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EARNINGS PREVIEW: Market, Economy Drive Life Insurer Results

By Erik Holm Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES TAKING THE PULSE: The rise in the stock market and the recovering economy suggest first-quarter earnings for U.S. life insurers should be strong despite the persistence of low interest rates. The strongest first quarter for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index in more than a decade will help revive the massive investment portfolios of insurers, especially those with large variable annuity books. Generally favorable domestic economic and jobs data in the first quarter suggest sales of insurance and retirement products likely improved. Consumers are more likely to buy the products when they have confidence in their overall financial situation, and sales through employer-benefit programs are driven by employment trends. But interest rates remain near all-time lows, which reduces the profits insurers can reap from their fixed-income portfolios. Still, analysts generally expect life insurers to increase the pace of their share buybacks in 2012, since they've built up substantial capital cushions since the financial crisis of 2008. COMPANIES TO WATCH: MetLife Inc. (MET) - reports May 2 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expect an operating profit of $1.25 per share. For the same period a year earlier, operating profit was $1.33 per share. Operating profit, the measure preferred by analysts, excludes some investment results. Key Issues: MetLife failed the Federal Reserve's stress test in March, meaning it won't be able to increase its dividend or buy back stock until it rids itself of its bank holding company structure later this year. Expect commentary from company executives about the stress-test failure. The company is also likely to discuss its efforts to slow sales of variable annuities after launching a new, less-generous product earlier this year. Prudential Financial Inc. (PRU) - reports May 2 Wall Street Expectations: Wall Street predicts an operating profit of $1.69 per share. Prudential earned $1.69 per share in last year's first quarter. Key Issues: Like MetLife, Prudential has refashioned its variable-annuity product, but is looking to grow other businesses in both the U.S. and Japan, it's two largest markets. Japan has grown in importance after the acquisition of two Japanese units from American International Group Inc. (AIG), and the integration of the units is expected to help the company meet its 2013 return targets. Investors will be looking to see how aggressive Prudential has been on share buybacks. Aflac Inc. (AFL) - reports April 24 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts expect operating income of $1.65 per share. A year ago, Aflac earned $1.63 per share. Key Issues: In its investment portfolio, Aflac has significantly more exposure to European financial debt than its U.S. peers, and those securities rallied in the first quarter. Some investors are hoping the company becomes more aggressive at share buybacks, though some analysts have cautioned the company may not be able to ramp up spending on repurchases. Aflac may update sales projections for WAYS, a life-insurance product it offers in Japan that was so successful last year that executives cautioned not to expect a repeat. -By Erik Holm, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2892;

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