Asian Insurers Expected to Seize on Credit Crunch as Opening to Buy in U.S. and Europe

Asian insurers, particularly China’s major players, are likely seize the credit crunch as an opportunity to snap up assets in Europe and the United States, senior insurance figures said on Tuesday.

“Asian players are looking for expertise and to learn the business quickly,” Francois de Varennes, group chief operating officer of French insurer Scor, told a conference in Paris.

“There could be the opportunity over the next months and years for them to make big acquisitions in Europe, because that is the way to learn quickly and to get access quickly to a market. I expect some acquisitions to come from Asia in Europe or in the U.S., rather than the opposite,” said de Varennes.

While financial services firms in the U.S. and Europe have been hit hard by writedowns due to the credit crisis, Chinese insurers Ping An and China Life are becoming the new force in international insurance, said Keith Pogson, managing partner of Ernst & Young’s Far Eastern financial services practice.

With a combined market capitalisation of around $300 billion at the end of 2007, “these are major elephants. They are doing a lot of strategic acquisitions themselves, both domestically and now internationally,” said Pogson.

Ping An agreed to pay more than 2 billion euros in March to buy 50 percent of Fortis’s asset management businesses, and there has also been speculation that it may be interested in taking stakes in Prudential and Aviva and possibly bidding for RBS’s insurance operations.

But despite their financial might, their attentions have been spurned in the past, said Pogson.

“For a Chinese insurer to buy in insurance around the world is sometimes difficult. If they want to walk out and buy an insurance company in the United States — and they have already tried — there are screams.”

Chinese insurers are looking for “friendly environments to invest”, but Pogson added “they have the equity and the liquidity” to make large purchases.

(Reporting by Simon Challis, editing by Will Waterman)