It is not easy to spot from a quick glance at some of the insurers’ recent financial results, but Britain’s life and pensions industry is reeling from a drop in sales of annuities, which have been among its biggest and most lucrative products.
The industry has done its best to shrug off the lower demand for guaranteed annuity incomes which savers were forced to buy on retirement until the government decided to change the rules this year.
Large listed life assurers, including Aviva, Legal & General and Standard Life, have disclosed steady year-on-year rises in first-half operating profits in spite of sharp declines – typically of more than 40 per cent – in sales of annuities.
This probably says more about accounting in the sector than how the companies are coping with the reforms, however. “People are not looking beyond the headlines enough,” says Abid Hussain, analyst at Société Générale.
The big insurers have to an extent been shielded from the worst of the disruption, as their headline profits suggest.
For a start, they do several other lines of business – overseas, and in other markets in the UK, from general insurance to handling corporate pension mandates.
Prudential is set to generate little more than a fifth of forecast £3.3bn operating profits this year from its UK life assurance division, for example.
Optimists also say the annuity market decline has not proved quite as dire as the 90 per cent collapse some analysts predicted soon after George Osborne, chancellor, unveiled the changes in March.
However, the results the companies have published in the past fortnight reflect their performance in the first six months of 2014. Almost half of that period was unaffected by the government’s changes.
L&G, which says sales slumped 50 per cent in the first half from a year ago, is preparing for a further decline of a similar magnitude next year – a total drop of three quarters.
Yet investors should not necessarily expect insurers’ profit and loss accounts to spell out the decline.
Annuities, under which savers hand over their pension pots when they retire in return for a guaranteed income for the rest of their lives, are long-term products.
The operating profits that assurers disclose for any given period largely reflect earnings generated from business written in years gone by, says Matthew Preston at Berenberg.
Steve Groves, chief executive of the pensions group Partnership, says: “The traditional insurance model is to lose money on the first day you write the contract. Over the course of 15 to 20 years, you make the money back.”
Investors trying to gain an insight into the hits the companies have taken from the recent annuity sales drop should focus on metrics other than traditional profit disclosure.
Most insurers now also use a version of “value of new business” (VNB) – a proxy for expected future cash flows.
Historically, annuities have accounted for about two-thirds of several listed life insurers’ VNB in the UK.
In the first half, Aviva’s VNB dropped 21 per cent in the UK, although improvements overseas meant the group overall posted a 9 per cent increase, assuming currencies had been constant.
VNB at FTSE 100-listed Friends Life, more exposed to the UK, fell 24 per cent.
Andy Briggs, chief executive of Friends, argues those companies that have access to customers will be best placed to deal with the reforms in the longer-term. He says Friends will have a big advantage since one in seven savers in defined contribution pension schemes are Friends’ customers.
However, Friends lacks a chunky asset management arm, which several analysts believe has become crucial as pensioners demand more flexibility in how they access their savings.
The scale of L&G’s investment management arm, which has £465bn under its auspices and specialises in low-cost passive funds, is one reason why Nigel Wilson, chief executive, believes his group is well placed.
The budget changes have also made turning round Aviva’s chronically-underperforming investment business a particular priority for Mark Wilson, the group’s chief executive.
However, the competitive fund management business is unlikely to be a panacea for life companies.
Asset management is much less capital intensive than traditional insurance but profit margins are significantly lower – at about 1 per cent. This compares with margins estimated to be between 5 and 10 per cent in the long term from annuities.
Still, few expect annuities to disappear altogether.
“We think annuities will remain a suitable product for many customers,” says Jackie Hunt, chief executive of Prudential’s UK arm. “They’ll likely probably buy it later in their lives, but actually many will still be looking for some sort of longevity protection.”
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