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Insurer AIA launches $10-billion buyback on strong 2021 growth

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(Corrects spelling of dividend in last paragraph)

(Reuters) - AIA Group Ltd on Friday launched a $10 billion share buyback plan and declared a higher final dividend on strong growth in 2021, but warned of near-term pain from a recent outbreak of coronavirus infections in Hong Kong.

The Asia-focussed insurer's value of new business or VONB, which measures expected profit from new premiums and is a key gauge for future growth, rose to $3.37 billion for the year ended Dec. 31, from $2.77 billion a year earlier.

China and Hong Kong accounted for about half of new business growth globally. Mainland China business was the top contributor to VONB, logging a 14% growth, while its Hong Kong business jumped 37%, indicating strong recovery from the pandemic-lows.

Better operating conditions for the Hong Kong-based insurer, which relies on its army of agents, prompted it to announce the buyback plan spread over the next three years.

"The share buyback represents capital accumulated over time that is surplus to our needs, allowing for capital market stress conditions and retention of capital for strategic and financial flexibility," Group Chief Executive Officer Lee Yuan Siong said.

However, the company warned that the recent outbreak of the Omicron variant, especially in Hong Kong, is affecting its new business sales, particularly in the first quarter.

Over the past few weeks, Hong Kong has seen some of the most draconian curbs in place to combat a record surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. China has also seen a rise of locally transmitted coronavirus infections recently.

AIA also declared a final dividend of 108 Hong Kong cents per share, 8% higher than last year, taking the total 2021 dividend to 146 HK cents apiece.

(Reporting by Selena Li in Hong Kong and Sameer Manekar in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur)

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