When I wrote to you last year, our team was excited about the year ahead. We were focused on implementing plans to build on our positive momentum and to continue our transformation into the most digital, customer-centric global company in our industry. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, our focus quickly shifted to two key objectives: ensuring the health and safety of our team and supporting our customers, who needed us more than ever.
The pandemic has tested us all, brought heartbreak and loss to people around the world, and challenged our resilience and determination. At the same time, it has reminded us of the power of community and the importance of gratitude and empathy.
It’s why, before talking more specifically about our company, I want to express tremendous gratitude to all those who have been caring for the sick, ensuring the availability of food and supplies, developing and distributing vaccines, keeping our communities running, and doing so much more. On behalf of all of us at Manulife, thank you for your incredible dedication and selflessness. We are in this together, and we remain committed to supporting the communities where we live and work globally, much as we did throughout 2020.
From concerns about how to protect their savings and investments, to securing products that would help with their medical needs and well-being, to enduring the devastating loss of a loved one, our customers turned to us in record numbers during this difficult time. In keeping with our mission — decisions made easier, lives made better — we helped customers who were stranded while travelling, we re-allocated business teams to handle increased call volumes, and we proactively extended grace periods for certain premium and mortgage payments.
Understanding it was more important than ever to help our customers improve and protect their health, we grew our behavioural insurance offerings, which support them in taking actions to live healthier lives. We expanded the range of wearable devices offered by John Hancock Vitality in the U.S., increased reward opportunities for Manulife Vitality customers in Canada, and added Health Score, a health assessment tool for ManulifeMOVE in Asia.
Fortunately, as part of our digital transformation, we invested heavily in technology and services leading up to 2020. Our digital tools and contact centre teams were ready to help answer customers’ questions, process claims, and provide prospective customers with information about products and solutions remotely and quickly. We also accelerated the delivery of new digital capabilities to support virtual sales and to enhance the overall customer and advisor experience, including new eForms and Virtual Assistants.
Since many markets where we operate require meeting in-person to complete product purchases, we worked with local regulators to quickly find new ways to safely and simply connect with our distribution partners, agents, and customers. The impact these changes have had on our ability to serve our customers and make lives better has been tremendous, and we are grateful for the openness these regulators showed to new digital approaches. Once customers had the chance to interact with us in these new ways, many told us they welcomed the new speed and flexibility. As a result of these innovative efforts, a large majority of our products are now available via virtual face-to-face methods.
We also took this opportunity to accelerate our digital innovation efforts in many other areas of our business, expanding automatic underwriting, introducing a new claims system for our group benefits customers in Canada, further automating payments, and driving more straight-through processing. We made many other changes in response to customer feedback to enhance their overall experience as well. All these efforts contributed to a four-point increase in 2020 in our net promoter score, the indicator of how likely a customer is to recommend our company to others.
The strategy we embarked on a few years ago gave us a strong foundation to weather the extraordinary headwinds we faced last year. Thanks to the priority we had placed on investing in our technology and digital infrastructure, and strong focus on business continuity planning, when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March, we were able to rapidly pivot to having 95% of our global team working remotely.
Having worked over the past several years to embrace a culture of strong cost stewardship, we achieved $1 billion of sustainable expense efficiencies, reaching our 2022 target two years ahead of schedule. We prioritized optimizing our legacy portfolio, which is reflected in the release of $5.9 billion of capital since 2018 and has further strengthened our capital position.
Thanks to all of these efforts and, most importantly, the continued trust of our customers, we achieved net income attributable to shareholders of $5.9 billion in 2020, up $0.3 billion from 2019. We delivered core earnings of $5.5 billion, a decrease of 9% compared with 2019, a resilient performance that reflects the diversity of our franchise and robust demand for our products. In addition, our assets under management and administration continued to grow, finishing the year at $1.3 trillion, up 10% from last year.
