GRE earmarks pounds 1.25bn to spend on acquisitions

Guardian Royal Exchange may spend up to pounds 1.25bn on acquisitions, John Robins, the chief executive, said yesterday.

Rejecting pressure from City institutions for a share buy-back or special dividend to distribute some of the insurer's cash to investors, Mr Robins made clear he had plenty of other ideas for the money.

However, his later remarks about acquisitions depressed the shares, which had earlier risen to 295p after the publication of 1996 profits at the top end of predictions. They closed 4.5p down at 283.5p.

Analysts blamed the fall on the prospect of GRE buying a life insurance business which would require goodwill write-offs. Others said investors were worried about the length of Mr Robins' list of acquisitions and the risk of overpayment.

Mr Robins said that in the US, GRE had investigated four propositions in the last 12 months, but none had met its requirements for return on capital. Two possible purchases are under examination, in the pounds 250m to pounds 500m range.

Another area was life and health insurance in the UK, where a range of investments from pounds 500m to pounds 1bn was being studied. "We aren't prepared to overpay," Mr Robins said. Scottish Amicable, which is now being auctioned off, is outside GRE's price range.

Finally, GRE is interested in buying direct telephone selling operations, several of which are on the market, to add to its own rapidly growing business.

Mr Robins said: "Any small direct writer with fewer than 250,000 policies is not going to survive. They can't afford the information technology investment and particularly the advertising spend. You have to spend a lot of money to get the telephone ringing."

GRE could raise cash of pounds 500m, is ungeared, and could borrow pounds 750m. It would be prepared to spend pounds 750m to pounds 1.25bn on acquisitions, said Mr Robins, who added that it might decide to restrict its purchases to just one of the areas he had listed.

GRE expects UK motor premiums to rise by 8 to10 per cent on average in 1997, following an increase of 3 to 4 per cent in 1996, according to John Sinclair, executive director for the UK and Ireland.

Group trading profit before restructuring costs of pounds 39m was pounds 281m, compared with pounds 340m a year ago. Realised and unrealised investment gains were pounds 409m against pounds 472m a year earlier, giving pre-tax profits of pounds 651m against pounds 812m. The dividend was raised 11.1 per cent to 10p a share. Net asset value was 281p a share.

GRE is the only large insurer to include all investment gains and losses in its pre-tax results, but is confident others will come into line for their 1997 accounts.

Investment column, page 22