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Sir Nigel Wilson has called for greater UK investment to allow early-stage businesses to rival their western counterparts, as he presented his final set of results as chief of Legal & General.
Wilson, who is due to step down in January after more than a decade leading the FTSE 100 insurer, told the Financial Times that Britain needed an “investment-led growth strategy” that included planning reform, and an answer to recent US legislation that has supported domestic industries.
“We’ve always been underinvesting compared to our peer group, and we should reverse that,” Wilson said. “We’ve always thought the UK is a great place to invest . . . we have to sell that a little bit better internationally,” he added, highlighting the UK’s creative arts sector as one example.
Wilson contrasted Britain to the US, which last year introduced the $280bn Chips and Science Act to support the semiconductor industry, and is subsidising clean energy through the Inflation Reduction Act.
Moves to open up British pension funds to invest in a wider range of assets, including start-ups, had to be met, he argued, with a “backdrop that allows people to invest in modernising the UK economy”.
The UK had mostly “missed” the post-2000 tech boom, Wilson said, but had some promising start-ups. “I’d love to look back in another 10 years and see that actually lots of scale-up businesses formed a reasonably important part of the FTSE 100.”
L&G’s first-half results revealed operating profit of £941mn, down 2 per cent year on year but beating consensus analyst expectations of £834mn, lifted by a strong market for selling individual and bulk annuities.
In the period, the group did £4.9bn of UK corporate pension deals, in which companies pay a premium to offload their pension liabilities. In the second half, L&G has completed another £1.8bn and agreed a similar amount of deals in the US since the end of June.
Analysts said the company had put up less capital against these deals than expected. “We have scope to write up to £11bn of UK [bulk annuity] volumes and for the UK annuity portfolio to be self-sustaining again in 2023, as it has been for the last three years,” L&G said.
Rising interest rates have lifted the funding levels of pension funds across the country and put many more in a position where they can do a deal with an insurer.
The surge in market activity has raised questions about the insurance sector’s capacity to swallow all these schemes, and the regulator has called for insurers to exercise moderation in how much new business they take on.
“There is plenty of business for everyone,” said Wilson, saying that the largest pension funds are likely to get “chopped up” and do deals in stages, citing its recent four-part deal to absorb the British Steel Pension Scheme.
L&G’s retail business was also “bolstered” by rising individual annuity sales. But increasing rates sapped L&G’s fund management arm, pulling the value of its assets under management down from £1.29tn in June 2022 to £1.16tn. Wilson said the business had “stabilised” and was seeing “green shoots” in sales of products such as exchange traded funds and multi-asset funds.
And the insurer fared less well in its UK protection business, with new business annual premiums falling from £85mn to £76mn in what it described as an “increasingly competitive market”.
Elsewhere, Just Group, the FTSE 250 life insurer, said in its interim results on Tuesday it was “highly confident of comfortably exceeding” its full-year operating profit target because of a buoyant market for individual and bulk annuity sales, both boosted by higher interest rates.
Just Group’s shares were 1 per cent higher in late-morning trading, while L&G’s were down 3 per cent, amid a broader decline in UK blue-chip stocks.