We maintained a focus on Asia and Global Wealth and Asset Management, two of our highest potential businesses. In Asia, we extended our bancassurance agreement with Bank Danamon Indonesia to 2036. We signed an agreement to establish an exclusive, 16-year bancassurance partnership with VietinBank, one of Vietnam’s largest banks, and agreed to purchase Aviva plc’s Vietnam insurance operations, both of which will strengthen our leadership position in this fast-growing market. At the same time, our insurance agency force across Asia grew by 21% and now exceeds 115,000 agents focused on serving our customers in some of Asia’s fastest-growing markets. In our Global Wealth and Asset Management business, we completed the formation of our retail and institutional joint venture with Mahindra Finance in India and acquired a minority stake in Albamen Capital Partners, a private equity infrastructure investment manager with a focus on assets in mainland China. In addition, we announced a strategic alliance with Allianz Global Investors, strengthening our position as the largest Hong Kong Mandatory Provident Fund scheme sponsor.
The fundamentals underpinning our global franchise remain strong and we expect future demand for our products and services will remain robust, supported by macroeconomic and demographic megatrends, such as the rise of Asia’s middle class and the aging global population. The pandemic has changed many attitudes regarding risk, which led more people to examine or purchase insurance and wealth products to help them prepare for the future and care for loved ones.
Throughout the pandemic I have been repeatedly awed by the incredible heart, passion, and “can do” spirit of our team. Our values were on display every day and helped us frame the many decisions we made throughout this challenging time. Early on, we knew some members of our team needed to have the support of additional time off to care for family or their own well-being and we responded with additional paid leave. We recognized that so many of our people were challenged to do their work while caring for their children and adopted flexible schedules to accommodate their needs. Managers were provided with additional support to help coach and lead remotely.
Knowing our teammates’ children needed something to look forward to, we launched a virtual summer camp followed by after-school clubs. We also provided a range of speakers, entertainment, and virtual parties for everyone on our team, including their families.
Along the way, we made it a priority to say “thank you” and recognize each other through a new company-wide program in which everyone can celebrate colleagues for their help, hard work, and for living our values. This struck a chord with nearly 400,000 recognition moments in just a few months. To take it one step further, we gave everyone a thank-you day off in June and five additional personal paid days off in 2021 to rest, recharge, and have some fun. As 2020 came to an end, we gave every member of our team a grant to fund an “Act of Kindness” to help those in need in their local community.
Besides dealing with the impacts of the pandemic, we also made it a priority to ensure our company is a place where everyone feels they can be authentic, respected for who they are, and included. We committed to invest more than $3.5 million over the next two years to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion through expanded hiring commitments, education, and community support for organizations helping Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour.
Most heartening was how our actions were appreciated by our high-performing team, as we earned outstanding scores on our annual engagement survey and were voted one of the world’s best employers by Forbes, ranking in the top 100. Our team and culture have evolved in a very positive and powerful way in 2020, and its growing strength remains critical to our long-term success.
Making sustainable business decisions is more than just the right thing to do — it creates long-term value for our stakeholders and communities. For us, this means working towards measuring and evaluating our practices by integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors across our business, from supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy to investing in the health and well-being of our team and our communities.
We are maintaining our focus on climate change and remain steadfast in our commitment to investing in the transition to a low-carbon economy. As the world’s largest institutional timberland investment manager and one of the largest farmland investment managers, we are actively contributing nature-based solutions to this challenge. We have achieved green building certifications for over 80% of our real estate portfolio managed by Global Wealth and Asset Management. Our own portfolio of green investments totalled $29.2 billion at the end of 2020, including renewable energy, energy efficiency, green buildings, and sustainably managed timberland and farmland.
The world’s leading proponent of responsible investment, the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), included Manulife Investment Management in their PRI Leaders’ Group 2020, recognizing our efforts to integrate climate data and analysis into these portfolios. We offer our investment clients “sustainability as standard,” considering sustainability in all our investments made on their behalf.
As part of our sustainability journey, we are actively engaging with industry groups and global associations, such as Climate Action 100+ and the Sustainable Markets Initiative, to collaborate with like-minded organizations looking to embed ESG practices and to make significant impacts across industries and geographies.
In closing, I am proud of all we were able to accomplish in 2020. The support and excellent guidance of our
I’d also like to thank you, my fellow shareholders and customers, for your ongoing confidence and trust in us.
On a personal level, I am deeply grateful for the partnership and tireless efforts of my colleagues across the senior leadership team. I truly appreciate all their efforts over the past year.
As we embark on the year ahead, I am confident that the energy and optimism of our global team will enable us to continue to build an even stronger Manulife.
President and Chief Executive Officer, Manulife