Last Wednesday, Prudential Financial Inc. (Baa1 stable) announced that it would take a “below-the-line” GAAP pre-tax charge of $1.7 billion, predominantly because of lower-than-expected lapses on its variable annuity block. The charge is credit negative for the company because lower lapses will lead to higher economic costs on its guaranteed benefits.
Under GAAP accounting, the value of a guaranteed minimum withdrawal (GMWB) uses market assumptions, much the way financial options are valued. Given the low interest rate environment, this results in Prudential using a very low long-term account growth assumption to value its variable annuity-related guarantees. Although lower lapses in a rising market environment may end up providing greater profitability than higher lapses would, this is not the case in a declining market environment. Lower-than-expected lapse rates during adverse equity markets and low interest rate environments — when the GMWB benefits are most valuable for contract holders and most costly for insurers — will meaningfully hurt insurers’ variable annuity product profitability.