Annuities Share Of The Retirement Market May Be Set To Grow

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1 Annuities Share Of The Retirement Market May Be Set To Grow Primary Credit Analyst: Li Cheng, CFA, FRM, FSA, New York (1) ; Secondary Credit Analysts: Kevin Ahern, New York (1) ; Matthew Carroll, CFA, New York (1) ; Rodney A Clark, FSA, New York (1) ; Eric Hedman, CFA, New York (1) ; Table Of Contents Individual Annuities As A Retirement Investment Vehicle Will The GM-Prudential Transaction Spur Demand For Pension Risk Transfers? Risk Management Is Key JULY 25,

2 Annuities Share Of The Retirement Market May Be Set To Grow A wave of U.S. Baby Boomers (those born between 1945 and 1964) is beginning to reach retirement age just as employers are seeking to reduce or even terminate their retirement pension plans. At the same time, potential retirees are becoming increasingly concerned about the future of the Social Security program. These two developments may fuel interest in individual annuity products with guaranteed lifetime income features that can provide retirees with protection against living beyond their means. Another pension-related development for the insurance industry is GM's $26 billion pension liability transfer to Prudential, announced in June 2012, which we believe could spur additional growth for insurers. Pension risk transfers, despite their popularity in countries like the U.K., are fairly infrequent in the U.S. But with employers struggling to fund their pension liabilities amid prolonged low interest rates and the weak equity market, they could follow GM's lead, igniting demand for pension transfers to insurers in the U.S. Overview Interest in individual annuities may continue to grow among retirees as corporations reduce or terminate their pension plans. In addition, the recent GM-Prudential transaction may spur demand for pension risk transfers to insurers. While both developments could present great opportunities for insurers, they also bring along substantial challenges. When it comes to credit quality, risk management will be key for life insurers that pursue these opportunities, in our view. However, these growth opportunities do come with risks. Individual annuities, even those without attractive lifetime guarantees, are generally more sensitive to interest and equity market movements than the traditional life (mortality) products. Longevity risk, which is the risk that an insurance company experiences higher-than-expected payouts, could become a substantial concern due to policyholders' increasing life expectancy. Traditionally, insurers have viewed the longevity business (including annuities) as a natural hedge against the mortality business (life products, etc). However, the benefits, if any, of such a hedge might be limited because the mortality and longevity risks are on completely different blocks of businesses and could move in unfavorable directions at the same time. Another major concern for insurers recently has been policyholder behavior that deviates from what they assumed in pricing and valuation, including lapses, withdrawals, and annuitizations. Insurers generally view group annuities, like those supporting the pension risk transfers, as more stable and predictable than individual annuities, but the longevity and interest rate risks may be magnified by the size of the business. As an insurance company accumulates annuity business, it has a higher propensity for earnings volatility and calls on capital. Although insurers have been generally effective at reducing these volatilities by applying their actuarial expertise and disciplined asset liability management (ALM), these risks could pose a significant credit concern in stress JULY 25,

