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Surfing Coattails Across the Pacific

By Ari Charney on October 8, 2015

Every trade deal has winners and losers–along with the usual swarm of lobbyists and activists hoping to be among the former instead of the latter.

As investors, we don’t have a seat at the bargaining table, unless one of our companies has a skilled lobbyist who has the ear of negotiators.

Otherwise, we’re essentially sidelined, while our ruling class and the jetsetters of the global elite swan around in luxury hotels on our tab deciding which industries will be favored by the future flow of capital.

That means the deals that get struck can sometimes sting our favorite companies. At the same time, trade pacts can also create new growth opportunities.

After six years of discussions and 19 formal rounds of negotiations, 12 countries from around the Pacific Rim, including Canada, finally came to an agreement this week on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The broad aim of the TPP is to ease trade by slashing tariffs and establishing a framework for brokering disputes.

From Canada’s perspective, the biggest winner is likely to be the financial services sector, particularly insurers. That’s because insurance has relatively low market penetration in a number of countries in the developing world.

But demand for coverage is rapidly rising among the burgeoning middle class in these countries, including TPP signatories Malaysia and Vietnam. And these fast-growing markets will now be more open to Canadian insurers, such as Manulife Financial Corp. (TSX: MFC, NYSE: MFC) and Sun Life Financial Inc. (TSX: SLF, NYSE: SLF), than they were previously.

In addition to providing greater access to these markets, the TPP also will help Canadian insurers compete on a level playing field against domestic state-owned enterprises. At least, that’s the hope.

But even without the TPP, both Manulife and Sun Life have strong growth trajectories ahead, despite near-term revenue challenges.

Analysts forecast Manulife’s adjusted earnings per share will grow 18% year over year, to CAD2.06, in 2016 and a further 10% in 2017, to CAD2.26.

Naturally, earnings growth will flow through to the dividend, which is projected to rise another 23.5% over the next two years, to CAD$0.84 annualized.

Consequently, Manulife boasts overwhelmingly bullish sentiment from analysts, at 18 “buys,” two “holds,” and one “sell.” The consensus target price is CAD26.27, which suggests potential appreciation of 21.5% above the current share price.

Manulife already has a long history in Asia, dating back to 1897. And its Asia segment accounted for nearly 22% of revenue last year, while net premiums earned from the region were 40.7% of the firm’s total. That’s a strong foothold that should facilitate further expansion there.

Manulife has a forward yield of 3.2%.

Similarly, Sun Life’s earnings per share are expected to grow 8% year over year, to CAD3.88, in 2016 and another 11%, to CAD4.32, the following year.

And its dividend is forecast to climb 17.1%, to CAD1.78, over the next two years.

Sun Life also enjoys bullish sentiment on Bay Street, at 13 “buys,” five “holds,” and one “sell.”

But the stock has been steadier than Manulife this year and, therefore, trades closer to fair value. The consensus 12-month target price is CAD48.14, which suggests potential appreciation of 7.8% above the current share price.

Sun Life has a smaller presence in Asia than Manulife. Its Asia segment accounted for just 7.2% of revenue last year and 9.7% of profits. But that also means it has more room to grow in the region.

Sun Life has a forward yield of 3.4%.

Although the terms of the TPP have been finalized, the pact still has to be ratified by each member nation’s legislature, a process that could take as long as two years. No doubt these insurers are thinking, “Faster, please!”

By the way, if you like high yielders at bargain prices, then be sure to check out the next issue of Canadian Edge, coming Tuesday, for a stock with a nearly 7% yield underpinned by its critical role in feeding the world’s growing population.

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