Great Eastern’s decision to hire Wee Ai Ning as its new investment head has left some people in Singapore’s insurance industry scratching their heads.

The new group chief investment officer of Singapore’s largest life insurer is an investing expert with an impressive resume. But she lacks insurance industry experience and has big shoes to fill, noted industry observers.

Wee started at Great Eastern this month, replacing Yoon Mun Thim, a respected industry veteran. She herself boasts a lot of investing knowledge, having worked for hedge fund Tudor Capital and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC.

But her lack of obvious insurance experience makes her appointment hard to understand and "most unusual", noted an investment consultant, who asked to remain anonymous.

What’s more, he said, “Mun Thim had seemed to be doing a great job and I believe is one of the best qualified insurance CIOs in the market.”

Yoon had overseen a steady rise in investment returns and assets in recent years. According to Great Eastern's financial reports, it posted net investment income of S$81.8 million ($60.7 million) in the first half of this year, and $172.1 million, S$161.1 million and S$132.5 million in 2016, 2015 and 2014 respectively. The firm's investment assets stood at S$63.7 billion as of June 30, up from S$46.3 billion as of the end of 2012.

The insurer may well believe Wee can use her array of experience to bolster its annual returns. “Perhaps the thinking is that he [Yoon] was not aggressive enough [in his investment approach], so [Wee] might spice up performance,” suggested the consultant.

In changing the person in charge of investing its $59 billion in assets under management, Great Eastern is continuing a trend over the past year. Insurers across Asia have been under pressure in recent years to achieve the competitive returns promised on universal life and other guaranteed savings products, the consultant noted.

“Being able to support those products in terms of yield requirements and capital cost and come up with new ones that are competitive is especially tricky in the current low-return market," he added. "This, along with the perennial issue of achieving consistently good performance across investment-linked portfolios, are perhaps the greatest challenges for insurance CIOs at the moment."

That has led regional insurers to seek out new ways to improve asset performance. Some, such as Hong Kong's FWD, have indicated a desire to be more nimble in their investment approach to squeeze more returns out of today’s low-yield markets.

Moreover, there has been a growing focus on multi-asset strategies in recent years, an area in which Wee is a specialist.

Great Eastern’s spokesman did not respond to emails and a voicemail seeking comment for this story.

Investment background

Yoon's departure follows a long tenure at Great Eastern. He joined the firm in 2009 from UK insurer Prudential, where he had been Malaysia CIO. He has spent some 23 years in the investment industry.

At Great Eastern, Yoon originally worked under then-chief executive Ng Keng Hooi, but the latter joined rival AIA in October 2010 and has since risen to become group CEO. Ng had also been Yoon’s colleague at Prudential in Malaysia. 

AsianInvestor could not reach Yoon for comment nor ascertain his next destination, if any, by press time.

Meanwhile, Wee was a macro hedge fund manager and Singapore CEO at Tudor Capital, according to the website of HCA Hospice Care, which lists her as a council member. She worked at the British hedge fund firm from January 2013 to December 2016, according her LinkedIn profile.

Wee was previously the head of strategic cross-asset investment at GIC, and her worked for 21 years at the fund. Her experience lies in public market investment (FX, interest rates and equities), added the HCA website.

Separately, several of Great Eastern’s peers in the region have been making big changes to their Asian investment setups.

NTUC Income, Singapore’s second biggest insurer, is merging with local firm Fullerton Fund Management, with the latter set to run its public-market portfolio, according to sources.

And AIA has been busy building a regional investment hub in Singapore, while Prudential has this year installed new CIOs in key markets including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.