Thursday, November 12, 2009

Would-be buyers study ING insurance

life insurance

ING Group's decision to split off its insurance business is attracting a lot of interest, and a decision about the units could come as early as the end of the year, the company's chief executive said Wednesday.

The company originally said the divestiture of the insurance businesses, which includes ING USA Annuity and Life Insurance Co. in Des Moines, should be completed in the next four years. But Wednesday's comments suggest a speedier timeline. Chief Executive Officer Jan Hommen said in recorded comments that he should be in a position to make an announcement after a shareholders meeting Nov. 25.

"We will develop a clear path as to how we will go forward in separating the bank and the insurance company and determine how they both will go their own way and in what form that will be done," he said. "Now, that will take place sometime, let's say, in late December, early January. And I hope quickly to be able to announce what the plans are to go forward."

The Dutch insurance and financial services company announced plans Oct. 26 to separate the banking and insurance units and eventually relinquish its insurance business.

The sale or public offering of ING's insurance operations, the world's sixth-largest, would include its Des Moines operations, which employ approximately 1,000 people in the metro area.

"We have great people in our organization who are, of course, eager to hear what the decisions are that we will make. They deserve to know quickly what those decisions are," Hommen said.

Potential buyers that have expressed interest in the insurance units include Aviva, whose U.S. operations are based in the Des Moines area.

Aviva is the world's fifth-largest insurer.

Hommen's comments came as the company reported that both its banking and insurance businesses returned to a profit in the third quarter. Overall, the company reported a profit of $1.16 billion, compared with $343 million in the second quarter and a loss of $850 million in the same period a year ago.

The banking side of the business reported earning $395 million, vs. a loss of $37 million in the second quarter. The insurance business reported $769 million in profits for the quarter, compared with $380 million in the second quarter.

"ING achieved a strong commercial performance in the third quarter, illustrating the strength of our banking and insurance franchises even in this challenging economic environment," Hommen said in a statement.

Insurance Americas, which includes the Des Moines operations, earned $460 million in the quarter ended Sept. 30, compared with a loss of $473 million a year ago and about 20 percent more than the $383 million it earned in the second quarter.

Results for the insurance division in the United States were helped by the market recovery and a 12 percent decline in operating expenses from reduced staff and benefit costs.

Sales fell in the division by 23 percent from the third quarter a year ago, as individual life sales declined and the company tried to limit the sale of existing variable annuities until its new rollover product is introduced.

Shares of ING increased 5.5 percent to close at $15.29 Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange.