While acknowledging it is in negotiations to buy one of American International Group Inc.'s largest international life-insurance units, MetLife Inc.’s top executive said that the company does not need to make acquisitions to meet its growth objectives this year.

But analysts say the insurance giant would be foolish not to be opportunistic.

C. Robert Henrikson, MetLife’s [MET] chairman and chief executive officer, began the company’s earning call Wednesday by admitting it is in “discussions” to buy American Life Insurance Co. He said the companies have not reached an agreement and “there is no certainty that we will.”

“MetLife does not need to enter any M&A transaction to meet our business goals,” he said. “Any transaction needs to be accretive to earnings. … In other words, our acquisition criteria have not changed.”

Henrikson said in a press release Tuesday that an acquisition of Alico has the potential to generate long-term value.

When Henrikson was asked for more details during the conference call on MetLife’s M&A strategy, he declined to comment only saying that he didn’t want to give “more background color on discussions we are having with AIG [AIG] regarding Alico.”

Analysts said MetLife has emerged as the top bidder for Alico and is willing to pay between $14 billion and $15 billion. The company has $750 million of excess capital that Henrickson acknowledged could be used for acquisitions. He said there are no plans for MetLife to sell units to raise additional capital.

MetLife has said that international expansion is part of its strategy for this year and beyond. Alico sells life insurance and retirement products in 54 countries. Henrickson said during the conference call that the company has had double digit growth internationally in all regions and 22% growth overall internationally in premiums, fees and other revenue.

“With momentum in international businesses, we will continue to invest,” he said.

Michael White, who heads the research firm Michael White Associates, said companies with excess capital are becoming more opportunistic.

“Alico will strengthen MetLife,” he said. “It is a good company with good products and a strong international reach despite the problems of its parent.”

Analysts had been expecting more companies to bid for Alico, but worries have arisen about how liquid AIG’s units are and how likely it would be to find a buyer, said Bill Bergman, a senior equity analyst at Morningstar.

Bergman said word on the Street was that Alico was a sound insurance unit laboring under a financial services unit in crisis. AIG is 80% owned by the government after receiving more than $180 billion bailout. The problem is that “otherwise sound insurance operations are not sound if there is a crisis of confidence,” said Bergman.

In December, AIG announced it had closed a transaction with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York positioning Alico for an initial public offering or third party sale, depending on market conditions. As part of the deal, AIG contributed the equity of Alico to a special purpose vehicle. The New York Fed York agreed to exchange $25 billion of its loans to AIG for a stake in Alico and AIG’s American International Assurance Company, or A.I.A. In return the Fed will get $9 billion from an Alico sale or offering and about $16 billion from the A.I.A. offering.

AIG is pursuing an IPO for another life insurance unit, the American International Assurance Co.

Kenneth Kehrer of Kehrer-Limra said that about a year ago MetLife was rumored to be in discussions to buy “lots” of AIG units. He said it will be very interesting to see how a sale to MetLife will shape AIG.

“It will be very interesting to see what AIG eventually looks like,” he said. “Alico is an attractive business and it would give MetLife additional turf overseas. It would be interesting to find out if AIG is selling just because they have to raise cash.”

White said AIG has a “lot of government pressure on its neck” to sell Alico.

“I don’t know that they can get a price that is fair and appropriate,” he said. “They are being forced to sell assets so it will be hard for them to get what they want.”

For the fourth quarter, MetLife reported its profit declined 70% to $289 million, or 35 cents a share, from a year earlier. Operating earnings, which exclude realized capital gains and losses, rose to 96 cents from 17 cents.

Revenue declined 12% to $12.34 billion, but operating revenue, which excludes investments, increased 13% to $13.3 billion as premiums, fees and other revenue increased 14%,.

The fourth quarter also marked the first time that MetLife broke out its bank earnings separately. William J. Wheeler, an executive vice president and chief financial officer for the company, said the earnings were broken out because the bank has become “more impactful” to the parent company’s earnings.

At the bank, total operating revenue rose 80% to $377 million as mortgage production and servicing revenue rose and net interest margins remained strong. Total bank assets rose 37% to $14.1 billion because of loan and deposit growth.

Wheeler said MetLife has no plans to divest its banking unit, but is keeping an eye on the changing regulatory landscape. “We are always looking at the value of the bank, if [the regulatory environment] somehow creates some sort of value deterioration for shareholder we will take it very seriously,” he said.

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