HSBC Holdings had seen its insurance business in Hong Kong holding up in the first quarter, with customers choosing more traditional plans, a turnaround from their aggressive stance last year, the bank said. 'As the investment sentiment is more conservative and the deposit rate is near zero, many people choose to simply use annuity insurance products to save for their retirement and whole life insurance plans to enhance their family protection,' said Bruno Lee, HSBC's head of liabilities business and wealth management. The comments reflect cautious optimism at HSBC, which, along with Manulife and American International Assurance, is among the top three insurance players in Hong Kong. Unit-linked insurance plans suffered badly last year as global equity prices plunged, wiping out the value of their stocks and fund investments. 'Customers were more interested in back-to-basics products that could tie in with their longer-term goals, such as children's education and retirement planning,' Mr Lee said. While stock markets early this month rose to their highest level since October, he said the markets should remain volatile and customers should shun investment-linked insurance before investment sentiment recovers. 'People are still mindful of risk and are taking a much-disciplined approach about it,' Mr Lee said. HSBC has seen more than 90 per cent of its insurance customers buying traditional products in the quarter, against 30 per cent a year earlier. Mr Lee said customers should switch funds in their portfolio instead of surrendering their policies if they were wary of market risks. 'Policyholders may get less than what they have paid in case of early surrender,' he said. George Chew, the vice-president and head of individual financial products at Manulife Hong Kong, said the flu scare was likely accelerate the rush for better protection. In March alone, the insurer saw a more than 30 per cent rise in critical illness and medical solutions than the month before. The company's overall sales mix also shifted to living benefits and traditional participating plans in the first quarter. About 80 per cent of new sales came from traditional insurance and 20 per cent from linked plans, Mr Chew said. 'Demand for living benefits and medical protection has been on the rise since last year,' he added.