Slowing economic growth across much of Asia has failed to crimp expansion plans by the region’s insurance companies, even as the rest of the financial industry slashes jobs.
While banks and brokerages cut costs and jobs in Asia amid falling corporate confidence and plunging deal volumes, insurers are riding the wave of rising individual wealth across the region.
Economic growth and increasing salaries, combined with high savings rates, are creating fertile ground for more straightforward financial services, such as retail banking and insurance.
“Before people enter the middle class, they can’t afford to buy our products,” said Robert Cook, senior executive vice president and general manager of Asia for Manulife Financial Corp., speaking at an investors’ conference in Hong Kong on Friday.
Manulife joins AIA Group Ltd., Zurich Insurance Group Ltd., RSA Insurance Group PLC, Direct Asia and Swiss Re AG in planning to grow headcount in Asia, executives and financial sector recruiters say.
Headcount at 29 insurance companies based in Asia that have reported employee figures at the half-year mark increased 3.1 percent in the first six months compared with the same period a year earlier, according to data from Thomson Reuters.
China’s state-owned PICC Property and Casualty Co. Ltd saw an 18 percent increase in employees while Indonesia’s PT Panin Financial Tbk, PT Asuransi Multi Artha Guna Tbk, PT Asuransi Harta Aman Pratama Tbk and PT Asuransi Bintang Tbk each increased their headcount by more than 10 percent, according to the data.
Multinationals such as Canada’s No. 2 insurer, Manulife, are also hiring. The company has added 1,500 employees in Asia since 2010, bringing its total regional staff to more than 8,000, a spokesman said.
“We expect to continue recruiting at similar levels to help meet our growth ambitions over the coming years,” he said.
The insurance industry’s headcount growth in Asia contrasts sharply with the multiple rounds of job cuts across much of the other parts of the financial industry, especially investment banking.
The number of Asia-based investment banking jobs posted on the eFinancialCareers website in July of 2012 was down 15 percent compared with July of last year. Insurance jobs were up 4 percent over the same period.
Hiring for insurance front office jobs, including underwriting, business development and product marketing, could be up as much as 15 percent this year, according to Carol Cheung, a financial services team manager at headhunting firm Robert Walters. Hiring for back office insurance jobs could rise more than 5 percent, roughly in line with last year, she said.
Chris Colahan, Asia chief executive for London-based RSA, said he plans to boost his headcount by low single-digits next year, matching what he is doing this year, particularly specialist construction, marine and casualty underwriters.
Demand for middle managers is high, he said, and RSA is willing to offer bonuses of up to 6 months’ salary, double normal.
Non-life actuaries are also in demand. With eight years of experience, a non-life actuary can command an annual salary of S$220,000 to S$280,000 ($225,300) — said Maryann Au, executive director of insurance search agency Huntington Search Partners. That’s nearly equal to the base salary of a top investment banker.
Insurance companies are by no means immune to economic troubles. In Asia, however, the sector appears to be little shaken by the slowdown.
Zurich said Asia is a growth market and the company will hire to support its ambitions. DirectAsia said it is considering expanding into new markets but declined to comment on which markets.
“Over the next decade we are going to have a billion new potential customers in the markets in which we operate,” said Manulife’s Cook, referring to a statistic that cites nearly 1 billion people joining Asia’s middle class in the next decade.