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Hong Kong still important hub despite mass protests: Ping An Insurance

[HONG KONG] Ping An Insurance (Group) Co of China, the country's largest insurer by market value, said on Friday Hong Kong remains an important hub despite escalating mass protests, a day after it posted its strongest half-year profit growth in over a decade.

Ten weeks of confrontations between police and pro-democracy groups have plunged Hong Kong into its worst crisis since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, and have presented the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping in his seven years in power.

"We continue to believe in Hong Kong as an important hub," said Jessica Tan, co-CEO of Ping An.

"This year we have even more companies in Hong Kong than last year," Ms Tan told Reuters in an interview, adding the insurer has five different entities in the city.

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Ping An, the only Asian insurer deemed globally systematically important by regulators, on Thursday reported a net profit of 97.68 billion yuan (S$19.25 billion) for the six months to June, versus 58.1 billion yuan a year earlier.

The 68.1 per cent rise marks the fastest half-year profit growth since at least 2007, calculations based on Refinitiv data show.

The insurer welcomed 20.1 million new customers over January to June, and plans to double-down on growing its retail customer yield, Ms Tan said. Ping An plans to further cross-sell among its existing customer base and mine its Internet channels for new buyers, she added.

"We expect more and more new customers (to be) converting from our Internet customers to financial services customers. That's one set of growth I think we'll continue to push through," she said.

Ping An's gross written premiums rose 9.4 per cent to 446.48 billion yuan, versus 408.19 billion yuan a year earlier.

The insurer will continue to develop its financial technology sector, but is in no rush to list its tech startups as some of them had completed fundraising last year, Ms Tan said.

Trading volume for Ping An-backed Lufax's wealth management products in the first half was down 47.3 per cent, the earnings report showed, while its peer-to-peer (P2P) lending business now accounted for less than 20 per cent of the Lufax's total business.

"Lufax will actively reduce the size, staff and offline stores of its P2P business in response to regulatory calls," Ms Tan told a presser on Friday.

Last month, Reuters reported that Lufax, China's largest online wealth management platform, plans to exit its once-core P2P lending business and is seeking a licence in consumer finance.

The insurer is also looking for more real estate-related investment opportunities, and is considering investing hundreds of billions of yuan of insurance funds in long-term rental apartments and public housing, company president Alex Ren said at the press conference.

Ping An's investment in the real-estate sector accounts for 7.2 per cent of its total insurance capital, far below the 30 per cent regulatory cap, Mr Ren added.

On its share buy-back, the insurer has already spent five billion yuan to repurchase its Shanghai-listed A-shares.

Whether it reaches the top end of the planned five billion yuan to 10 billion yuan buy-back would depend on market conditions and Ping An's future stock price, chief financial officer Jason Yao said.