MetLife Earnings Call Insights: Poland & Chile, Cash Guidance

MetLife Inc (NYSE:MET) recently reported its second quarter earnings and discussed the following topics in its earnings conference call.

Poland & Chile

John Nadel – Sterne, Agee: Two questions, unrelated issues. The first is you talked and gave some good detail on the potential change from the pension reform in Poland. I was wondering if you could sort of give us an update on your expectations. There’s been a lot of discussion about potential for reform in Chile so maybe you can talk about your current business there and then the potential impacts on Provida?

Michel A. Khalaf – President, EMEA: John, this is Michel Khalaf. Let me first of all just give you a little bit of the background around the proposed pension reform in Poland. Poland was one of the best performing economies in the EU following the financial crisis. However, the economy slowed down significantly in the last year 18 months, so GDP growth is expected to be under 1% this year. In addition to that, Poland has two major challenges. One is around its debt-to-GDP ratio, which under the Polish constitution, must be maintained under 55%, otherwise that would trigger austerity measures. And the other issue that Poland faces is that the EU requires it to have its budget deficit brought down to under 3% and that budget deficit is currently close to 4%. So, given this economic background, political situation with the government in its second term, facing elections in 2015, the Polish authorities are intending to introduce changes to the pension system, which is tantamount really to a partial renationalization of the system. But the situation at this point is quite unique in the sense that Poland is facing these challenges and hence the proposed reforms. Obviously, we are disappointed at these developments. We think that in the long run, these measures will have detrimental effects, especially as far as the development of capital markets in Poland and as far as participants in the pension system as well. And we’re working hard with the other participants in the market and industry and trade associations to hopefully convince the government to make some changes to those proposals. So that’s a little bit the background on Poland. Let me turn it over to Bill Wheeler to talk to you about Chile.

William J. Wheeler – President, the Americas: So John, a couple of things, just to give you a little context about Chile. Chile is a very attractive place to do business. It has a AA minus sovereign credit rating. That’s the highest in Latin America. And obviously, we took that into account when we announced the acquisition of Provida. Just remember, we think we bought Provida at a very attractive price relative to where other properties in that market have traded over the past couple of years. So it’s a transaction that we’re still very excited about. There is a presidential election campaign going on in Chile, so there have been some comments about the AFP pension scheme. Chile thinks they invented, and I guess they did invent, the private pension scheme 20-plus years ago. They’re very proud of it. They think it’s been a roaring success, and I don’t disagree with that. The comments in the presidential election have come both from the contenders for the new job, as well as the existing president, Pinera. Michelle Bachelet, who was President of Chile previously and is now likely to be the winner in this coming election in November, has made some comments. And I would guess the comments are along the lines of – she wants to see contributions increase, from sort of 10% of salary to maybe something like 12%. Also, she wants to make sure that workers at sort of lower socio-economic levels, sort of itinerant workers are covered more thoroughly by the existing pension schemes. I would also say she has talked about a lot of reforms in a lot of areas of the country, and so this is one of many things that she’s focused on in her election campaigning. When we step back and think about what’s been said and sort of her track record, remember, she had been President before, so she’s a known quantity, we’re still very comfortable with the Provida acquisition and think it’s going to be very successful for us…

John Nadel – Sterne, Agee: Then the second question I just had, John, you mentioned in Corporate Benefits Funding that it was really – the investment margins expanded largely because of lower crediting rates related to capital markets-type business. Could you maybe give us more clarity there especially as it relates to – is this a lower-level crediting rate that we should expect will continue? Or is it more tied to – what is that tied to? Is it tied to LIBOR? Is it tied to rates that went the longer end of the curve? Should those crediting rates jump back up?

John C. R. Hele – EVP and CFO: Right. Well, I would view this more as a onetime opportunistic, excellent management performance by our investment team really in the quarter. Also we’ve had good derivative income across all the lines. This line also benefited from some good returns we had on our sec lending program. So a lot of the assets that we’ve loaned out in the quarter were from this group, and we had slightly higher margins than we’ve had historically. So I would not put this for a full run rate. Steve will add a little bit to this, too, as well.

Steven J. Goulart – EVP and Chief Investment Officer: Let me just add a little color; it’s Steve Goulart. We like to think of it as more than onetime too, because a lot of it was really related to just what’s happening in the capital markets. As we’ve been refinancing our funding agreement banknotes, obviously those costs are coming down, and they’re down substantially. If you look at what we refinanced in the first half of the year, in the order of $6 billion worth, it’s down 100 basis points to 150 basis points; and our asset yields are just not coming down as rapidly, so we’re seeing good margins there.

Cash Guidance

Yaron Kinar – Deutsche Bank: Couple of questions, first on cash. At $6.5 billion, even if we adjust for the Provida acquisition, it seems like cash is tracking a little bit at the high end of what you’ve guided for the end of year. So (indiscernible) maybe you had an update there.

John C. R. Hele – EVP and CFO: We’re tracking within the range we gave you on Investor Day.

Yaron Kinar – Deutsche Bank: Then on ROEs, I think, as of mid-year, you’re already in the 12.5% range. And thinking of previous guidance, which I think was 11% to 13% ex any buybacks and probably 11%-ish if rates remain low, it seems like you’re already exceeding that. So, do you have any thought as to do ROEs – or do they maintain at this level? Do you expect them to come down a bit? Maybe think about the next step of the ROE story.

John C. R. Hele – EVP and CFO: We’ve got a few impacts that will impact the future outlook for ROE. As we said, just on the call, that we expect the operating EPS to be – operating earnings to be slightly lower than the first half of the year going forward. We also have our convertible equity units coming in this fall that will add to the denominator. And, of course, we’re building capital. We’re not doing capital management actions at this time and that will build up. So, ROE will be pressured without other actions going forward, slowly over time. Contrary to this will be our ability to grow revenues faster than our expenses, which the implementation of our strategy appears to be executing so far this year.

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