also disclosed that authorities in Singapore and Hong Kong have approved its plans to upgrade its local representative offices into branches.

Swiss Re said this transition would help "to build up its presence in these markets and to underwrite reinsurance business locally."

A new Beijing representative office also is expected to start operations in the next couple of months, giving Swiss Re presence in a total of eight Asian countries. Other offices are planned for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Shanghai, China; and Jakarta, Indonesia.