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Hartford bows to Paulson, to sell most life units

The Hartford Financial Services Group (HIG-N) yielded to demands from its biggest shareholder, famed hedge fund manager John Paulson, and said on Wednesday that it would get rid of most of its life insurance-related operations.

The Hartford, one of the oldest companies in the United States and one of three insurers to get a government bailout during the financial crisis, said it would shut down its annuity business and pursue a sale or other options for its individual life insurance, retirement plan and broker/dealer businesses.

The surprise decision, announced well before sunrise, caps a tumultuous six weeks for the Hartford, whose shares rose nearly 4 percent in premarket trading.

The company's problems started on Feb. 8, when Paulson screamed at management on a quarterly earnings call that the Hartford had to do something "drastic" to improve its industry-low valuations.

Paulson subsequently pushed publicly for a split of the life and property insurance businesses, a move that most analysts agreed with in theory but said would be financially difficult in practice.

The Hartford said it would now focus on its property and casualty, group benefits and mutual fund businesses. It will keep writing business in the for-sale units while it pursues a deal or deals.

"Individual Life, Woodbury Financial Services and Retirement Plans are strong businesses with distinct market positions and talented employees, but they do not align with our go-forward focus," Chief Financial Officer Christopher Swift said in a statement.

Hartford said it would stop new annuity sales from April 27 and take a related after-tax charge of $15 million to $20 million US in the second quarter. The company was once one of the largest annuity producers in the country, but grew more conservative after the crisis and was not even in the top 20 in the most recent industry rankings.

At Tuesday's close, the stock had risen 13.5 percent since Paulson began his breakup push, far outperforming a 2.7 percent gain for the broader industry index.

Still, the Hartford has a sharply lower valuation than peers, trading at a fraction of its book value. Paulson had suggested his breakup plan could boost the stock by as much as 60 percent.

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