Japan’s Insurance Industry
INA Himawari Life
Manulife Century Life
GE Edison Life
Aetna Heiwa Life
American Family Life
AXA Nichidan Life
CARDIFF Assurance Vie
Foreign insurers are expected to be able to prevail over their domestic rivals to some extent in terms of innovative products and distribution, where they can draw on broader experience in global insurance markets. One immediate challenge for the foreign insurers will be how to establish a large enough franchise in Japan so that they can leverage these competitive advantages.
What ails the life insurance industry?
Apart from its own operational inefficiency, Japan’s life insurance sector is also a victim of government policies intended in part to rescue banks from financial distress. By keeping short-term interest rates low, the Bank of Japan encouraged in the mid-1990s a relatively wide spread between short-term rates and long-term rates. That benefited banks, which tend to pay short-term rates on their deposits and charge long-term rates on their loans.
The same policy, however, was detrimental to life insurance companies. Their customers had locked in relatively high rates on typically long-term investment-type insurance policies. The drop in interest rates generally meant that returns on insurers’ assets fell. By late 1997 insurance company officials were reporting that guaranteed rates of return averaged 4 percent, while returns on a favored asset, long-term Japanese government bonds, hovered below 2 percent.
Insurance companies cannot make up for a negative spread even with increased volume. In FY 1996 they tried to get out of their dilemma by cutting yields on pension-type investments, only to witness a massive outflow of money under their management to competitors.
To add insult to injury, life insurance companies are shouldering part of the cost of cleaning up banks’ non-performing asset mess. Beginning in 1990, the Finance Ministry permitted the issuance of subordinated debt made to order for banks. They can count any funds raised through such instruments as part of their capital, thereby making it easier than otherwise to meet capital/asset ratio requirements in place. This treatment arguably makes sense, inasmuch as holders of such debt, like equity holders, stand almost last in line in the event of bankruptcy.
Subordinated debt carries high rates of interest precisely because the risk of default is higher. In the early 1990s insurers, figuring bank defaults were next to impossible and tempted by the high returns available, lent large amounts to banks and other financial institutions on a subordinated basis. Smaller companies, perhaps out of eagerness to catch up with their larger counterparts, were especially big participants. Tokyo Mutual Life Insurance Co., which ranks 16th in Japan’s life insurance industry on the basis of assets, had roughly 8 percent of its assets as subordinated debt as of March 31, 1997, while industry leader Nippon Life had only 3 percent.
The rest, of course, is history. Banks and securities companies, to which insurers also had lent, began to fail in the mid-1990s. The collapse of Sanyo Securities Co., Ltd. last fall was precipitated in part by the refusal of life insurance companies to roll over the brokerage firm’s subordinated loans. Life insurers complained that they sometimes were not paid off even when the conditions of a bank failure implied that they should have been. For example, Meiji Life Insurance Co. reportedly had ¥35 billion ($291.7 million) outstanding in subordinated debt to Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, Ltd. when the bank collapsed in November. Even though the Hokkaido bank did have some good loans that were transferred to North Pacific Bank, Ltd., Meiji Life was not compensated from these assets. It apparently will have to write off the entire loan balance.
Subordinated debt is only part of the bad-debt story. Insurance companies had a role in nearly every large-scale, half-baked lending scheme that collapsed along with the bubble economy in the early 1990s. For example, they were lenders to jusen (housing finance companies) and had to share in the costly cleanup of that mess. Moreover, like banks, insurers counted on unrealized profits from their equity holdings to bail them out if they got into trouble. Smaller insurers of the bubble period bought such stock at relatively high prices, with the result that, at 1997’s year-end depressed stock prices, all but two middle-tier (size rank 9 to 16) life insurance companies had unrealized net losses.
What Lies Ahead
Analysts have identified the following short-term challenges to the sector:
New market entrants;
Pressure on earnings;
Poor asset quality; and,
The recent high-profile failures of several life insurance companies have turned up the pressure on life companies to address these challenges urgently and in recognizable ways.
The investment market has been even worse than expected. Interest rates have not risen from historically low levels. The Nikkei index has sagged since January 2001, and plummeted to 9 year low following recent terrorist attack on American soil. Unrealized gains used to provide some cushion for most insurers, but, depending on the insurers’ reliance on unrealized gains, the volatility of retained earnings is now affecting capitalization levels and thus financial flexibility.
Major Risks Facing Japanese Life Insurance Companies
Weak Japanese economy
Strong earnings pressures
Lack of policyholder confidence, flight to quality
Low interest rates, exposure to domestic, overseas investment market fluctuations
Deregulation, mounting competition
Poor asset quality
Inadequate policyholders’ safety net
Accelerating consolidation within life sector, with other financial sectors
Limited financial flexibility
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