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A pedestrian walks past the Manulife building in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this file photo.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Finding a shareholder opposed to the international expansion of Canada's largest life insurers could be tough.

With the country's economy poised to grow slowly, low interest rates persisting and a saturated insurance market at home, global growth in emerging markets and riskier countries is one of the few ways for the life businesses to get ahead.

But broader isn't always better for Manulife Financial Corp., Sun Life Financial Inc. and Great-West Lifeco Inc., argues one credit rating agency.

"They are responding to the motivation of trying to make shareholders happy, and shareholders like growth, but that doesn't necessarily always translate into good news for bond holders," said David Beattie, vice-president at Moody's Investor Service. His report on the way life insurers are diluting their credit profiles by way of foreign expansion landed Tuesday morning.

The risk doesn't feel immediate – Sun Life and Manulife have been building their businesses in Asia since 1892 and 1897, respectively, for example – but insurers have placed more emphasis on this growth as a strategic objective in recent years. And if international earnings outstrip domestic contributions to earnings, it could have an impact on the insurance companies' credit ratings and profiles, Mr. Beattie said.

Each insurer is susceptible in a different way, since the three vary when it comes to their operations.

For Manulife, its non-U.S. international business makes up 33 per cent of earnings, according to Mr. Beattie's report using figures from 2012. Great-West is made up of 21 per cent international earnings, and Sun Life was the least dependent on its international operations at just 8 per cent.

Great-West has taken a different approach to growth than its Asia-focused, widely-traded competitors. It recently bolstered a previous Irish acquisition with a $1.75-billion deal for Irish Life Group Ltd. Mr. Beattie says that the deal exposed the company to "sovereign and economic risks" and that the acquisition weakens its overall credit rating profile.

But for now, the three life insurance giants still have considerable pricing control and scale in their home market, which is a big advantage to them. "In a Canadian context, compared to their banking peers and in a global insurance peer group, they're all highly rated, and the main pillar of supporting those high ratings is their domestic franchise," Mr. Beattie said.

While the operating environment risk may be higher abroad, there is one mitigating factor that lessens the credit concerns surrounding the insurers: The nature of the products they're selling in these geographies, are "plain Vanilla." That should reduce some of the type of earnings volatility caused over the last few years by complicated products such as variable annuities.

Still, Mr. Beattie remains wary: "It kind of offsets the operating environment risk, but to me it doesn't offset it entirely."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version incorrectly said Sun Life entered Asia in 1899. In fact, Sun Life entered Asia in 1892.