The Federal Reserve building in Washington (Credit: AP)

Insurance investors delivered a clear verdict today: They’re a bit worried about how a severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) epidemic might affect health insurers, but they hate how interest rate cuts might affect life insurers.

The stock market as a whole had a terrible today, with the S&P 500 benchmark index falling 7.6%, based in part on concerns about the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak itself, in part on a war between Saudi Arabia and Russia over oil prices, and in part about what the oil price war might do to some low-rated oil companies’ ability to make payments to their bond holders.

Interest rates fell sharply around the time of the 2007-200 Great Recession and had been creeping up. The Federal Reserve Board then cut a key benchmark rate it controls half a percentage point six days ago, in an effort to calm the investment markets.

The new turmoil raised the possibility that the Fed might try to push rates even lower to persuade investors to stick with stocks.

Market analysts speculated today that the market turmoil might cause the Fed to push the benchmark rate it controls close to zero.

(Related: Global Market Carnage Fueled by Coronavirus, Oil Price Fears)

Life and annuity issuers hate low interest rates, because they depend heavily on investments in corporate bonds and other fixed-rate investments to generate much of the income that supports their products.

Health insurers, in contrast, depend mainly on premium revenue and operating gains to generate their income.

Figures from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners show that U.S. life insurers ended 2018 with about $4.2 trillion in investments of all kinds.

Health insurers ended that year with just $227 billion in investments.

Today, as health insurers were rushing to assure the public that they would waive patient cost-sharing requirements for SARS CoV-2 tests, investors caused the stock price of the typical publicly traded health insurer down between about 3% and 9%. The share price of UnitedHealth Group Inc., for example, fell just 3.67%.

Life and annuity issuers’ stock prices faced much more punishment, with the prices of their shares falling from 8% to about 20%.

COMPANY: Today’s Closing Price (Performance This Week)

  • American Equity Investment Life Holding Company: 18.72 (-17.09%)
  • Aflac Inc.: 37.59 (-7.82%)
  • American International Group Inc.: 32.81 (-13.29%)
  • Ameriprise Financial Inc.: 109.13 (-13.80%)
  • Anthem Inc.: 269.82 (-4.38%)
  • Brighthouse Financial Inc.: 23.67 (-20.49%)
  • Centene Corp.: 55.36 (-5.46%)
  • Cigna Corp.: 181.6 (-7.10%)
  • CNO Financial Group Inc.: 14.12 (-8.67%)
  • CVS Health Corp. (Aetna): 61.3 (-4.44%)
  • Equitable Holdings Inc.: 15.38 (-18.02%)
  • FBL Financial Group Inc.: 41.1 (-8.26%)
  • Genworth Financial Inc: 4.02 (-8.84%)
  • Globe Life Inc.: 74.97 (-13.43%)
  • Humana Inc.: 337.2 (-8.12%)
  • Lincoln National Corp.: 31.71 (-16.82%)
  • MetLife Inc.: 32.66 (-16.64%)
  • Molina Healthcare Inc.: 132.77 (-3.93%)
  • Primerica Inc.: 99.47 (-9.70%)
  • Principal Financial Group Inc: 35.41 (-16.25%)
  • Prudential Financial Inc.: 58.24 (-16.57%)
  • Reinsurance Group of America Inc.: 99.54 (-15.54%)
  • UnitedHealth Group Inc.: 273.44 (-3.67%)
  • Unum Group: 17.14 (-17%)

— Read Warren Probes Biggest Banks on Coronavirus Exposureon ThinkAdvisor.

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