Where does the time go? It seems as if we were just ringing in 2015, and now we’re well into 2016. As time goes by, life changes, and the insurance industry—sometimes at a glacial pace—does, indeed, change, as well. Here’s my outlook for 2016 on various insurance topics:
- Increased insurance literacy: Through initiatives like The Insurance Consumer Bill of Rights and increased resources, consumers and agents are both able to know their rights when it comes to insurance and can better manage their insurance portfolios.
- Interest rates: The federal funds target rate increase that was announced recently will have a yet-to-be determined impact on long-term interest rates. According to Fitch Ratings, further rate increases’ impact on credit fundamentals and the longer end of the yield curve has yet to be determined. Insurance companies are hoping for higher long-term rates as investment strategies are liability-driven. (Read more on the FitchRatings website here). Here is what this means: There will not necessarily be a positive impact for insurance policy-holders (at least in the near future). Insurance companies have, for a long period, been subsidizing guarantees on certain products or trying to minimize the impact of low interest rates on policy performance. In the interim, many insurance companies have changed their asset allocation strategies by mostly diversifying their portfolios beyond their traditional holdings—cash and investment-grade corporate bonds—by investing in illiquid assets to increase returns. The long-term impact on product pricing and features is unknown, and will depend on further increases in both short- and long-term interest rates and whether they continue to rise in predictable fashion or take an unexpected turn for which insurers are ill-prepared.
- Increased cost of insurance (COI) on universal life insurance policies: Several companies—including Voya Financial (formerly ING), AXA and Transamerica—are raising mortality costs on in-force universal life insurance policies. Some of the increases are substantial, but, so far, there has been an impact on a relatively small number of policyholders. That may change if we stay in a relatively low-interest-rate environment and more life insurance companies follow suit. Here is what this means: As companies have been subsidizing guaranteed interest rates (and dividend scales) that are higher than what the companies are currently (and have been) earning over the last few years, it is likely that this trend will continue.
- Increasing number of unexpected life insurance policy lapses and premium increases: For the most part, life insurance companies do not readily provide the impact of the two prior factors I listed when it regards cash value life insurance policies (whole life, universal life, indexed life, variable life, etc). In fact, this information is often hidden. And this information will soon be harder to get; Transamerica is moving to only provide in-force illustrations based on guarantees, rather than current projections. Here is what this means: It will become more challenging to see how a policy is performing in a current or projected environment. At some point, regulators or legislators will need to step in, but it may be too late. Monitor your policy, and download a free life insurance annual review guide from the Insurance Literacy Institute (here).
- Increased complexity: Insurance policies will continue to become more complex and will continue their movement away from being risk protection/leverage products to being complex financial products with a multitude of variables. This complexity is arising with products that combine long-term care insurance and life insurance (or annuities), with multiple riders on all lines of insurance coverage and with harder-to-define risks — even adding an indexed rider to a whole life policy (Guardian Life). Here is what this means: The more variables that are added to the mix, the greater the chance that there will be unexpected results and that these policies will be even more challenging to analyze.
- Pricing incentives: Life insurance and health insurance companies are offering discounts for employees who participate in wellness programs and for individuals who commit to tracking their activity through technology such as Fitbit. In auto insurance, there can be an increase in discounts for safe driving, low mileage, etc. Here is what this means: Insurance companies will continue to implement different technologies to provide more flexible pricing; the challenge will be in comparing policies. The best thing an insurance consumer can do is to increase her insurance literacy. Visit the resources section on our site to learn more.
- Health insurance and PPACA/Obamacare: The enrollment of individuals who were uninsured before the passage of Obamacare has been substantial and has resulted in significant changes, especially because everyone has the opportunity to get insurance—whether or not they have current health issues. And who, at some point, has not experienced a health issue? Here is what this means: Overall, PPACA is working, though it is clearly experiencing implementation issues, including the well-publicized technology snafus with enrollment through the federal exchange and the striking number of state insurance exchanges. And there will be continued challenges or efforts to overturn it in the House and the Senate. (The 62nd attempt to overturn PPACA was just rejected by President Obama.) The next election cycle may very well determine the permanency of PPACA. The efforts to overturn it are shameful and are a waste of time and money.
