Insurer aims to double excess cash to satisfy hungry investors

INSURANCE giant Aviva cheered the market with upbeat first half results as the firm puts the difficulties of the past few years behind it.

The Aviva building in Norwich

The company reported a four per cent rise in operating profit to £1.05bn in the six months to June 30.

The group had a number of issues to cope with including a £60m bill for flood and storm damage.

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It also had to deal with surprise reform of annuity rules which were announced in the Budget earlier this year.

On top of this the strength of the pound also had an adverse impact.

Aviva, which provides motor, home, travel and life insurance, has been cutting costs by laying off staff, spinning off some businesses and making changes at its asset management arm.

Richard Hunter, head of equities at Hargreaves Lansdown Stockbrokers, said: “Aviva remains firmly on the road to recovery, working hard to make its relatively recent travails a distant memory.

“The strategy of cost containment, disposal of non-core assets and debt reduction are continuing to show signs of progress.

“The longer term story of the population being increasingly responsible for its retirement welfare remains intact.

“The company has seen a rise in bulk annuities although set against this was a sharp drop in individual annuities following the Budget.”

The group was hit by the Chancellor’s surprise Budget announcement that pensioners no longer have to buy an annuity to draw their pensions.

In Aviva’s UK life and pensions division, the value of new business was down 21​ per cent​ in the half year to £177m, reflecting a 41​ per cent​ reduction in annuity sales following the reforms.

Aviva also reported a general market decline as customers choose to defer taking their pension.

Chief executive Mark Wilson admitted the overhaul by the Chancellor was a surprise​,​ but that the group ​i​s working to take advantage of the changes.

“We are supportive of the increased flexibility. We think it’s good for customers. We’re pretty well placed.

“It provides opportunity for new products and we’ve developed those, new ways of distribution and we are developing those as well.”

Aviva has 2,000 staff at its life headquarters in York, and it also employs 1,500 people in Sheffield.​

​I​n the UK general insurance business, weather claims were bigger than last year but “marginally favourable” against the long-term average.

Mr Wilson took charge in January last year after the departure of Andrew Moss in the wake of a shareholder revolt over his pay and the faltering pace of the business.

Since then the group has cut hundreds of jobs and has disposed of several businesses as part of its turnaround strat- egy.

Across the group, he expects to have cut £568m​ a year from expenses by the end of this year, ahead of the £400​m target set in 2012. “All of our key metrics have moved in the right direction despite some challenges,” said Mr Wilson.

“It’s true that the businesses are gaining traction, that the turnaround momentum continues, but it’s also true that we still have quite a few issues, so we remain a turnaround.

“We are still some distance from where I believe our potential is.”

Analyst Eamonn Flanagan at Shore Capital said: “Aviva reported a good set of 2014 interims which were broadly in line with our expectations at the profits level.

“The results were ahead of market’s expectations on each of the financial metrics, especially on new business growth and profitability.”