NEW YORK--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Unfavorable financial market conditions for North American life insurers during third-quarter 2015 lowered investment income, driving lackluster profits in the quarter, says Fitch Ratings. Adverse mortality and reserve charges tied to long-term rate assumptions also contributed to the decline. Third-quarter pretax operating income for public Fitch-rated firms dropped 11% year over year.
Life insurers' market challenges included a 29 bps decline in 10-year Treasury rates to 2.06%; increased equity market volatility with the VIX Index, ranging from low of 12 to high of 41; a 6.9% decline in the S&P 500; and a 14 bps increase in spreads on 10-year bonds that have a composite 'A' rating across the major rating agencies.
In the US, market pressures negatively affected prepayments and alternative income, and led to net income volatility related to fair value accounting on hedges and embedded derivatives. In addition, there was a modest uptick in realized investment losses largely tied to energy. While markets have improved thus far in the fourth quarter, interest rates and equity markets remain essentially flat from year-end 2014.
In Canada, the impact of continued lower commodity prices on oil and gas investments resulted in mark-to-market losses for Manulife Financial Corporation.
Adverse mortality continued to drag on life insurers' results in the quarter, which was unusual since it's a period when some seasonal recovery is expected. Companies reported that the elevated mortality was due to high severity, partially offset by favorable frequency.
Many life insurers conducted a comprehensive review of assumptions underlying GAAP policy reserves in the third quarter. Several took charges related to the exercise. A number of companies lowered their long-term, new money, investment-yield assumptions by 25 bps-50 bps to reflect the current new money rates and lower anticipated future interest rates. A common theme was the assumption that interest rates wouldn't return to normal for 10 years.
The pressure on earnings will be considered in Fitch's forthcoming 2016 Outlook for North American Insurance. Since September 2010, Fitch has maintained a Stable Outlook on both the sector and ratings within the sector based largely on the premise that the industry holds ample capital to withstand the impact of prolonged low interest rates and unexpected macroeconomic challenges. Fitch's rating and outlook views weigh how expected future earnings can affect overall capital strength.
The above article originally appeared as a post on the Fitch Wire credit market commentary page. The original article can be accessed at www.fitchratings.com. All opinions expressed are those of Fitch Ratings.