BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) -- Ping An Insurance Group Co of China Ltd , China's largest insurer by market value, expects the coronavirus outbreak to affect its business in the first half due to a slowdown in agent-driven sales, a top executive said on Friday.
The virus has killed more than 2,100 people and infected nearly 75,000 in China. The outbreak has upended global supply chains and caused widespread disruption to businesses and factory activity in China.
"The impact particularly will be in the first half of the year, given that the bulk of our business ... is driven primarily by agents. There are guidelines that they can't visit customers," Ping An co-Chief Executive Jessica Tan told Reuters.
"We, as well as the rest of the industry, are trying to accelerate the transition to work in a new model whereby the agents are unable the visit the customers and yet you able to maintain your business. Clearly, that's very challenging."
Tan, who declined to give specific guidance, said she expected the business to bounce back in the second half of the year on the back of a likely recovery in the world's second-largest economy.
Separately, Ping An said in its annual report on Thursday the virus "may affect the quality or the yields" of credit assets and investment assets, adding that the extent of the impact would depend partly on how long the epidemic lasts.
Insurers in China, the world's third-largest insurance market, still generate most of their sales via millions of agents across the country, even as product distribution through digital channels has been gradually growing.
Rating agency Fitch said in a Jan. 30 report that the virus outbreak would dampen business activities and premium growth for the life and non-life sectors in China due to a fall in sales by agents as clients look to minimise the chance of infection.
Ping An, seen by local regulators as the only Asian insurer of global stature, on Thursday reported a 39% rise in its 2019 net profit to 149.4 billion yuan ($21.3 billion).
That was below an estimate of 157.6 billion yuan, according to a Refinitiv-compiled SmartEstimate based on a survey of analysts.
The company's total investment income from its life and health insurance businesses, which account for the bulk of its profits, more than doubled last year to 175 billion yuan on the back of a strong capital market recovery.