* Manulife earnings C$0.57 per share vs forecast of C$0.55
* Sun Life earnings C$1.12 vs forecast of C$0.97
* Sun Life CEO says Asian business growing rapidly (Adds comment from Sun Life CEO, analyst, paragraphs 5-13)
By Matt Scuffham
TORONTO, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Two of Canada's biggest insurance companies on Wednesday reported second-quarter earnings that beat market expectations, benefiting in part from strong growth in Asia.
Canadian insurance companies are expanding rapidly in Asia, selling products to the rapidly growing middle class. The strategy is helping the firms drive growth and diversify from domestic markets where competition is intense.
Canada's biggest life insurer Manulife Financial Corp reported core earnings of C$1.17 billion ($922 million), or 57 Canadian cents per share, for the second quarter, compared with C$833 million, or 40 cents a share the year before.
Analysts on average had expected earnings of 55 Canadian cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S data.
Manulife said the increase in core earnings incorporated investment gains of C$154 million and an increase of C$187 million driven by strong new business growth in Asia, higher fee income from its wealth and asset management businesses and a reduction in hedging costs.
Sun Life, Canada's third-biggest life insurer, reported net income of C$574 million ($452 million), or 93 Canadian cents per share, in the second quarter, compared with C$480 million, or 78 cents per share in the same period the year before. Analysts on average had forecast earnings of 89 Canadian cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S data.
Underlying earnings per share, excluding one-off items, came in at C$1.12 per share, compared with analysts forecasts of 97 cents per share.
"After missing expectations in the previous two quarters, we believe that the significant beat should be well received by investors," said Barclays analyst John Aiken.
Investors are buying into Canadian insurers as a better bet to benefit from higher interest rates than the country's banks, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
Sun Life said net income from its Asian business increased to C$77 million from C$68 million the year before.
"Asia has been growing rapidly," Chief Executive Officer Dean Connor said in an interview. "Earnings have essentially tripled over the past five years and we expect to see continued strong growth in Asia."
Connor said the company's businesses in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia and India had all performed strongly.
Sun Life also announced plans to repurchase up to 11.5 million shares, representing about 1.9 percent of its outstanding shares.
$1 = 1.2696 Canadian dollars Reporting by Matt Scuffham; Editing by Leslie Adler, Phil Berlowitz and David Gregorio