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Australian lenders shed insurance businesses to sharpen focus on banking

Westpac Banking Corp.'s planned sale of its general insurance business marks among the final steps by major Australian lenders to exit noncore businesses as they sharpen focus on their main banking operations.

After Westpac completes its A$725 million deal to sell the business to Allianz SE in mid-2021, Commonwealth Bank of Australia may remain the only bank among the Australian big four to still have a general insurance arm. CBA too has said in the past that it is reviewing its businesses, including selling its general insurance operations.

In June, The Australian Financial Review reported that Goldman Sachs is helping the bank prepare for a potential sale and pitch the business to interested buyers. CBA had said in 2018 that it was looking into a potential sale or partnership of the general insurance business as part of its efforts to sell its noncore businesses.

The major Australian banks have, in recent years, sought to simplify their portfolios, strengthen capital and focus on their core banking businesses in Australia and New Zealand. That is partly in response to the Financial Services Royal Commission that unearthed a number of failures among banks' financial advisory units. CBA had been hit with a number of legal cases over allegations that it overcharged customers for financial advice. The bank is also facing a class action over allegations that it tipped customers into overpriced insurance policies.

CBA had "prioritized selling other non-banking financial arms that were heavily scrutinized" by the commission that inquired into financial misconduct in Australian banking industry, Yin Yeoh, senior industry analyst at IBIS World, told S&P Global Market Intelligence in an email. These included selling its life insurance division and wealth management units, Colonial First State and Colonial First State Global Asset Management.

"While general insurance is not as capital intensive as life insurance, similar strategy is expected as the bank continues to restructure," Yeoh said.

CBA's life insurance operations were sold to AIA Group Ltd. in 2017 for A$3.8 billion. Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. completed the sale of its life insurance business to Zurich Insurance Group AG in 2019. National Australia Bank Ltd. finalized the sale of 80% of its life insurance business in 2016 to Japan's Nippon Life Insurance Co. for A$2.4 billion.

Scale and skills

The scale needed to run viable general insurance arms may be another factor as banks find it hard to compete with the big four insurers in Australia - Insurance Australia Group Ltd., Suncorp Group Ltd., QBE Insurance Group Ltd. and Allianz.

"General insurance is a narrow margin business that requires capital support," Martin North, founding principal and banking sector analyst at Australia-based Digital Finance Analytics, told Market Intelligence. "Scale players have dedicated underwriting and claims management processes and systems. General bankers are not as capable [as] insurance managers," North said.

CBA reported income from insurance at A$139 million on a cash basis for the fiscal full year ended June 30, down 5% from A$147 million. The bank's general insurance business contributed A$21 million to the bank's group cash net profit for the fiscal year ended June 30, down 40% from A$35 million.

The general insurance industry has also been hit by increased claims from extreme weather events such as the Queensland floods and the bushfires in January. Catastrophe claims reached A$4.6 billion in April, according to the Insurance Council of Australia, with the bushfires generating more than A$2.26 billion of claims. CBA attributed the higher claims experienced in the general insurance business from bushfire claims as the main driver for the insurance income decline.

"Increased frequency, severity and the unpredictable effect of natural disaster events is likely to reduce revenue for banks," Yeoh said.

CBA's general insurance may be pitched to the four big insurers. "Typically buyers would be from the larger providers already in the market looking to expand footprint or extend their distribution (via bank channels). It could also be used as a platform for smaller, emerging companies that have lacked underwriting experience," Craig Bennett, an analyst at S&P Global Ratings said.

"In terms of buyers, it will likely come down to the price being offered, and long term alignment of interests if there is a distribution agreement attached," Bennett added.