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Life insurers find relief in DOL rule exemption as insurance stocks edge down

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Life insurers find relief in DOL rule exemption as insurance stocks edge down

It was a short and relatively quiet week for insurance stocks, but some life insurers got clarity around a Department of Labor rule exemption.

The SNL Insurance Index declined 0.56% to 855.83 for the week ended Jan. 19, and the S&P 500 fell 0.48% to 2,263.69.

Sandler O'Neill + Partners analyst John Barnidge said the most notable development in the life insurance space this week was the Department of Labor's proposal of an exemption for certain independent marketing organizations, which can now use a best interest contract exemption from the DOL rule when selling certain annuity products. The rule is not applicable to all such marketing organizations, however. Insurance intermediaries must have annual fixed-annuity contract sales that average at least $1.5 billion in premiums over the last three years in order to qualify.

The newly proposed rule gets rid of some of the uncertainty around how independent marketing organizations would function under the DOL rule, Barnidge said. He said the news provides some "relief" for companies selling primarily fixed-index annuities through independent agent channels.

Barnidge specifically named American Equity Investment Life Holding Co. and Fidelity & Guaranty Life, which sell mostly in those channels, as beneficiaries of the clarity provided by the proposed exemption.

American Equity's stock actually fell 1.31% for the week after it reported disappointing fourth-quarter 2016 sales figures. Barnidge said the company's sales results, released Jan. 13, were not particularly surprising given the "chilling effect" the DOL rule had in the latter half of 2016, even though it is not yet fully implemented.

Looking ahead at 2017 expectations for life insurers in particular, there should be more good news than bad, according to the Sandler analyst. Barnidge said the recent rise in interest rates is probably enough to boost their earnings. While life insurance stocks have not performed as well as financials like banks since the November 2016 presidential election, they have attractive valuations compared to historic multiples, he said.

Three big life writers all finished the week lower. Shares of MetLife Inc. lost 0.53%, declining to $54.02; Prudential Financial Inc. fell 0.45% to $104.76; and Lincoln National Corp. decreased 0.77% to $66.69.

Sandler O'Neill's Paul Newsome said there was not much news that moved property and casualty stocks during the week. Progressive Corp. gained 0.36% to $36.38 and Travelers Cos. Inc. rose 0.80% to $117.99.

Reuters on Jan. 19, citing "people familiar with the matter," reported that Aon plc is in "advanced talks" to sell its benefits outsourcing business to private equity firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice LLC for $4.5 billion. Aon's stock fell 0.89% during the week to $112.28. In an interview, Newsome said there is not yet enough information about the sale to assess its impact on Aon's stock.

On the earnings front, UnitedHealth Group Inc. reported fourth-quarter 2016 earnings from operations of $3.54 billion. That is up from $2.47 billion in the year-ago quarter. The managed care company's stock fell 1.92% to $158.70 for the week.