The recently renamed Hanwha Life has dipped its toe in London’s property market, as Korean insurers face up to diminishing domestic real estate investment opportunities at home.
Hanwha Life is Korea’s second largest life insurer with over $60 billion in AUM. It was formerly Korea Life, which was established in 1946 as the nation’s first life insurer. But the company had to be bailed out by the government during the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis.
Family conglomerate Hanwha Group acquired a 51% stake in Korea Life from the government in 2002 and the insurer was renamed Hanwha Life in an official ceremony just this month.
In August the firm moved to buy the headquarters building of international law firm Eversheds in Wood Street, London, note sources. This is a commercial premises of 16,500 square metres and 100% occupancy; the price was reportedly $224 million.
While Hanwha has not explained its rationale for the acquisition, market sources indicate it is to provide a steady rental income stream, which on average is 2-3% higher in major overseas cities than in Seoul. It has plans to buy real estate in other global centres, including Paris and Sydney.
Similarly, Samsung Life, the nation’s largest life insurer with more than $150 billion in AUM, has also shown interest in buying a commercial property in London (it already has a rep office there), as it has in China and elsewhere in Asia.
While Korea’s life insurance industry has doubled in terms of asset size to $360 billion over the past five years, a domestic housing slump has caused a dip in property investment opportunities.
It comes at a time when Korean asset managers are finding high-yielding assets hard to come by in the low interest-rate environment.
The thinking is that if Korean life insurers cannot find viable direct investments in overseas property markets, they will turn to real estate funds and private equity to boost returns.
Separately, the Korea Depository Insurance Corporation has announced plans to sell its 24.8% stake in Hanwha Life as it seeks to retrieve funds it injected into the cash-strapped firm during the Asian financial crisis, The Korea Times reported.