Cash is God in the life insurance business and some companies seem to be willing to sell their soul to the Devil to get it.
The appeal, power and profitability of the life and annuity insurance industry have eroded almost to the point that the industry has not only lost its prominence, but its very viability as an independent competitor in the financial services market also is being questioned. These dire circumstances are forcing insurance companies to seek capital infusions from sources they would never have previously considered and to take actions that are an anathema to traditional insurance financial management. Both actions may, in the end, threaten the very survival of the companies, but even worse is the risk that these activities may leave policyholders holding the bag and cost the taxpayers billions in bailout bucks.
There is no more cogent evidence of this state of affairs in the life insurance industry than a recent article in The Wall Street Journal which reported that the New York Department of Financial Services has issued subpoenas to a number of large private equity firms, seeking information about recent investments they have made in the life insurance industry. Regulators may be curious about this activity because the business model of private equity firms – relatively short term high returns – is so contrary to the business model of insurance companies. Just a few weeks later The New York Times reported that the New York Department of Insurance is investigating actions by insurance companies characterized as “shadow reinsurance” that are intended to artificially reduce the amount of capital and reserves needed by insurance companies.
In simple terms, here is the problem: The financial model for the life insurance industry is diametrically opposite to that of most industries. When a typical company makes and sells a product, it reports an immediate profit. When a life insurance company manufactures and sells a policy, it reports an immediate loss; a loss that may not be recovered for several years. As a result, for non-insurance companies, growth creates new capital, while a growing life insurance company consumes increasing amounts of capital. For most companies, a return on invested capital can be measured in a single fiscal year, while for a life insurance company a return on invested capital could take decades.
Capital Requirements Magnify the Issues
When it comes to managing capital needs, life insurance companies face still another financial complication. The nature of life insurance is an uncertain, long-term liability. Actuarial tables notwithstanding, the insurance company never really knows when it will have to pay or how much its future liability to the policyholder may be. With this in mind, state regulators require insurance companies to set aside and maintain a reserve of capital to meet these future liabilities. This requirement ties up capital for decades that further limits capital available for growth.
In the past, there were a number of strategies life insurance companies used to effectively deal with its capital requirements. For one thing, the insurance industry was sheltered from competition because banks and investment firms were prohibited from offering insurance products. This isolation allowed the insurance companies free rein to compete with each other to carve up the available business unfettered from free real competition from outside the industry. This meant that consumers could not comparison-shop for products based on price – as all products were priced on the same basis – and all products produced very high profit margins for the companies. This situation permitted insurance companies to use the profits emerging from existing business as “capital” to invest in new business.
Traditionally, the largest life insurance companies were not publicly traded, but were rather “mutual” companies, theoretically “owned” by the policyholders. This structure immunized the insurance company from any real pressure to show a return on invested capital, especially in the short term. In addition, the life insurance industry shared and passed around its capital among companies, in the form of reinsurance. Companies that had capital, but were not growing as quickly as others, would “loan” their capital to another company, in exchange for participating in the future profits of the business. This was facilitated because both companies were willing to accept a long term – maybe over decades – return on this capital.
There’s Trouble Ahead
But then, late in the 20th century, the life insurance industry experienced what was, in effect, a cataclysmic polar shift in its world. The life insurance industry was ravaged by a perfect storm when, in rapid succession, a maelstrom of events dramatically changed the insurance landscape.
First, there was a rush by the largest insurance companies to convert from a mutual to public structure. As a result, the short-term demands of the public market forced the management of these companies to shift, as never before, from long-term strategies to short-term, top-line sales and bottom-line results.
Then, another bomb shell: The restrictions keeping banks and investment firms out of the insurance industry were repealed and this opened the door to stiff new competition for insurance companies. The combination of increased competition and focus on short-term results caused insurance products to be marketed more as commodities – with price being the motivator – a change that significantly squeezed profit margins for insurance companies. On the heels of all this the financial crisis thundered in swamping insurance companies with hundreds of millions of dollars in investment losses at a time when interest rates for new investments dropped to virtually zero.
These were catastrophic events for an industry that always needed to wisely husband its capital and sold products that were “interest sensitive.” The fallout from this chain-reaction of events also triggered a significant reduction in the valuation of insurance companies, making it even more difficult to raise capital.
Just when things couldn’t get worse . . .
In short, just when the insurance industry needed capital the most, it ran out of capital. Companies lacked the cash required to support new business, causing them to scale back on sales. At the same time, reinsurance companies exited the market; they needed to retain all available capital to support existing liabilities.
In response to this confluence of crises, insurance companies began taking one or more of three different actions:
- Raising capital from private equity investment firms.
- Engaging in “financial engineering” in an effort to reduce capital requirements.
- Moving away from the very core of insurance – the guarantee that risk of loss would be covered – by offering investment-type products that transfer the risk to the policyholder.
Any one of these actions – let alone the combination of all three – has the potential to fundamentally change the very nature of the insurance industry and threaten the future of any company that employs them. And here’s why.
It may seem like a match made in heaven: Private equity firms are flush with capital to invest and the insurance industry are desperate for fresh capital. The problem is that the business model for these two groups is not a match, let alone a heavenly one. Private equity firms seek a return on invested capital that is as much as three times higher than the normal return insurance companies can expect to achieve. Even more conflicting for the insurance industry is that private equity firms seek to be in and out of their investments within a five- to seven-year time frame, while insurance products barely break even after five years.
Another challenge for insurance companies that accept private equity capital is that these firms expect to begin receiving dividends on their investment almost immediately. The management of insurance companies that accept private equity capital will soon find they are constrained to meet the requirements of private equity and take actions that are antithetical to sound insurance management. And it could be the policyholder who ends up paying the price for this arrangement.
As mentioned above, reinsurance companies have traditionally been a reliable source of long-term capital for insurance companies, but reinsurance companies are also strapped for cash and have virtually withdrawn from the life and annuity market. In response to this, as the New York Times article pointed out, many of the largest public insurance companies have discovered a “creative” way to overcome the lack of capital available from reinsurance – they have started their own reinsurance companies.
In simple terms, these companies have set up wholly-owned reinsurance companies in states that have lower capital reserve requirements or fewer investment limitations than does the company’s state of domicile. The “parent” company then transfers large blocks of business to this “captive” company; thereby reducing the amount of reserves that have to be maintained to meet future liabilities. Voilà!, with a jurisdictional sleight-of-hand, new capital is magically created out of thin air. This may be all well and good, but should the reserves being held by the “reinsurance” company be insufficient to meet future liabilities (the reserves, after all, may amount to no more than a “conditional letter of credit” from the parent company), then once again the policyholder, or ultimately the taxpayers, could be left holding the bag.
The final action that some companies are taking is, in effect, to get out of the insurance business. Companies are developing products that are more akin to investments than insurance. This is accomplished by transferring the risk for what the future benefits may be from the insurance company to the policyholder. (For example, selling variable annuities and variable life as opposed to guaranteed life or annuities.) In other instances, companies are transferring the longevity risk – how long the benefits will be paid – from the company to the policyholder. Both of these actions have the effect of reducing the amount of capital needed to write new business and the amount of capital needed to be held in reserve. In effect, we are seeing the largest life insurance companies morph into investment companies, right before our eyes.
The Moral of the Story …
Putting it all together, it is not implausible to foresee a scenario in which the financial services industry contracts into two players – banks and investment companies, with insurance benefits sold as an ancillary benefit on the side. This may be the most logical direction, but is does not portend good things for the life insurance industry as a viable competitor in the financial services industry.