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Hope springs eternal in annuity world

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It’s March and that means in Florida and Arizona, major league baseball players are getting their stiff (and overpaid) muscles back into shape for the upcoming season. It’s also a time when fans can honestly believe that their favorite team has a shot at winning the pennant (well, except for the Houston Astros).

Then the season starts and as it progresses through the long, steamy summer months, injuries and poor play can make even pre-season favorites also-rans. What looks like an unbeatable team on paper falters when the games begin for real.

See: What’s behind the annuity M&A blitz?

Guggenheim Partners, an active acquirer of annuity lines of late, is no doubt learning that lesson. Last March, the investment banking firm was part of a group that bought the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2 billion (yes, that’s with a b). As the Dodgers neared the top of their division, the team completed a blockbuster, nine-player trade with the fading Boston Red Sox. The Dodgers did get a true superstar – Adrian Gonzalez – in the trade, but also took on an extra $250 million in payroll in an obvious salary-dump deal. So did the Dodgers win the division? Nope.

Not deterred, this off-season, the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke, a good but not great pitcher, for $147 million for six years. (Give Greinke props for candor. Unlike so many free agents who sign mega-bucks contracts and say “it wasn’t about the money,” he later admitted that, yeah, it was all about the money.)

But hey, it’s March and the Dodgers look like a formidable team, at least on paper. It’s spring training, and hope springs eternal.

Are Guggenheim, along with Athene Holding and Berkshire Hathaway, taking a similar view of annuities? All have scooped up annuity businesses in recent months, both ongoing enterprises and run-off lines, fixed, fixed indexed and even variable.

It would be wrong to say these firms are merely “hoping” these deals work out. All are smart, experienced investment outfits, with deep roots in the insurance and annuity industry. They are not making these deals simply because the price is right or the opportunity was too good to pass up. They justifiably assert they have the asset management expertise to make the acquisitions profitable. No one doubts their business acumen. They are making reasoned, prudent business decisions.

Nevertheless, insurance is a long-term business, just like the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. Are these mostly private equity outfits looking for a swift turnaround so they can harvest cash for their investors? Are they planning a quick flip of their new acquisitions after they tidy up the balance sheets? Annuities, after all, are long-term contracts that make the Greinke deal look like a speed date.

To be fair, companies like Athene have been operating annuity enterprises for many years and will likely run their new purchases for the long term.

But economies and markets, like baseball seasons, have a way of turning sideways in a hurry. Can these companies make their projected profit goals if the stock market zigzags in an unpredictable fashion? What about always fickle policyholder behavior? If they want to eventually sell – nothing wrong with that – will there be a willing buyer to pay their price?

But the leaders of these firms are very smart business people (I’m sure they would tell you that.) Smarter than me, for sure. (I’m sure they would tell me that.) I’m sure they’ve figured in all contingencies.

Business deals, like baseball seasons, play out over a very long, long time. So whether these deals are successful or not cannot be judged in the days or weeks following the announced agreement or based on current market conditions. So much can happen between now and whatever their ultimate endgame may be.

Dare I use that hoary baseball cliché, wait till next year?

The Dodgers may have to. Just the other day a report came out of Arizona that Greinke has an inflamed elbow.

For more from Maria Wood, see: