Dividends at The BIG 4 Carriers Mostly Down, But Are Interest Rates Finally Going Up?

A couple of weeks ago, we reported that Northwestern Mutual had declared its 2017 dividend and had not only lowered it but also increased some costs (see: Northwestern Mutual Dividend and Crediting Rates Drop, Expenses Rise). Northwestern Mutual was the first of the so-called “Big 4” mutual carriers to report. These A++ (AM Best)–rated companies are considered to be the gold standard among life insurance carriers. The others in the group (New York Life, Massachusetts Mutual, and Guardian Life) have now all reported in, and all but New York Life experienced a drop in their dividend interest rate (DIR).

These Big 4 mutual carriers are among the most solid, stable businesses in the country. Unlike the vast majority of carriers, which sell their products through a brokerage system, the Big 4 sell their products directly to the public through an agency system of career agents tied to the companies. The career model tends to increase persistency and repeat business among clients and loyalty among agents. However, even these firms have felt the sting of low interest rates and are struggling with their investment returns. As we noted in our prior post, Northwestern Mutual’s chief investment officer told the Milwaukee Business Journal that the low interest rate environment resulted in the company’s generating $6 billion less in income than it would have in a normal interest rate environment.

 

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The DIRs below-right represent the investment components of the dividends paid. Other factors besides the investment portion include actual expenses and mortality experiences. If mortality and expenses are more favorable than expected, it positively affects the dividend paid.

1-payoutWhile the DIR may have dropped at most of the carriers, the actual total dollar amount paid out to policyholders actually increased at two of the carriers. Policyholders own mutual carries like the Big 4 carriers, and the dividends received represent a portion of the divisible surplus left after all expenses and claims have been paid. As can be seen in the chart to the right,  New York Life and Guardian Life will pay out more to policyholders in 2017 than in 2016.

Since the presidential election, we have seen a bit of an upturn in interest rates, and many prognosticators are anticipating a trend to higher rates in the Trump administration. An article in the Wall Street Journal last week cited the head of U.S. short-rates strategy at a major US bank, who believes that “government bond yields are likely to rise further.” That same article pointed out that “Investors have been scrambling for the past two weeks to position themselves for a Trump presidency that they believe will mean higher growth, higher inflation and a Federal Reserve that will be under pressure to raise interest rates in a way that hasn’t been seen for more than a decade.” (1.) While higher rates are not a simple fix, as they will affect many parts of the economy negatively, for many carriers that rely on fixed vehicles as their primary investment, higher rates, on balance, would be welcome.

  1. Traders Convinced Higher Rates Are Near, Wall Street Journal, by Min Zeng, November 23, 2016