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US life-annuity insurers will enter 2016 in relatively good financial condition, but facing exponential changes from rapid advances in technology, rising customer expectations and growing competition.
These market shifts will require insurers to reinvent their strategies, services and processes, while coping with nagging financial, economic and regulatory uncertainty. Fortunately, after years of bolstering their balance sheets, life-annuity firms are in a strong position to invest in the innovations and technologies needed to fuel future growth.
Growing customer expectations
Digital technology will continue to transform the life-annuity industry in the coming year. From anytime, any-device digital delivery to customized services, today’s diverse insurance customers will demand flexible solutions that go beyond one-size-fits-all product offerings. To take advantage of these trends, insurers will need to adopt a customer-centric approach that relies on deeper relationships, more personalized advice and more rigorous information. At the same time, life-annuity insurers must integrate emerging distribution technologies to reach customers through multiple channels, all without disrupting traditional distribution.
Millennials and mass-affluent consumers, in particular, are seeking the latest digital tools, such as on-demand insurance apps and robo-advisors for automated, algorithm-based financial advice. Meanwhile, insurers are establishing omni-channel platforms to reach and service customers more effectively, and exploring the use of wearables and health monitors for usage-based life insurance. Advanced analytics, such as predictive models, combined with cloud and on-demand technologies, will provide insurers with the instruments to re-engineer front and back offices.
To fast-track digital transformation, insurers are turning to partnerships and acquisitions. For example, in 2015, Northwestern Mutual purchased online planner LearnVest to provide more customized support to customers. Other insurance firms, such as Transamerica and Mass Mutual, have set up venture capital firms to invest in digital service providers.
But digital innovation also carries greater risks. Digital technologies make insurers more vulnerable to financial fraud, data theft and political activism. Privacy breaches are becoming a bigger concern as insurers gain wider access to sensitive financial and health data. Even the use of social media is exposing firms to risks from reputational damage.
Competitive pressures are building
As digital technology becomes more pervasive, insurers will face greater competition from new digital startups. Although much of the recent innovation in financial services has occurred in the banking and payments sector, insurance is now squarely in the cross-hairs of new digital providers. One example is PolicyGenius, which is offering digital platforms to help consumers shop for insurance. With the recent launch of Google Compare, the rise of InsuranceTech will gain momentum in 2016.
But competition will also come from existing insurers leveraging new digital solutions and business models. For example, John Hancock recently launched Protection UL with Vitality, which rewards life-insurance policyholders for health-related activities monitored through personalized devices. In 2016, more insurance stalwarts will jump on the digital bandwagon through new product development, acquisitions, and alliances. At the same time, changing insurance attitudes and practices among millennials will spread to other
age groups. Insurance firms reluctant to embrace innovations for fear of cannibalizing their own market space may be overtaken by more nimble firms able to capitalize on a shifting insurance landscape.
Uncertain economic and regulatory conditions Life-annuity insurers are operating in a tenuous economic and financial environment with sizable downside risk. In 2016, global economic weakness will continue to be a worry, particularly as emerging market growth decelerates, financial volatility escalates, and the US economy muddles through a presidential election year. Regulatory and monetary tinkering will further complicate macro conditions.
The political landscape is likely to remain gridlocked at the federal and state levels as the election cycle concludes. Tax policies are unlikely to change in 2016, but insurers should prepare for new post-election regulatory headwinds in 2017. Insurers should also stay on top of the Department of Labor’s ongoing evaluation of fiduciary responsibility rules, which will remain a disruptive force in 2016.
Regulations originally designed for other industries and jurisdictions are being extended into the US insurance market. International regulators are moving ahead with further development of Solvency II and IFRS. The NAIC and state insurance departments are adjusting risk-based capital charges and will react to the first year of ORSA implementation.
Mixed impact on life-annuity insurers Premiums will grow moderately in 2016. Individual life premium growth will be particularly sluggish, as consumers remain focused on retirement savings. Faced with equity market volatility, consumers will continue to invest in invest in fixed and indexed annuities, and avoid variable annuities.
To cope with torpid market conditions, insurers will focus on growing premium and investment income, managing risks, and controlling costs. Companies will continue to identify opportunities to improve return on equity through active balance sheet and back- book management. Among the strategies are investments in organic and inorganic growth, seeking reinsurance and capital market capacity, and returning excess capital to shareholders. M&A activity will likely accelerate in 2016 as Asian insurers and private equity firms continue their interest in US insurance companies.
Margin compression will dictate sustained emphasis on cost management through centralized control, technology upgrades and better integration of business units. With mission-critical information becoming more accessible, data- driven business decisions are moving to the C-suite. At the same time, regulatory demands and business imperatives are elevating risk management responsibility to the C-suite and board.
Read the entire report, 2016 EY US life-annuity insurance outlook, here