Why Prudential gambles on Asian growth

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Prudential launches its dual primary listing in Hong Kong and secondary listing in Singapore this Tuesday, paving the way for more Asian investors to buy its shares.

The region's large sovereign wealth funds, including Singapore's government-controlled investment arm GIC, are said to be interested.

Asian investors will then have until 4 June to decide whether they want to participate in the rights issue, in which the insurer will make a discount offer of 11 new shares for every two that they own at £1. 04 ($2.09) each.

In Prudential's record-breaking offering, the firm wants to raise $21bn towards financing its $35.5bn offer for AIA, the Asian business of troubled US insurer AIG.

But the UK's largest insurer faces the risk of rejection by its shareholders on 7 June when it needs 75% of them to approve the rights issue.

The Pru is keen to attract more Asian shareholders ahead of the meeting because some of its UK shareholders have already voiced their oppositions.

Robin Geffen, managing director of Neptune Investment Management, is one of them. He has founded an action group.

"Like many shareholders, I remain completely opposed to the course of action that Prudential is intending to pursue," he says.

"Very few shareholders have been consulted and it is not why people bought shares in the Pru.

Prudential also faced a regulatory hurdle earlier this month. It was forced to delay the offering by 12 days when he UK's Financial Services Authority raised concern that the firm would not have enough capital following the takeover.

Most attractive markets

Despite all the challenges, the reason the Pru remains committed to buying AIA is simple.

The purchase would see the size of its business more than double in size, with its Asian operations accounting for more than half its profits.

Prudential's chief executive, Tidjane Thiam, has set ambitious growth targets for the proposed merged company, gunning for a pre-tax operating profit of at least £3.26bn ($4.72bn) by 2013.

"The combined business will be a fast growing and highly profitable company, with a leading position in many of the most attractive markets in the world," he insists.

The Pru is currently the number two life insurer in Asia, following AIA, which has about 30 million customers in the region.

The combined firm "New Prudential" would be a dominant player in Asia, where its population is becoming wealthy enough to appreciate insurance.

Perfect customer

Indonesia is one of the markets where Prudential will be a market leader.

Image caption,
Many in Indonesia would rather invest than buy insurance

Slamet is a local businessman in Batam, located 20 kilometres off Singapore's south coast.

He owns Warung Makan - a street restaurant - and a boarding house for new employees of factories in the area.

He and his family of two children have no insurance.

"I have other things that I need to spend my money on - like my children's education," he says.

"But I am thinking of expanding my business.

"When I have enough money and the timing is right, I may consider buying insurance."

Slamet and his neighbours are exactly who the Prudential wants to have as its new customers.

In Indonesia, the insurance penetration rate is extremely low.

In 2008, only 1.3% of the country's gdp was spent on insurance, compared with 15.7% in the UK.

Rising Asia

Asia's economic powerhouses - China and India - have slightly higher penetration rates of 3.3% and 4.6% respectively.

But their growing middle classes are investing in pensions and life insurance products to secure a comfortable retirement.

Asia as a whole currently accounts for 21.9% of the world's insurance business.

But once Japan and other newly industrialised nations are excluded, its share falls to 6%.

The region has seen double digit growth rates in the last few years and is expected to generate up to 40% of the global growth over the next five years.

It is a dream opportunity for Prudential.

That is why there is also widespread speculation that the Pru will eventually pull out of the UK and the US completely, making it an Asian-focused business with its headquarters in London.

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