Some of the biggest U.S. insurers reduced their holdings of state and local government bonds after the corporate tax cut took effect this year, marking a retreat by a key buyer in the $3.9 trillion municipal-securities market.
The disclosures, made in filings by companies including Progressive Corp. and Chubb Ltd., confirm the speculation among analysts that the lower tax rate would weaken demand for municipal debt, which offers lower yields because the income is tax-free. The pullback, if sustained, could create headwinds for a market that’s already contending with periodic selloffs as investors brace for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates further.
Progressive, Travelers Cos. and Chubb have collectively decreased their holdings of municipal bonds by $2.37 billion, according to their most recent quarterly reports. Progressive cut its holdings by 24%, the steepest drop among the largest publicly-traded property and casualty insurers. Chubb cut its investments by 4.6%, while Travelers reduced its stake by 2.9%.
“The new corporate tax rate we use to value our tax-exempt holdings rendered these bonds less attractive relative to alternative taxable investments,” Mayfield Village, Ohio-based Progressive said in its filing.
The cutbacks came as municipal bonds posted their biggest drop during the first quarter since late 2016, when President Donald Trump’s surprise victory raised concerns that his tax and spending plans will accelerate the pace of inflation. While individual investors and mutual funds are bigger owners of state and local government securities, insurers remain a large source of demand. According to the most recent Fed statistics, the companies held about 14% of all outstanding municipal bonds, nearly almost as much as banks.
“It’s not a great signal when an industry that has represented a significant percentage of your investors doesn’t see it as attractive, on an absolute or relative basis, as they used to,” Meyer Shields, an insurance analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said in a phone interview.
Not every part of the industry is retreating, and some of the pullback may have been driven as much by the market’s rocky performance or routine portfolio-adjustments as by changes to the tax code.
Life insurer Principal Financial Group Inc., which decreased its holdings by 3% to $6.25 billion, still views the asset class as “important,” according to a statement by James Welch, a portfolio manager with Principal Global Investors, the company’s asset management arm.
“The first quarter was certainly difficult for all asset classes and any adjustments in allocation amounts should not be construed as a material shift in long-term strategy,” he said in the statement, which the company provided in response to questions.