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French insurer sells last U.K. life and savings business


(Reuters) — French insurer Axa S.A. is selling its U.K. investment and pensions business to Phoenix Group Holdings, completing a well-flagged exit from a mature life assurance market to focus on faster-growing emerging economies.

Axa completed a five-year strategic plan last year that helped it solidify its position as the second-biggest insurer in Europe after Germany's Allianz S.E. by turning more to countries in the developing world with low insurance coverage.

Following the sale, Axa will have raised €832 million ($934.0 million) from the disposal of its U.K. life and savings businesses this year, though it will book a €400 million ($449.0 million) loss on the transactions, it said on Friday.

The sales will “allow Axa to rebalance the focus of its U.K. activities towards property and casualty, health and asset management,” Axa U.K. CEO Paul Evans said in an early May statement about the deals.

Axa, which also announced a management reshuffle under its incoming chief executive on Friday, had previously sold its platform Elevate to Standard Life P.L.C. and offshore investment bonds business to Life Company Consolidation Group.

Phoenix, Britain's largest owner of life assurance funds closed to new customers, said it would pay £375 million ($543.8 million) in cash to close the deal, adding that it will add £12.3 billion ($17.84 billion) of assets under management and more than 910,000 policies.

After the acquisition, which will be Phoenix's biggest deal since 2010, it will hold £59 billion ($85.55 billion) of life assets for about 5.4 million policyholders, it said.

Axa's Sun Life, which sells life assurance to the over-50s, is the largest of the businesses Phoenix is buying.

Phoenix shares were up 3.8% at 881.50 pence ($12.78) at 1217 GMT, making it the top gainer in London's FTSE midcap index, while Axa shares were 0.3% higher.

Phoenix Chief Executive Clive Bannister said the company would seek other deals in the short term.

"This is a sensible transaction which makes Phoenix both bigger and better and it acts as a stepping stone for additional transactions ... So a door that is already open, we're making open even broader and open more widely," he told Reuters.

The life insurance market is consolidating with some firms selling assets due to the increased costs of running life insurance businesses following the introduction this year of new European capital rules for insurers, known as Solvency II.

Earlier this week, Britain's Legal & General Group P.L.C. said it would buy £3 billion ($4.35 billion) of annuity liabilities from Dutch insurer Aegon N.V.

HSBC Holdings P.L.C. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. advised Phoenix, while Barclays P.L.C. and Fenchurch Advisory Partners worked with the French insurer.

"The deal is part of Phoenix's efforts to optimize their capital base by diversifying into more mortality risk," said a source close to the deal.

For Phoenix, the deal is expected to generate cash flows of about £300 million ($435.0 million) between 2016 and 2020, and £200 million ($290 million) from 2021 onward. Phoenix said it would boost its final 2016 dividend by 5% to 28 pence (41 cents) per share.

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