Bank of East Asia to sell insurance business with Elliott backing


Adds mainland China business plans, Elliott stake, previous HK insurance sales

HONG KONG, Sept 23 (Reuters) - Hong Kong-based Bank of East Asia Ltd (BEA) 0023.HK said on Wednesday it had decided to initiate a sale of its insurance business and seek a strategic partner for its mainland China business following a review of its portfolios and assets.

The bank said in March it had agreed to carry out the review, pausing four-year-old legal proceedings brought by activist investor Elliott Management demanding change at the lender.

BEA, whose main markets are Hong Kong and mainland China, said in its Wednesday statement that Elliott supported the move.

Shares of BEA rose as much as 4.7% to HK$16.40 after the announcement, recovering from two consecutive sessions of falls. They have lost about 20% over the last 12 months.

BEA has survived as an independent lender in a Hong Kong market dominated by majors HSBC HSBA.L, BOC Hong Kong 2388.HK and Standard Chartered STAN.L, while several of the territory's other family-owned firms have been put up for sale amid deteriorating business conditions.

Having hired Goldman Sachs GS.N to assist with the review, BEA said it would seek to enter into a long-term exclusive distribution agreement with the buyer of BEA Life. The agreement would be a new source of revenue for the bank, it said.

BEA Life is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the bank in Hong Kong, and it reported gross written premiums of HK$4.8 billion ($620 million) in 2019, the lender said in a filing to the Hong Kong stock exchange.

In addition, BEA will look "to grow its core businesses, including through strategic and synergistic partnerships with, but not limited to, our Mainland China banking business," the filing said.

Elliott, which owns 7.5% of BEA according to data from Refinitiv's Eikon, had previously urged the bank to explore putting itself up for sale in an open letter to shareholders, saying that it was poorly run.

"The sale of BEA Life will be a good first step and we look forward to continuing our engagement while the Company follows through on this and the other important conclusions of the review," Jonathan Pollock, co-CEO and chief investment officer at Elliott Management Corporation, said in a BEA news release.

In 2016, Dah Sing Financial, another local Hong Kong bank, sold its life insurance business for $1.4 billion, the financial hub's most expensive insurance M&A, during a surge in outbound deals by deep-pocketed Chinese investors.

($1 = 7.7500 Hong Kong dollars)

(Reporting by Alun John and Sumeet Chatterjee; Editing by Devika Syamnath, Muralikumar Anantharaman and Kim Coghill)

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