ING Group's joint bid with WellPoint Health Networks Inc. to buy Aetna Inc. may be just the start of a buying spree by the Dutch financial group in both the United States and Europe, analysts said.
ING has made no secret of its intent to buy a significant share of the U.S. insurance market. Its goal, analysts said, is to acquire its way into the top 10 in U.S. life insurance. Analysts predicted that the $383 billion-asset Amsterdam-based group could follow with bids for a handful of U.S. insurers - even on top of buying Aetna.
"They have big plans to spend a lot of money on U.S. life insurance companies," said Alistair Smith, a banking and insurance analyst with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. in London. "They're looking at a lot of companies."
Analysts consider European financial companies to be among the likeliest bidders for U.S. insurers. One reason is that European financial institutions such as ING, ABN Amro NV and Amsterdam based Aegon NV combine banking and insurance. Their expertise makes them better bidders than U.S. banking companies, and their size gives them an advantage over many U.S. insurers.
"U.S. insurance companies have concentrated on their backyard but the result is that there are no U.S. players with significant operations who can match the big Europeans," said Lewis Phillips, an analyst for Fox-Pitt, Kelton in London.
Analysts mentioned Jefferson-Pilot Corp. of Greenboro, N.C., Lincoln National Corp of Fort Wayne, Ind., and Hartford Life Inc. of Simsbury, Conn., as possible targets. Neither Jefferson-Pilot nor Lincoln National are near $10 billion in market value - the $10.5 billion bid for Aetna includes its health management business - while ING is believed to have $15 billion set aside just for acquisitions.
In Europe, ING has set its sights on banking companies, late last year launching and then aborting a bid of about 10 billion euros for the French bank CCF. Reuters reported that analysts in Europe believe ING could still pull off that deal after buying Aetna, if necessary by selling off its stakes of 17% in ABN Amro, 15% in Fortis, and 6% in Aegon to fund a deal.