Five years after slashing its dividend in half to save money, Manulife Financial is starting to restore its once-prized dividend to the level it was prior to the financial collapse.

Canada's biggest life insurer said it will boost its dividend 19 per cent to 15.5 cents a share. That's its first increase since a dramatic cut to 13 cents a share in 2009 in an effort to save $800 million a year.

Manulife's dividend boost came as it reported that second-quarter profits that more than tripled to $943 million, or 49 cents a share.

The company credits growth in assets under management for part of the improvement, along with improved insurance operations in Asia and better wealth management performance in North America. 

"Our wealth results were strong, driven by the success of our North American mutual fund businesses and improved momentum in Asia," said CEO Donald Guloien in a statement. "Most notably, we generated strong sales growth in Japan and in other parts of Asia."

But he added that insurance sales in Canada were "lower than what we would have liked."

Early dividend hike

The dividend hike came as somewhat of a surprise, as the company had not been expected to raise it until 2015.

Manulife chief financial officer Steve Roder told Reuters that the company decided to hike the dividend early because of a faster-than-expected drop in the company's leverage ratio and growing comfort with the regulatory environment.

"As we move closer to the $4 billion (target for annual core profit), we would hope to have incremental step-ups in the dividend," Roder told the news agency.

Manulife wasn't the only life insurer to report a healthier bottom line.

After markets closed Wednesday, Sun Life Financial reported operating net income, excluding certain items and discontinued operations, of $488 million or 80 cents a share. That was up from $431 million, or 71 cents a share, in the second quarter of 2013. That beat analyst estimates of 66 cents a share.

Great-West Lifeco reported net income of $615 million in the second quarter, an 18 per cent increase from the same time last year. Its profits were helped by its acquisition of the Irish Life Group last year. 

Manulife shares slipped 27 cents to close at $21.70 on Thursday; Sun Life shares were down $1.05 to $40.10; Great West Lifeco stock shed four cents to close at $31.40.

With files from Reuters and Canadian Press