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5 Winds Blowing Annuity Issuers Around Now

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U.S. life insurance and annuity issuers are about to start releasing their earnings for the second quarter starting today.

The quarter started July 1, when the threat of possible imminent enforcement of some U.S. Department of Labor fiduciary rule provisions hovered over the industry, and it ended Sept. 30, as the DOL fiduciary rule threat had blown over.

Executives from most insurers with stock that trades on the New York Stock Exchange, or on Nasdaq, will be holding conference calls with securities analysts to discuss what happened during the quarter.

Ordinary members of the public can’t ask questions during the conference calls, but they can listen in while the calls are in progress. An insurer that holds a conference call with analysts usually posts an audio recording of the call in the investor relations section of its website.

In some cases, company executives may be more talkative with the securities analysts than they would be during the question-and-answer period at an annual sales conference.

(Related: Annuity Issuers Size Up Benefits M&A Market)

The questions that analysts bring to the calls may reflect both what has happened in the previous quarter and what insurance company executives will be doing to try to keep investors happy in the future.

The analysts and executives often talk in terms of “tailwinds,” or factors that helped a company’s performance, and “headwinds,” or facts that hurt.

Here’s a look at five of the tailwinds and headwinds that might be on insurance company analysts’ minds this quarter, based on a review of earnings season preview guides from analysts at Barclays, Keefe, Bruyette & Woods and Wells Fargo Securities L.L.C.

U.S. Department of Labor headquarters (Photo: Michael A. Scarcella/ALM)

U.S. Department of Labor headquarters (Photo: Michael A. Scarcella/ALM)

1. Sales and marketing rules 

The U.S. Department of Labor’s move to put off enforcement of the new fiduciary retirement advice standards for at least 18 months is an obvious headwind, but the DOL move is already so baked in that analysts aren’t talking that much about it. The analysts from Wells Fargo gave more attention to the possibility that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission will eventually come out with fiduciary rules of its own, in some other quarter.

Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

2. Interest rates

Life and annuity issuers are heavy users of corporate bonds, and they also hold some bonds issued by the federal government, and a smattering of bonds issued by state and local governments.

Bond market yields have been strong, and interest rates are a little higher than they were a year ago. But insurers are still getting income from long-term investments made about 10 years ago. Rates probably won’t be high enough to be a tailwind until the 10-year Treasury yields is about 3%, according to Wells Fargo analysts.

 New York Stock Exchange (Photo: Allison Bell/TA)

(Photo: Allison Bell/TA)

3. The stock market

State insurance regulators’ rules and rating agencies’ guidelines discourage insurers from putting much of their own general account assets in ordinary stock.

But insurers do invest some money in stock, and they collect fees and other streams of revenue based on the performance of products linked to the stock market, such as variable annuities, variable life insurance, and equity-indexed life and annuity products.

The stock market did great in the third quarter, and that means higher stock prices should be a strong tailwind for life and annuity issuers’ third-quarter earnings, analysts say.

Watering plants (Image: Thinkstock)

(Image: Thinkstock)

4. ‘Alternative investments’

Investment rules for life and annuity issuers are so strict that, for them, simply investing venture capital funds or private equity funds counts as an alternative investment.

Securities analysts believe that life and annuity issuers’ alternative investments did well enough in the third quarter to be a headwind, and that, in some cases, the alternative investment holdings might have performed well enough to help the issuers report higher-than-expected overall earnings.

Grim reaper (Photo: Thinkstock)

(Photo: Thinkstock)

5. Actuarial reviews

In many cases, life insurers now increase or cut reserves based on what actuaries have to say about their assumptions for variables such as interest rates, policy lapse rates, and policy claims.

The effects of the results of the actuarial reviews on life and annuity issuers’ earnings can be so big that all of the life earnings preview analyses included comments on actuarial reviews.

At Keefe, Bruyette, for example, analysts noted that eight of the life and annuity issuers they track conducted actuarial reviews in the third quarter.

Analysts at Barclays started their preview commentary by noting that, “Actuarial review [and] reinsurance charges may be a risk to the quarter.”

The Barclays analysts suggested that the actuarial reviews will pinch Canadian life insurers’ earnings, because a new Canadian rule on accounting for asset reinvestment rates will make the insurers add to their reserves. 

—-Read Annuitization Push May Favor Insurers Over Agents on ThinkAdvisor.

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