Total Life Issued Down in 2021; Ordinary Life Climbs in Mixed Year
Looking back, 2021 was a year in which COVID-19 mortality was up, then down, then up again. Life insurers brought in some new customers. And it was a year in which market volatility and inflation started to rear their heads for the first time in recent memory. See links below to the Best’s Rankings lists of the Top 25 US Life/Health Insurers – 2022 Edition.
- Terrence Dopp
- September 2022
- Rankings: The AM Best rankings detailed life insurance as an industry, as well as on an individual carrier basis, on several key metrics used to quantify policies in force, policies issued and persistency.
- Movement: While total life insurance issued was down slightly, other areas, such as ordinary life issued, painted a more positive picture.
- Year: In all fairness—between an economic sprint out of the COVID-19 doldrums and the lingering presence of the virus, which hung over virtually every aspect of the U.S. economy—2021 wasn’t a normal year.
MetLife Insurance Cos. saw its total life insurance issued jump by 93% in 2021 to $301.44 billion, moving it up five spots to top a list of carriers ranked by that metric, according to a Best's Rankings report looking back on the prior year's performance.
The company's strong performance defied an industrywide slump amid COVID-19 and inflation that saw a drop of 0.9% in 2021 to $3.28 trillion in total life issued across the total U.S. life/health industry. U.S. group life issued saw a drop of 11.5%, even as ordinary life issued was up by 6.9%.
Third-ranked Lincoln Financial Group posted the only drop of the top five total life issued with its issuance of about $197 billion, down 21.4% compared to a year earlier.
“If you look at it from top line it was a record year; it was a great year for top line growth. But if you look at it from the point of view of mortality, that was clearly elevated. It depends on which business you were in.”
A Bird's Eye View
For the U.S. economy as a whole—and life insurers didn't stray too much from the pattern—2021 was a year in which mortality due to COVID-19 came down even as it remained elevated. However, it also aimed a spotlight on the virtues of insurance and brought in some new customers. It was also a year in which markets began seeing some volatility and inflation starting to creep into the economy for the first time in decades.
The rankings showed a growth in some areas and corresponding drops in others. In short, it was a year of conflicting messages, which were illustrated by the rankings tables.
Michael Porcelli, a senior director in the life/annuity ratings division of AM Best, said the underpinnings of companies remained solid in 2021, even though there was downward movement in some areas.
“If you look at it from top line, it was a record year; it was a great year for top line growth,” said Porcelli. “But if you look at it from the point of view of mortality, that was clearly elevated. It really depends on which business you were in.”
Porcelli said the heart of the life insurance business is capitalization, which remained strong in 2021.
Stripping away any growth or business changes, capitalization remains one of the bedrock measures for determining the health of a life insurance carrier, he said. That one measure tends to determine a company's ability to pay off claims, and provide the fuel for growth.
Related: Best’s Rankings: Top 25 US Life/Health Insurers – 2022 Edition
In terms of term life in force, Swiss Re Life Group topped the list among companies in 2021, with growth of 18.8% to $1.76 trillion. Swiss Re Life had been ranked fourth in 2020, but jumped over Scor Life US Group, formerly No. 1, as well as RGA Group, which held its second-place position in 2021, and Prudential of America Group. RGA's $1.75 trillion was up 0.9% from the prior year.
For the total U.S. life/health industry, term life in force increased 2.9% in the year to $26.29 trillion. Genworth Financial Cos. posted the largest drop among the top 25 writers, with its $450 billion of term life in force down by 8.5%.
U.S. group life issued saw the biggest total drop of the ranked business segments at 11.5% to $1.26 trillion, according to the rankings.
Drilling down, MetLife Insurance Cos. defied the trend to see group life issued in 2021 jump by 94.9% to $294.1 billion, taking the top spot. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co. fell to No. 3 from first a year earlier with a 71.7% drop to $91.2 billion in the largest decrease among the top 25 writers.
Porcelli said the group life numbers in the past had been steadier, and in a year such as 2021, results can be skewed by larger macroeconomic developments and other factors such as reinsurance, making it hard to glean any true rationale.
“It sticks out, but does it overly surprise us?” said Ed Kohlberg, an AM Best director. “Maybe not, because of the economic challenges and employment challenges that have occurred because of COVID.”
On the positive side, ordinary life issued for U.S. life/health insurers increased 6.9% to $1.97 trillion in 2021, with top-ranked Northwestern Mutual Group issuing $197.91 billion for a gain of 20.7%. No. 16 Pacific Life Group had the steepest decrease among the top 25 writers with its $45.34 billion down by 16.3% from a year earlier.
Kohlberg said growth in ordinary life issued presented “a strong story” for the life insurance industry as it showed the 2021 efforts to reach the so-called middle market had paid off on some level.
“That's a line of business that the industry has been trying to grow for a long time and now they've achieved significant growth in what was viewed as a mature marketplace where you're lucky to get 2% or 3% growth.”