May 16, 2019 / 6:15 AM / 4 days ago

Insurer Just Group shares tumble as first-quarter sales drop, shuts U.S. business

LONDON (Reuters) - Shares in specialist pension provider Just Group fell more than 7% on Thursday after it posted a 59% drop in first-quarter sales and said it would shut its loss-making U.S. operations as part of a cost-cutting programme.

Just Group, which specialises in annuities for people with a reduced life expectancy, has been suffering from the prospect of new rules from Britain’s Prudential Regulation Authority requiring more capital to be put behind lifetime mortgages, one of its key products. The rules come into force later this year.

Chief Executive Rodney Cook stood down last month, following the departure last year of the company’s chief financial officer.

Just Group in March announced a discounted share issue, raised 375 million pounds in capital, and cancelled its 2018 dividend after delaying it last year. It also pushed back its capital breakeven point by a number of years to 2022.

“We have a plan in place to ensure we achieve this (breakeven) target, which includes a number of actions we will be taking over the course of this year,” Interim Group Chief Executive David Richardson said in a statement.

In addition to cutting loss-making business such as the United States, Just Group said it would focus more on cost control and using capital-efficient assets.

Just Group’s shares, which hit record lows last month, were trading at 60.3 pence at 0712 GMT, taking it to the bottom of the FTSE mid-cap index

Analysts at KBW reiterated their “market perform” rating on the stock, though they highlighted sales below their expectations and “further fallout from regulation changes”.

Before Thursday’s announcement, Just Group’s combined credit score - which measures how likely a company is to default in the next year on a scale of 100 (very unlikely) to 1 (highly likely) - was “4”, Refinitiv Eikon data showed.

Analysts have speculated Just Group could be a takeover target.

Retirement income sales fell to 184 million pounds as bulk annuities - insurance of company defined benefit, or final salary pension schemes - dropped 90 percent to 26 million pounds.

However, Just Group said it had already completed bulk annuity deals totalling more than 300 million pounds in the second quarter.

Individual sales of annuities, pensions which pay a fixed income for life, fell 23% to 145 million pounds and lifetime mortgage sales dropped 47% to 79 million pounds.

Lifetime or equity release mortgages enable home-owners to borrow against the value of their property, a loan which is paid back when they die.

Additional reporting by Noor Zainab Hussain; Editing by Rachel Armstrong and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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