Canadians aim to focus on stability and paying down debt in 2009: Manulife Investor Sentiment Index



    WATERLOO, ON, Jan. 9 /CNW/ - Canadians say they're turning to financial
safety and paying down debts as economic troubles continue, according to a
national poll for Manulife Financial, Canada's leading insurance and wealth
management company.
    More than a third of Canadians (35 per cent), the largest group, said
their top financial priority for 2009 is paying down debts and reducing their
mortgages.
    "Many Canadians have been unsettled by recent market and economic turmoil
and feel it's time to seek a safe haven," said Paul Rooney, President and CEO,
Manulife Canada. "We always encourage investors to work closely with their own
advisors, particularly given short-term changes in the economy and markets."
    "Working with an advisor and sticking to a plan can help investors stay
focused on their goals, plus help balance their guaranteed versus variable
investments."
    Manulife serves more than one in five Canadians with a wide range of
financial services and products and one of our key goals is to help them make
better financial decisions, added Mr. Rooney.
    In its latest national survey of Canadians, the 40th quarterly Manulife
Investor Sentiment Index fell back three points in December to reach +5, its
lowest point since the survey began in 1999.
    The national telephone poll of 1,000 Canadians by Acrobat Research in
December found only two among 10 investment categories and vehicles gained
ground slightly from the previous October survey.

    Better off than five years ago

    Responding to separate questions, half of Canadians polled (51 per cent)
said they're financially better off now than five years ago. That's down from
a year ago when 60 per cent said their finances had improved in the past five
years.
    Another 27 per cent said they're in the same financial spot as in 2003
(up from 23 per cent in late 2007), while 22 per cent feel worse off than five
years earlier (compared to 16 per cent a year earlier).
    When asked about financial goals for 2009, the top priority is to pay
down their debts. Twenty-four per cent chose overall consumer debts as their
top concern, up from 20 per cent a year ago. Another 11 per cent want to
reduce their mortgage as their top priority. Sticking with real estate, five
per cent said saving to buy a home is their top target for 2009, down from
seven per cent a year ago.
    Saving for retirement continues to be a focus, with 14 per cent choosing
this as their top priority as sagging equity markets impact pensions and
RRSPs.
    Saving for big-ticket item other than a home was chosen by eight per cent
as their top financial priority for 2009, while eight per cent said their top
concern is ensuring they have enough money if they become disabled or ill.
    When it comes to investing, almost three-quarters of those surveyed (72
per cent) said they have not changed their approach as a result of recent
market conditions while one in ten (10 per cent), however, said they have
permanently changed how they invest.

    Overall index

    Since its launch in 1999, the Manulife Investor Sentiment Index has
remained in positive territory overall. It peaked at +35 in early 2000, but
fell to +11, in December 2001. During the past two years, the index had
generally remained near six-year highs, above +20, before dropping sharply in
October.
    The quarterly index monitors how Canadians say they feel about investing
in 10 different categories and vehicles. The index reflects the percentage of
those who say they believe it is a good or very good time to invest minus
those who feel the opposite.

    Two investment categories gain ground

    Only investment real estate and stocks gained slightly in the latest
national survey, while fixed income investments and putting money in their own
homes took hard hits from Canadians.
    Principal residences still remain the most popular investment category -
yet are now only nine points ahead of cash - which had historically been the
lowest destination for investors in the past. Investment property registered
the biggest gain in December, rising five points, but still remains in
negative overall territory after dropping a combined 37 percentage points in
June and October.

    Highlights

    The Manulife Investor Sentiment Index is determined by the following six
investment categories, shown by order of their overall ranking in the survey.

    
    -  Investing in their own homes (either through renovations or paying
       down the mortgage) remains the most popular place for Canadians to put
       their money - a consistent finding since 1999. The index for investing
       in their own home fell eight points in December to +35. The index
       reflects 54 per cent of those surveyed who said it's a good or very
       good time to invest in their own residence - minus 19 per cent who
       believe it's a bad or very bad time.

    -  Cash (including savings accounts) remained unchanged this quarter, but
       now ranks as the second most favourite place to put money at +26.
       Since 1999, cash had been the least favourite place named by Canadians
       to leave their money, but it overtook fixed investments this quarter
       and now ranks higher than balanced funds, investment real estate and
       equities.

    -  Fixed income investments (including GICs and annuities) fell back to
       third place among most popular categories, losing 16 points from
       October. At +10, the index is approaching its low of +4 hit in mid-
       2004.

    -  Investment real estate gained five points in December, after quickly
       falling from its second-place rank last March. At -4, investment real
       estate ranked in negative territory for only the second time since the
       survey began.

    -  Balanced funds fell to fifth place among the most-popular investment
       targets, losing three points in December on the heels of a 33-point
       decline in October. Resting at -11, the index reflects 29 per cent who
       felt balanced funds are a good or very good place to invest, compared
       to 40 per cent who said the opposite in October.

    -  After dropping back 27 points in October, equities gained three points
       to rest at -25 in December. The stocks index reflects 24 per cent who
       said it's a good or very good time to invest in stocks, either
       directly or via mutual funds, while 49 per cent saw equities as a bad
       or very bad choice. Another 11 per cent felt it's neither a good or
       bad time to buy shares.

    Investment Vehicles

    As well as evaluating the six investment categories, the same question was
asked of four investment vehicles.

    -  Registered Education Savings Plans held onto the top spot among
       favourite vehicles in December, despite falling 18 points to reach +30
       in the latest poll. Some 49 per cent of those surveyed said now is a
       good time to invest, compared to 19 per cent who disagreed.

    -  Among Canadians' traditional favourite investment vehicles, Registered
       Retirement Savings Plans showed another significant drop of 11 points
       in December, after losing 18 points in October. At +27, the latest
       results for RRSPs reflect 49 per cent of respondents who feel it's a
       good or very good time to put money into an RRSP, while 19 per cent
       said they feel it is a bad or very bad time.

    -  After showing strong stability in October, segregated funds fell back
       22 points in December, yet still held a slight lead over mutual funds
       at -2.

    -  At -12, the index for mutual funds fell three points in December,
       following a 31-point drop in October. The latest mutual fund index
       reflects 30 per cent who said now is a good or very good time to
       invest in mutual funds, while 42 per cent said it was a bad or very
       bad time. Another 13 per cent answered that it was neither a good or
       bad time for funds.
    

    The poll by Omnitel, a division of Acrobat Research, was conducted with
1,000 Canadians aged 18 and older between December 4 and 10, 2008. The results
have a margin of error of +/- three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

    About Manulife Financial

    Manulife Financial is a leading Canadian-based financial services group
serving millions of customers in 19 countries and territories worldwide.
Operating as Manulife Financial in Canada and Asia, and primarily through John
Hancock in the United States, the Company offers clients a diverse range of
financial protection products and wealth management services through its
extensive network of employees, agents and distribution partners. Funds under
management by Manulife Financial and its subsidiaries were Cdn$385.3 billion
(US$363.5 billion) as at September 30, 2008.
    Manulife Financial is one of two publicly traded life insurance companies
in the world whose rated life insurance subsidiaries hold Standard & Poor's
Rating Services' highest "AAA" rating.
    Manulife Financial Corporation trades as 'MFC' on the TSX, NYSE and PSE,
and under '0945' on the SEHK. Manulife Financial can be found on the Internet
at www.manulife.com.




For further information:

For further information: Media contact: Tom Nunn, Manulife Financial,
(519) 594-8578, tom_nunn@manulife.com


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