Htoo Group in talk with Korea’s NH Financial to tap insurance market

NongHyup Financial (NH), a holding company of Korea’s national agricultural cooperative, will team with its insurance units to enter the insurance market in China and Southeast Asia, NongHyup said Sunday.

But what is the reason for this sudden desire to sally forth and explore uncharted or under-explored territory? And why has it taken the company so long to tear its gaze away from its home market?

Korea’s leading financial companies are, at heart, “deliberately cautious and conservative” animals, says Chung Hong-taik, an analyst at S&P Global Ratings.

They are also far smaller, measured by any conceivable metric, than their leading peers in East Asia.

And size still matters, notes Chung, who adds their lack of scale “is a major constraint for large-scale M&As.”

This in turn explains why local banking groups have suddenly become so adventurous. NH Group admitted its global expansion plan was one of its top priorities and necessary to overcome local business limitations.

The focus of its ambition would be on Southeast Asian countries with high growth potential, using a judicious mix of organic and inorganic growth.

“NH Financial Group has fixed substantial plans for the corporate sustainability by helping NH Property and Casualty Insurance and NH Life Insurance get traction in markets where the group is already exposed,” NH said in a statement.

“We are confident the outreach will become a huge plus factor for group-wide business diversification.”

NH Property and Casualty Insurance and NH Life Insurance rely entirely on the domestic market. NH said profitability of the group’s non-life and life-insurance businesses showed signs of decline because they faced growing competitive and regulatory pressure, domestically.

“The two NH affiliates will become stakeholders in an insurance company that will be established throughout a strategic partnership with the group’s business partner in the All-China Federation of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives (ACFSMC),” according to the statement.

NH said ACFSMC planned to launch an insurance company with up to 1.5 billion yuan or about $236.7 million in initial capital with NH Property and Casualty Insurance owning a stake of below 20 percent in the local company.

Additionally, NH Life Insurance also plans to rise as a stockholder once the Chinese cooperative establishes a new life insurer down the line.

“As a follow-up move, NH Life Insurance is considering setting up an office in China,” an NH Group official said.

“Given ACFSMC interest in striking acquisition deals, NH Life Insurance could start its Chinese business earlier than scheduled.”

The overdue globalization of Korean financial firms had so far been impeded by a domestically glued operating environment not conducive to risk-taking abroad, according to NH officials.

The rationale was that with increased domestic competition, the push for going global will gather momentum, they said.

In Vietnam, where NH Group has operations, it is discussing new business opportunities in Vietnam’s insurance sector, which NH believes is lucrative and quite promising, with Agri Bank, the largest lender in the Southeast Asian region.

Asked what type of business the group had in mind, the NH official said, “We may purchase some stakes in a Vietnamese insurer, although it’s too early to talk about further details as there are lots of things to be considered if the plan is to be implemented.”

In Myanmar, NH Group hopes to expand its footprint in Myanmar, where it wants to gain a “first-mover” advantage in the insurance markets.

Top management of HTOO Group, Myanmar’s leading financial company, will visit NH headquarters early in April for meetings with NH’s top management, including group CEO Kim Yong-hwan.

“The upcoming meeting is aimed at developing talks with HTOO Group because the two companies signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in January this year,” the official said.

“If any substantial plans come out, then NH Group will be the first Korean financial company to go into Myanmar.”

S&P’s Chung said the real growth opportunities for Korean banking groups lay in the great developing markets of Southeast Asia.

“This is where their corporate customers are going, so this is where the banks are going too,” he said.

Source: The Korea Times

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