EU’s Insurance CIOs Cite Low Interest Rates as Main Concern

Europe’s insurance companies are adapting their investment approach via diversification and hedging techniques, yet much of the industry has a long way to go in responding to the challenges of low interest rates, regulation and risk management, claims a joint study by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and AXA Investment Managers (AXA IM).

Their study, entitled
‘Adapting asset management strategies to the current market environment’
, highlights the key challenges facing European insurers and how they are adjusting their investment approaches in response. BCG and AXA IM interviewed chief investment officers (CIOs) from nearly 30 insurance companies across Europe, representing over €3 trillion in assets under management.

Over two thirds (68%) identified low interest rates as their key challenge, followed by new regulations (58%) and risk management complexity (47%). Macroeconomic uncertainty and related financial market volatility were lesser concerns at 26% and 16% respectively, suggesting that insurers may be growing accustomed to operating in the so-called ‘new normal’ environment. What does concern insurers, however, is the prospect of continued political intervention in economics, with 30% of insurers citing political intervention as a major challenge, adding that it hinders their ability to make predictions and investment decisions.

The BCG/AXA IM study found that whilst there is increasing appetite amongst CIOs to counter the impact of the low yield environment by allocating to alternative sources of return, there has been very limited actual movement towards real diversification of investment portfolios. While the majority of insurers pledge to allocate up to 10% of their portfolios to alternative asset classes, most currently sit at only 2% to 3%.

The study also shows that while European insurers recognise the need to better manage the volatility of their balance sheets by using hedging strategies, 45% of them currently employ no hedging mechanisms and cite the lack of internal know-how, resources and infrastructure as the main blocks. This raises questions around how they will manage volatility on their balance sheets with the onset of accounting standard IFRS 4 and the Solvency II regime in the coming years.

Deciding the optimal balance between managing assets in-house and outsourcing remains an issue for insurers. At present, fewer than 5% of European insurance assets are outsourced to non-affiliated third-party asset managers, compared with 20% of American insurance assets. Critically, during the interview process, no European CIO mentioned a structural reason for this failure to embrace outsourcing. Interviewees did cite ‘losing control of investment portfolios’, and ‘less transparency and risk control’ as barriers. On the flip side, having access to a partner with the required expertise, whom they can exchange ideas on a variety of topics is seen as a benefit.

BGC and AXA IM comment that the asset and liability management (ALM) function continues to play an increasingly important role in insurance companies’ corporate governance given the pressure to deliver on investment objectives. Seventy-five per cent of large insurers surveyed have been or are currently in the process of moving their ALM functions from a business level to a group level in order to create strong central units that can manage all asset and liability positions across all of their businesses.

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