November 21, 2018 / 8:08 AM / 20 days ago

UPDATE 2-Generali puts 4 bln euros on table for growth options

* Generali to pay up to 5 bln euros in dividends to 2021

* To spend up to 4 bln euros on M&A, growth

* To grow earnings 6-8 pct a year (Recasts lead, adds manager comments, broker, shares)

By Giulio Piovaccari and Stephen Jewkes

MILAN, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Generali has earmarked up to four billion euros for acquisitions and growth as it looks to asset management and high-margin business in Latin America and Asia to fuel earnings.

Italy's top insurer -- which generates most of its revenues in Italy, France and Germany -- said in its new plan covering the next three years it was keen to strengthen its position as Europe's top player.

But it also said it was looking to expand in emerging markets where margins were higher. It said Asian and Latin America markets could provide up to 25 percent of annual earnings growth.

"Europe is a priority for M&A but we'll also look at high-potential markets if it can give us size," General Manager Frederic de Courtois told analysts.

He said deals would involve insurers and asset managers but cautioned there was no rush and nothing was currently on the table.

If suitable targets had not been found by the end of the plan then other solutions to use the capital would be considered, including a share buyback, de Courtois added.

Europe's third-biggest insurer will generate more than 10 billion euros cash in the next three years, paying 4.5-5 billion euros in dividends, cutting debt by up to 2 billion euros and deploying 3-4 billion euros for growth.

"Asset management is increasingly complementary and by the end of 2021 we will be an insurance and asset management group," Chief Executive Philippe Donnet said.

Donnet, who took over as CEO in 2016, has been selling off non-core assets over the past two years to focus on capital-light products, new services and fee-based businesses.

Generali is looking to grow its managed asset business so it can cross-sell products to its policy holders and avoid paying fees to third-party operators to boost earnings.

In September its said it was in exclusive talks to buy French asset manager Sycomore and in October agreed to buy Poland's Union Investment.

The insurer, which will grow earnings per share by 6-8 percent a year to 2021, said it expected to add 50 basis points to its Solvency II -- a key indicator of financial strength.

UBS said while Generali's new targets were positive, especially debt reduction, the group's shares rightly reflected concerns over political uncertainty.

"A high solvency ratio and healthy capital generation provide some downside protection," the broker said.

Generali holds 64 billion euros in Italian state bonds which have weighed on the group's share price in recent months as investors fret over the new populist government's deficit spending plans.

Chief Investment Officer Timothy Ryan said Generali now saw better investment opportunities in private markets rather than in government bonds.

At 1305 GMT Generali shares were up 0.7 percent in line with the European insurance sector. (Reporting by Giulio Piovaccari and Stephen Jewkes Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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