The Business Times

AXA steers clear of big deals, manages risks stemming from French politics

Published Thu, Feb 23, 2017 · 02:04 PM

[PARIS] AXA has reached a "critical size" and is ruling out major acquisitions such as Italy's Generali, the French insurer's chief executive Thomas Buberl said on Thursday.

It is managing risks relating to May's presidential election in France and raising its profitability through higher prices and cost cutting, after increasing underlying earnings per share by 4 per cent in 2016.

Although AXA's earnings were helped by tariff hikes in property insurance coverage and a recovery in its life and savings business, Mr Buberl's first set of annual results as CEO were at the lower range of its targets.

Concerns that far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen might win and lead France out of the euro zone - an event dubbed 'Frexit' - have rattled financial markets.

"Frexit is a probability, it is clear, we need to look at it. Our job is to manage risks and volatility. A potential Frexit is not the first surprise and not the first crisis that AXA has seen over its history," Mr Buberl said.

However, AXA saw the probability of 'Frexit' as not very high, Mr Buberl added, with opinion polls currently showing Ms Le Pen as eventually losing to either centrist Emmanuel Macron or right-wing candidate Francois Fillon in the vote.

Shares in the insurer were 0.6 per cent lower at 22.68 euros at 1147 GMT. AXA's stock is down around 5 per cent in 2017.

"We expect AXA's share price performance to remain largely macro driven...with the key drivers remaining concerns on the French elections, US interest rates and European equities," analysts at Barclays said.

In the face of falling yields on its investments, AXA aims to increase earnings per share by 3 to 7 per cent a year over the 2016-2020 period, seeking to lift profitability through tariff hikes and higher-margin products while reducing its costs.

"We are on track on the headline targets of our Ambition 2020 plan," the insurer said in a statement.

AXA aims to grow in areas such as property and casualty insurance for businesses, as well as savings products that do not tie up too much capital, and in Asia.

The French insurer was rumoured to be among potential suitors for Italy's largest insurer Generali, but reiterated on Thursday that a tie-up was not on the table and that it "would bring nothing" for AXA.

"AXA has done many large acquisitions and the aim has been to reach a critical size globally. We reached it now and for our acquisitions' strategy, this excludes small and really large acquisitions," Mr Buberl said.



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