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Life stocks lead insurance rally after US election called, positive vaccine news

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Life stocks lead insurance rally after US election called, positive vaccine news

Equity markets rallied after the U.S. presidential election was finally settled and the first results from a large COVID-19 vaccine trial showed real promise.

Insurance stocks outpaced the broader markets, with life companies in particular logging strong gains. The S&P 500 increased 2.16% to 3,585.15 for the week ending Nov. 13, while SNL U.S. Insurance Index jumped 4.53% to 1,168.84.

The first day of trading after major news organizations called the election also brought news that a coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE indicated strong effectiveness in preventing infection and disease in a phase 3 trial.

Bolstering the outlook for life companies was a 13-basis-point increase in long-term interest rates that day. Years of low rates have continuously pressured life insurance companies' financial performance and valuations. MetLife Inc.'s shares jumped 11% on the day. Prudential Financial Inc.'s stock climbed more than 15%, while Lincoln National Corp.'s shares advanced more than 25%.

The interest-rate increase pushed the 10-year number to 95 basis points, which remains a "material, fundamental negative for the life insurance industry over time," Keefe Bruyette & Woods analyst Ryan Krueger wrote in a Nov. 9 research note to clients.

"A continued rise in [10-year] interest rates is likely needed for life stocks to broadly rally from here," Krueger said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden's victory could have tax implications for savers and investors, but should settle into a net positive for the retirement savings market, CFRA analyst Cathy Seifert wrote in a Nov. 9 note to clients.

"The likelihood that his administration will aggressively manage the COVID-19 pandemic and undertake an array of fiscal stimulus measures bodes well for an economic and labor market recovery that CFRA expects will bolster demand for retirement savings products," Seifert wrote.

Lincoln National's shares finished the week up 22.34%. MetLife climbed 10.52%, and Prudential Financial added 15.07% to its stock price.

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Hanging over the nearer-term macroeconomy during the week was a surge in COVID-19 cases that spurred a new round of lockdowns in Europe and concern over the possibility of another economic downturn in the U.S. as some localities and states reimposed certain restrictions. Moody's maintained its stable outlook for the domestic commercial property and casualty sector on the strength of good pricing trends and strong capital positions.

Business insurance underwriters endured the first round of lockdowns as an earnings event, primarily in the second quarter, said Jasper Cooper, senior credit analyst for the rating agency. Since then, insurers have written in exclusions for coronavirus event cancellations, Cooper said in an interview.

"We could see more losses for that, but unlikely as large as we saw in [the second quarter]," Cooper said.

While premium growth tends to track the economic cycle, the P&C industry is more resilient than other sectors because its policies are mandated by state regulations, said senior credit analyst Bruce Ballentine.

"Many types of insurance you have to buy whether you like it or not," Ballentine said in an interview.

Travelers Cos. Inc.'s shares experienced a 6.01% gain on the week, as Chubb Ltd. picked up 8.40%. Shares of American International Group Inc. rose 12.55% and Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. went up 14.75%.

Traders were left with a bad taste in their mouths following the release of Lemonade Inc.'s third-quarter results despite improved operating efficiencies. The newly public insurance technology company saw its share price drop more than 12% when trading resumed Nov. 11. But the stock bounced back shortly thereafter and narrowed its weekly loss to just 2.44%.