United States insurer Aetna International and the Bank of East Asia (BEA) are to carry out Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) business separately even though they will continue their partnership in life and general insurance. For 15 years, Aetna and BEA have been partners in the life and general insurance business in Hong Kong through their joint venture - East Asia Aetna Insurance - in which they both own 50 per cent. Patricia McEachern, East Asia Aetna's newly appointed country manager for Hong Kong, said that Aetna International and BEA would conduct MPF business separately and that Aetna had set up a wholly owned subsidiary - Aetna MPF - for the purpose. However, she denied speculation that the move meant an end of the partnership between the US insurer and Hong Kong's largest locally owned bank. 'Aetna and Bank of East Asia will continue to work together on our life and general insurance business through East Asia Aetna,' she said. Aetna MPF managing director David Hatton said: 'The two companies have worked together very well for the past 15 years and there is no plan to break the relationship.' Mr Hatton said both companies had sent representatives on a trip to Latin America to study how a pension system similar to the MPF scheme - to be launched in Hong Kong next year - was being implemented. After the trip, Aetna and Bank of East Asia concluded that the provident fund would be good business and both wanted to own their pension operations. 'Aetna wants to wholly own its pension business in Hong Kong while the Bank of East Asia wants to offer MPF business for its own corporate clients,' Mr Hatton said. Aetna MPF would use East Asia Aetna's 2,800 agents to sell the scheme, Mrs McEachern said. It is not sure if Bank of East Asia will use the same agency force to sell the products. Mrs McEachern said East Asia Aetna recorded 18 per cent premium growth last year, with the largest rise contributed by individual life business which saw a 49 per cent increase in premium income. The general insurance business was hard hit by the domestic economic downturn, particularly in the group medical and travel insurance business. Travel insurance premiums dropped 22 per cent last year from 1997, Mrs McEachern said. The insurer expanded its sales team substantially last year, adding 1,600 new agents to take the total to 2,800 agents by the end of last year. Mrs McEachern said that for this year the insurer would focus more on agent training instead of further expanding the agency force, in a bid to improve the productivity and quality of the sales team.