MetLife Investment Management has won approval to provide asset management services in Hong Kong and assembled a team to run portfolios for clients in the city, AsianInvestor can reveal.

The development marks the passing of an important milestone for the firm, part of US insurer MetLife, as it looks to expand its Asian client base.

“Now that we have our Hong Kong licence we plan on adding sales, client service and compliance staff to amplify our global insurance and pension fund expertise on the ground,” Steve Goulart, chief investment officer of MetLife, told AsianInvestor.

He said the firm expected to see demand from Hong Kong institutional investors for long-term private asset investment opportunities, particularly dollar-denominated investments in private placements of corporate and infrastructure debt, and commercial mortgages. These are areas in which Korean and Japanese asset owners are showing a lot of interest.

Goulart had outlined the firm’s expansion plans in June, which included the hiring of a senior sales executive and support individual.

Interestingly, MetLife IM’s Asia buildout comes as its parent reportedly seeks a buyer for its Hong Kong insurance unit at a time when such businesses are attracting high valuations. French insurer Axa and Boston-based MassMutual are both also looking to divest assets in Hong Kong.

A second MetLife spokesman said the firm would not comment on market speculation, but noted that Asia is the largest retail insurance business for MetLife globally and that the firm is committed to building its business in the region.

The newly licensed MetLife IM team comprises existing staff from MetLife Investments Asia, of which MetLife IM is an operating company, and will service external clients in addition to running the general account portfolio for the parent group.

MetLife IM and five team members received their licences on January 3.

  • Charles Scully, MetLife’s Asia chief investment officer since 2011, heads the team. Prior to this role, he was the head and portfolio manager for MetLife’s structured finance business in the US.
  • Pu Jingsu remains Asia head of portfolio management, a role he has held since 2016, before which he oversaw portfolio management and asset-liability management for MetLife’s US retail insurance business.
  • Jeremy Lee is Asia head of trading, before which he was a senior fixed-income credit analyst experienced covering multiple industries.
  • Fu Bei is Asia-Pacific head of credit and trading. Before joining MetLife in January 2015, she was a senior director at rating agency Standard & Poor’s in Hong Kong.
  • Andrew Chong is an assistant trader and fixed income credit analyst covering corporate names in Australia, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

MetLife IM has $583 billion under management globally, of which the general account insurance assets made up $422 billion as of September 30. Asia Pacific comprises around $100 billion of the general account assets, with Japan accounting for the bulk of that figure.

ASIAN PUSH 

MetLife IM started marketing to institutional investors in Asia in 2014 and has so far attracted $2 billion-worth of mandates, largely to run private debt strategies for clients in Korea and Japan.

Back in June the firm had been at an advanced stage of pitching for a further $3 billion in portfolios from Asian clients. At the time Goulart told AsianInvestor MetLife was aiming to manage $10 billion sourced from the region within three years, with assets expected to grow faster in Asia than elsewhere.

He declined to detail how that push for new mandates had since progressed but said it was in line with expectations.

MetLife IM hired its first two salespeople in Tokyo last year, having obtained a licence there in April 2016. But it does not yet have a licence or salespeople in Seoul; it serves Korean clients from the US, though it plans to put people on the ground there at some point, Goulart said.

China is also a market that MetLife IM is keeping a close eye on. While it has no immediate plans to seek a mainland licence or set up an office there, it remains open to exploring ways to penetrate the market, he said.

This article includes reporting by Richard Morrow.