Japan’s Nippon Life eyeing M&A for foreign boutique bond and alternative funds: Reuters

Japan’s Nippon Life Insurance Co [NPNLI.UL], which recently struck a deal to buy about a quarter of U.S. investment firm TCW Group, is scouting for opportunities to buy boutique managers of bonds and alternative assets, its president said.

“Asset management is a business that can generate synergy with life insurance and it needs to be operated globally. We have been looking widely for potential partners,” Yoshinobu Tsutsui told Reuters in an interview.

The bulking up of asset management overseas by Japan’s largest private-sector life insurer comes as the nation’s insurers are increasingly shifting money away from Japanese government bonds (JGBs), their main investment, into riskier but higher-yielding ones such as foreign corporate bonds to diversify their returns.

Insurers in Japan have been hurt by diminishing investment returns after the Bank of Japan launched aggressive monetary easing in April 2013.

In December, Nippon Life announced a deal to acquire 24.75 percent of TCW from private equity firm Carlyle Group LP (CG.O). Nippon Life has about 74 trillion yen ($653.25 billion) in assets.

Tsutsui said potential targets are likely to be asset management companies with bond investment expertise, as the insurer’s portfolio has been traditionally made up of fixed-income products.

He also said the company is looking for specialists in alternative investments, whose real estate and other portfolios offer diversification from conventional bond and stock investments.

“As we have to diversify investment assets globally, alternative is a very important field,” he said. “The United States has a very big and deep market for asset management. There are huge companies but there are also small but unique boutiques. We would like to keep looking there,” he said.

Tsutsui said while his company will curb fresh investment in JGBs further, U.S. interest rate rises pose a challenge to its effort to increase foreign bond holdings.

“Hedging costs will rise with U.S. rate increases, that will diminish returns (from U.S. Treasuries),” he said. Japanese insurers usually hedge against currency swings when they buy foreign assets to protect their yen-denominated value.

“There is an issue of how to build foreign bond portfolios and French government bonds are in the spotlight now,” said Tsutsui, 63, who took over the helm of the company in 2011.

Sources with the direct knowledge have said Nippon Life is in talks to buy a majority stake in the Japanese unit of U.S.-based MassMutual Financial Group in an attempt to boost its bancassurance sales.

Tsutsui declined to confirm the MassMutual talks but said his company has been searching for ways to build up domestic sales channels in addition to traditional door-to-door sales representatives.

“For bank branch sales channel, we are thinking about mergers and acquisitions,” he said.