July 30, 2020 / 8:37 AM / 6 days ago

UPDATE 3-Generali still on lookout for M&A bargains despite lower profits

* H1 net profit down 56.7% to 774 million euros

* Hit by COVID-related impairments, arbitration settlement

* Shares down 4.5% (Adds CEO comments, shares)

By Gianluca Semeraro

MILAN, July 30 (Reuters) - Insurer Generali expects lower profits this year after COVID-19 hit first-half results, but will still keep an eye open for M&A opportunities that might arise from the crisis, it said on Thursday.

Italy's biggest insurance company has 2-3 billion euros ($2.4-$3.5 billion) available for possible M&A deals, Chief Executive Philippe Donnet told a press briefing.

"Our priority for M&A in the insurance sector is Europe, while we look at the United States and Asia in asset management", he said.

Last month Generali agreed to buy 24.4% of smaller rival Cattolica and sources said it had also approached U.S. asset management firm Brightsphere Investment Group about a possible acquisition.

"Except for the Cattolica investment, we have nothing serious," Donnet told analysts when asked about M&A.

The tie up with Cattolica, which will turn Generali into the group's single-biggest shareholder, leapfrogging Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, will cost around 350 million euros for the 24.4% stake.

The deal, dependent on Cattolica shareholders voting to change company status from cooperative to joint stock company, will also include partnerships in asset management, the internet of things, healthcare and reinsurance.

"I do not expect any antitrust issues at this stage," Donnet said.

Net profit for this year is expected to fall from 2019 after dropping 56.7% to 774 million euros in the first half, reflecting COVID-related impairments of 226 million euros and a loss of 183 million from an arbitration settlement.

The net operating result, closely watched by the market, stood at 2.71 billion euros and is also expected to fall short of last year, Donnet said.

Generali shares were down 4.5% in afternoon trade.

Donnet said the company was committed to paying the second tranche of its 2019 dividend, delayed in the face of calls by industry regulator EIOPA, later this year.

He said the board would make its assessments in November but did not see any reason not to pay the dividend.

Asked about the regulatory backdrop on dividends, Donnet said "as far as I know, the regulator is still in the same mood which is to recommend extreme prudence in the way we manage capital and dividends."

$1 = 0.8505 euros Additional reporting by Stephen Jewkes; Editing by David Holmes and Mark Potter

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