- Long-term care insurance: Rates for in-force policies have increased and will almost certainly face future increases—older policies are still priced lower than what a current policy would cost. This is because of many factors, including the prolonged low-interest-rate environment, lower-than-expected lapse ratios, higher-than-expected claims ratios and incredibly poor initial product designs (such as unlimited benefits on a product where there was minimal if any claims history). These are the “visible” rate increases. If you have a long-term care insurance policy with a mutual insurance company where the premium is subsidized by dividends, you may not have noticed or been informed of reduced dividends (a hidden rate increase). Here is what this means: Insurance companies, like any other business, need to be profitable to stay in business and to pay claims. In most states, increases in long-term care insurance premiums have to be approved by that state’s insurance commissioner. When faced with a rate increase, policyholders will need to consider if their benefit mix makes sense and fits within their budget. And, when faced with such a rate increase, there is the option to reduce the benefit period, reduce the benefit and oftentimes change the inflation rider or increase the waiting period. More companies are offering hybrid insurance policies, which I strongly recommend staying away from. If carriers cannot price the stand-alone product correctly, what leads us to believe they can price a combined product better?
- Sharing economy and services: These two are going to continue to pose challenges in the homeowners insurance and auto insurance marketplaces for the insurance companies and for policy owners. There is a question of when is there actually coverage in place and which policy it is under. There are some model regulations coming out from a few state insurance companies, however, they’re just getting started. Here is what this means: If you are using Uber, Lyft, Airbnb or a similar service on either side of the transaction, be sure to check your insurance policy to see when you are covered and what you are covered for. There are significant gaps in most current policies. Insurance companies have not caught up to the sharing economy, and it will take them some time to do so.
- Loyalty tax: Regulators are looking at banning auto and homeowners insurance companies from raising premiums for clients who maintain coverage with them for long periods. Here is what this means: Depending on your current auto and homeowners policies, you may see a reduction in premiums. It is recommended that, in any circumstance, you should review your coverage to ensure that it is competitive and meets your needs.
- Insurance fraud: This will continue, which increases premiums for the rest of us. The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud released its 2015 Hall of Shame (here). Insurance departments, multiple agencies and non-profits are investigating and taking action against those who commit elder financial abuse. Here is what this means: The more knowledgeable that consumers, professional agents and advisers become, the more we can protect our families and ourselves.
- Uncertain economic and regulatory conditions: Insurance companies are operating in an environment fraught with potential changes, such as in interest rates (discussed above); proposed tax code revisions; international regulators who are moving ahead with further development of Solvency II; and IFRS, NAIC and state insurance departments that are adjusting risk-based capital charges and will react to the first year of ORSA implementation. And then there is the Department of Labor’s evaluation of fiduciary responsibility rules that are expected to take effect this year. Here is what this means: There will be a myriad of potential outcomes, so be sure to continue to monitor your insurance policy portfolio and stay in touch with the Insurance Literacy Institute. Part of the DOL ruling would result in changes to the definition of “conflict of interest” and possibly compensation disclosure.
- Death master settlements: Multiple life insurance companies have reached settlements on this issue. Created by the Social Security Administration, the Death Master File database provides insurers with the names of deceased people with Social Security numbers. It is a useful tool for insurers to identify policyholders whose beneficiaries have not filed claims—most frequently because they were unaware the deceased had a policy naming them as a beneficiary. Until recently, most insurers only used the database to identify deceased annuity holders so they could stop making annuity payments, not to identify deceased policyholders so they can pay life insurance benefits. Life insurers that represent more than 73% of the market have agreed to reform their practices and search for deceased policyholders so they can pay benefits to their beneficiaries. A national investigation by state insurance commissioners led to life insurers returning more than $1 billion to beneficiaries nationwide. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners is currently drafting a model law that would require all life insurers to use the Death Master File database to facilitate payment of benefits to their beneficiaries. To learn more, visit our resources section here. Here is what this means: Insurance companies will not be able to have their cake and eat it too.
What Can You Do?
The Insurance Consumer Bill of Rights directly addresses the issues discussed in this article.
Increase your insurance literacy by supporting the Insurance Literacy Institute and signing the Insurance Consumer Bill of Rights Petition. An updated and expanded version will be released shortly that is designed to assist insurance policyholders, agents and third party advisers.
What’s on your mind for 2016? Let me know. And, if you have a tip to add to the coming Top 100 Insurance Tips, please share it with me.