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Exteriors of the Sun Life Financial office building at 150 King St. West photographed Feb. 24 2014. Sun Life will be moving it's staff from this current location to a new one down the road.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Sun Life Financial Inc.'s profits climbed slightly in the first quarter and the insurer increased its dividend for the first time since before the financial crisis.

The Toronto-based company's profit was $441-million, or 72 cents a share, in the quarter ended March 31. That compared with $400-million, or 65 cents, in the same time in 2014.

Sun Life, which is now 150 years old, said it would boost its quarterly dividend by 6 per cent, or two cents, to 38 cents a common share. The company never trimmed its dividend during the financial turmoil and this is the first dividend increase since early 2008. The increase was based on the company's solid profits and business momentum, Sun Life's chief executive officer Dean Connor said in a statement.

Sun Life calculates its performance with an "underlying" profit figure, used to show results without the impact of such items as interest rates, equity-market movements and some other considerations. On that basis, the insurer earned $516-million or 84 cents a share, compared with $440-million, or 72 cents, in the same period a year earlier. Analysts estimates were for 78 cents a share.

Like other large life insurers, Sun Life has been bolstering its wealth management business amid persistent low interest rates, changing regulations and demographic shifts. Mr. Connor said the company's asset management arm, Sun Life Global Investments, "performed well, delivering strong investment performance results to customers and expanding its product shelf," Mr. Connor said.

The company reported another record quarter of assets under management and now oversees of $813-billion, up from $676-billion at the end of the first quarter in 2014. Mr. Connor attributed the 20-per-cent increase in part to a stronger U.S. dollar.

While assets under management rose to $441-billion (U.S.) at MFS Investment Management, Sun Life's U.S.-based asset manager, the business reported $200-million in outflows of money from its funds in the quarter. Still, these sales figures were an improvement from the $2-billion negative net sales figure in each of the third and fourth quarters of last year. The business has struggled to grow its net sales as many large investors increasingly look to passive investing and rotate from equity investments holdings into fixed income, the company has said.

In Asia, Mr. Connor said Sun Life's business "continued its steep growth trajectory," as individual insurance sales increased 15 per cent from last year, removing the benefit of currency fluctuations. The insurer plans to earn $225-million (Canadian) in the region by the end of 2015, which it has identified as "an ambitious goal."

In Canada, Sun Life increased sales of its life and health insurance products by 3 per cent in the quarter. Sun Life also highlighted its deal with BCE Inc. to take on about $5-billion in pension risk, in case the plan's beneficiaries live longer than expected. This longevity insurance agreement helped strengthen Sun Life's position as a leader in helping Canadian pension funds transfer their risk, the company said.

Follow Jacqueline Nelson on Twitter: @j2nelsonOpens in a new window

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