(Recasts lead, adds management, broker comments)
By Stephen Jewkes and Gianluca Semeraro
MILAN, May 14 (Reuters) - Italian insurer Generali’s first-quarter operating profit rose 6 percent to top forecasts as growth in its life business offset a fall in non-life activity.
Europe’s No. 3 insurer said the figure stood at 1.326 billion euros ($1.5 billion) - its best quarterly result in seven years and above an analyst poll of 1.28 billion euros.
Premiums in the first three months of the year rose 8.3 percent to 20.1 billion euros, driven by a 12.7 percent growth in its life business, and especially unit-linked policies.
A Milan-based broker said the results were better than expected with operating profits benefiting from stronger financial markets.
At 0740 GMT Generali shares were up 1.1 percent while the Italian blue-chip index was down 0.6 percent.
Like its rivals, Generali has been faced with weak economic growth in its domestic market and rock-bottom interest rates that have eaten away at investment returns.
Under pressure to boost profitability and cash generation, it has bolstered its balance sheet by trimming costs and selling assets, meeting a number of recovery targets early.
In March, Chief Executive Mario Greco said the group was looking to gradually increase its dividend over the next few years.
“It’s a good start to the year and augurs well for the rest of the year,” Generali CFO Alberto Minali said in a conference call.
Italy’s biggest insurer said its closely-watched Solvency I ratio - an indication of financial strength - stood at 168 percent at the end of March, up from 156 percent at the end of 2014.
He said the group would provide insight as regards new Solvency II rules at its Investor Day later in May.
“The position is more than adequate,” he said.
Asked about the company’s 38.5 percent stake in Russia’s Ingosstrakh, with a book value of 230 million euros, Minali said the investment was not core.
“It’s a stake we hold and then we’ll see what to do with it,” he said.
$1 = 0.8797 euros Reporting by Stephen Jewkes; Editing by Valentina Za and Vincent Baby