Goldman Sachs Asset Management recently hired a research firm to poll insurance company chief financial officers (CFOs) and chief investment officers (CIOs).
Of course, the CFOs and CIOs who participate in a poll like that know a lot and are very smart. But the first law of investment outlooks is that, at some point, what all of the smart, well-educated, well-dressed investment experts think will prove to be wrong.
So, what’s wrong with the experts’ current outlook? Most agree that ordinary, investment-grade corporate bonds are overpriced right now, and that the insurers in their peer group are taking roughly the right amount of risk.
They like private equity deals. They would like to use more of their cash, and many are trying to reduce holdings of government and agency debt. They fear both inflation and deflation.
They aren’t too worried about financial services regulation. Oil prices, U.S. financial market regulatory change, and European financial market regulatory change, came in at the bottom on a ranking of the scariness of macroeconomic risk factors.
None ranked oil prices as the top fear, and 1 percent listed U.S. financial regulation. Another 2 percent named European financial regulation as a top concern.
But Ben Nelson, the chief executive officer of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), spent about half an hour at the recent Standard & Poor’s insurance industry conference warning anyone who would look up from the chicken about the possibility that bad accounting and capital standards regulations coming out of Basel could gut life insurers’ ability to sell long-term care insurance, and just about any other products with guarantees that outlast the “best consumed by” period of an open carton of milk.
Maybe one explanation is that the NAIC wants more help with sending people Basel (which, after all, is a nice place), but maybe another explanation is that regulatory risk is the time bomb.