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Manulife delays Asia earnings goal by two years, shares surge after earnings beat

(This Feb. 15 story has been corrected to say Asia accounts for 37% of company's core earnings, not 23%, in paragraph 4)

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's largest insurer Manulife Financial Corp on Thursday pushed back its goal for its Asia unit to account for half of its core earnings by two years to 2027, citing the pandemic and a change in accounting method.

The insurer's shares on the Toronto Stock exchange surged 7% to C$32.8, hitting their highest since 2008, after it comfortably beat core earnings estimates for the fourth quarter, powered by strength at its Asia and Canada businesses, and raised its dividend by 10%.

Asia, where Manulife operates in 13 markets with about 13 million customers, has been a strong point for the company's earnings, largely benefiting from a resurgence in mainland Chinese tourists returning to Hong Kong after pandemic restrictions were lifted and seeking insurance cover.

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Manulife set the earnings target for Asia in 2021, but since then the region has seen challenges arise as China's economy slows and the COVID recovery varied across different parts of the region. Asia accounted for 37% of the group's overall core earnings last year.

"The recovery from the pandemic has been uneven across Asia. There have been some markets that have grown and we've seen improved momentum in some key markets," the unit's head Phil Witherington told analysts.

CEO Roy Gori noted that despite the challenges, Asia still remains a core part of its growth strategy and highlighted the "tremendous growth" in North America, where 2023 core earnings rose 7% in Canada and 8% in the United States.

"We're very committed to our 50% goal and target, and we feel very confident that, that's the direction we're going in, and we'll get there," he said.

BMO Capital Markets analyst Tom MacKinnon upgraded the stock to "outperform" following the results noting higher capital generation and improving returns from its alternative assets.

(Reporting by Nivedita Balu in Toronto and Jaiveer Shekhawat in Bengaluru, Editing by Franklin Paul and Keith Weir)