3 scenarios. Individual Annuities As A Retirement Investment Vehicle Retirement isn't what it used to be. Traditionally, people retired at 65 and started to receive employer pension, Social Security, and other post-retirement benefits. However, with more and more employers terminating their defined benefit plans and switching to defined contribution plans, the ability of these pensions to contribute to income post-retirement has decreased substantially. In addition, many Americans are concerned about the future level of Social Security benefits. Increasingly, Americans are looking for ways to fund their retirement through savings, a demand that fueled the growth of individual annuity production in the past decade at an average annual compound growth rate of 4.55% from 2000 to Individual life production grew only 0.84% during the same period (see "More Than Meets The Eye: What Is Behind The Long-Term Credit Erosion In The North American Life-Insurance Sector?" published May 25, 2012, on RatingsDirect). As life expectancy continues to improve in the U.S., the risk that someone could outlive their financial resources is increasing. Many annuity products offer protection against longevity risk by providing a guaranteed lifetime income stream. While a savvy investor might diversify market risks to a certain degree through portfolio diversification, there aren't many alternatives to mitigate one's longevity risk. Another feature that sets annuity products apart from other investments is that annuity products provide principal guarantees despite market performance. This can appeal to retirees who are more concerned about the preservation, not the growth, of the principal. Additionally, annuities come in many forms, such as fixed, variable, or equity-indexed; immediate or deferred; and period certain or life. An individual could use one or a combination of annuity products to achieve different retirement goals based on changes in his or her age and risk appetite. Despite the unique attributes of annuities products, the continued growth of these products isn't without challenges. With industry-wide price increases and benefit reductions in the wake of the financial crisis, variable annuity annual charges typically run around 300 to 400 basis points (bps), making them more expensive than other alternatives like mutual funds. Product features, such as penalty-free withdrawals and a guaranteed benefit base, can also be difficult for many consumers to understand. The perceived low liquidity of some annuity products might also discourage buying. Additionally, the idea of losing control of a substantial portion of one's savings (for example, in the case of single premium immediate annuities, or SPIAs) or having restricted access to account value (due to a surrender charge) could make annuities less attractive than some highly liquid alternatives such as bank deposits or equity mutual funds. Stepping up their individual annuity business comes with complications for insurers, too. Annuities are expensive products to offer. An insurer needs to have a substantial volume of business to achieve the economics of scale because of the huge investment in building up and maintaining the infrastructure--including a hedging platform and in-house expertise--to support the variable annuities. In recent years, variable annuities caused substantial earnings volatility and balance sheet strains on many insurers. For that reason, some of the big providers have completely exited the industry while others have scaled back substantially. Fixed annuities come with their own issues, the biggest currently being prolonged low interest rates. Many insurers continually battle spread compression on their fixed annuity book. JULY 25,

4 Despite annuities' potential for higher returns on equity, insurers are wary of expanding this business quickly due to concerns about capital and risk exposures. After a record year of industry variable annuity sales in 2011, some of the biggest players expressly indicated plans to scale back sales in Another limiting factor is that the capacity of distributors might not grow at the same pace. As the unfavorable market sentiment on variable annuities continues to build, insurers are also limiting sales growth due to pressures from market constituents, including shareholders and analysts. Will The GM-Prudential Transaction Spur Demand For Pension Risk Transfers? Besides their roles in the individual annuity markets, insurers have also been long-standing participants in the employer retirement plan sector by providing funding solutions, plan administration, and asset management services. They also supply some annuity products, although those are typically simpler than comparable individual annuity versions. These businesses, including plan administration and asset management, are becoming increasingly popular among insurers because of the relatively lower risks, lower capital requirement, and lower correlation with other businesses. Pension risk transfers, however, have not gained much traction in the U.S. until recently, with the enormous GM pension transfer to Prudential. It includes a $26 billion pension liability transfer with an estimated net asset transfer of $29 billion, depending on the take-up rate of lump-sum buyout offers. This will largely eliminate GM's salaried retiree pension plan, which is around a quarter of the company's total pension liabilities. In essence, the GM-Prudential pension risk transfer is a pension buyout deal in which GM paid a lump-sum upfront premium to purchase a group annuity from Prudential that covered certain members of the salaried retiree plan. The market for such transactions has been fairly active overseas, including in the U.K., for years. The GM-Prudential deal could serve as the catalyst to create demand in the U.S. market. With today's low interest rates and volatile equity markets, companies are feeling the increasing drag from their pension book where liabilities are valued at record highs due to low discount rates. As it becomes less likely that interest rates might climb meaningfully anytime soon, some employers might finally decide to unload their underfunded pension liabilities after years of waiting for interest rates to rise. A recent Reuters analysis of the S&P 500 companies found that almost half of the firms with reported underfunded pension plans have the cash on hand to fund a transaction in a similar fashion as the GM-prudential transaction. While deals of this size are rare, small to midsize transactions could still add up to tens of billions of dollars over the next few years. The potential surge in demand as employers seek to unload their underfunded pension liabilities could provide growth opportunities for pension buyouts. Insurance companies could be ideal candidates at the receiving end of these deals due to their actuarial and underwriting expertise, ALM capabilities, and generally strong capital positions. Traditional insurance companies might encounter very little competition from outside the industry, given that U.S. regulators will likely disfavor private equity-funded, special-purpose insurers in pension buyouts. Although we expect pension buyouts to increase, they still face many roadblocks. Not all companies with underfunded pension liabilities will either have the available cash or willingness to pay a hefty upfront premium. Valuation JULY 25,

5 premiums or the costs to transfer pension risk are very high given today's low rates. Many companies could continue to wait and see how interest rates develop while struggling to fund their pension liabilities, hoping rates will recover. Most recently, the new pension legislation, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, which President Obama signed on July 6, 2012, introduces new variables into companies' pension de-risking decision processes. The Act made significant changes in pension law, including the pension funding stabilization provisions and a substantial increase to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC) premium over the next several years. Plan executives, by temporarily applying higher interest rates to calculate liabilities, might see an immediate rise in funding levels and a decline in the minimum funding requirement in the short term. But this short-term relief--the lower contribution in the next several years--has the potential to create future issues, such as a significantly higher minimum contribution and higher PBGC premiums. From the supply aspect, the industry's capacity for these transactions is not unlimited and might not grow substantially in the next few years. This is especially true considering that the majority of these transactions will most likely only flow to larger insurers with high ratings and solid capital positions in order to satisfy regulators and other constituents. Pension buyout transactions are also fairly risky. The underwriting, longevity, and interest rate risks in these businesses are usually magnified by the large size and long-term nature of the book. These considerations might exclude many companies from participating in the market. Even those who have these resources and capabilities might be somewhat dissuaded from active pursuit of the pension buyout business. Risk Management Is Key Prospectively, we believe insurance companies' share of the overall retirement market will benefit from favorable demographic changes and insurers' expertise in underwriting and ALM. The increased market interest in pension buyouts also provides an additional venue for growth. We view life insurers, as a whole, as well positioned to take advantage of these opportunities. Since the financial crisis, most insurance companies have gone through rounds of asset and liability de-risking and have taken many new initiatives to strengthen their balance sheets. As a result, the industry currently has generally strong levels of capital and liquidity commensurate of the ratings. This provides companies with the capability and flexibility to expand their business where opportunities arise. Individual annuities accounted for merely 9% of the total U.S. retirement assets at the end of the first quarter of We expect that share to grow (see chart). JULY 25,

6 However, insurers do face some hurdles. While consumers' lack of understanding of annuities could deter them from the products, it's debatable whether insurers would be able to increase the demand through consumer education to increase product awareness. On the supply side, there is no one simple solution to address the capacity issues. Insurers still face the current low interest rates, lackluster equity markets, and uncertainties about the economic recovery. The changing regulatory and/or accounting requirements across the globe could also impose further limitations on insurers' desire and capacity to expand the annuity business. For example, the final implementation of Solvency II in Europe might have a substantial impact on the capacity of U.S. subsidiaries of European insurers. The key to profitable growth, in our view, lies in risk management. Whether they offer individual annuities or group annuities backing pension buyouts, insurers can only achieve healthy profitability if they can effectively price for and manage the complex risks inherent in these products. The continued build-out and enhancement of hedging programs, using a combination of dynamic and static hedging, could reduce the volatility. This could lower capital strain and free up more capacity. Equally important is the integration of risk management in the product design and pricing process. A number of companies are now offering variable annuities with auto-rebalancing features that transfer policyholder assets between the riskier equities and the less-risky bonds based on certain market conditions. While the goals and algorithms vary by JULY 25,

7 company, these built-in risk management features can significantly reduce hedging costs and increase hedging effectiveness, lowering the associated capital requirement. A disciplined risk management process is also crucial for pension buyout transactions. Insurers need to prudently price these transactions on a risk-adjusted basis, taking into consideration all potential risk exposures, including longevity, interest rate, and equity risks. Thorough due diligence, stringent underwriting, and disciplined ALM are key to ensure long-term profitability and to prevent a short-term race to acquire market share. From our perspective, an insurer's demonstration of strong risk management capabilities helps to alleviate some of the credit concerns we might have as an insurer builds up its annuity business. In recent years, the industry has undergone secular shifts toward retirement and asset management products and away from the more stable and predictable protection-oriented products. This is one of the major reasons why the average financial strength rating on the U.S. life insurers we rate deteriorated to 'A+' in 2012 from 'AA' in While we believe the market demand for individual annuity and group pension buyouts presents opportunities, we will only view the resulting growth favorably from a credit perspective if an insurer approaches these opportunities diligently and vigilantly. They should carefully balance and diversify their business mix, and thoroughly analyze and manage their risk exposures. Such growth also needs to fit into the insurer's overall strategy and have commensurate capital and liquidity support. On the other hand, if an insurer aggressively pursues market share with limited consideration of its risk management capabilities and capital positions, we will view the growth as a negative credit factor. JULY 25,

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