U.S. interest rates likely will stay relatively low with ample cash in the financial system for the foreseeable future, the head of Allianz Life said, despite Federal Reserve comments that sent stock prices tumbling last week.
A gradual rate rise and slow withdrawal of excess liquidity would put emphasis on alternative assets, which are a growing part of Allianz’s investment portfolio, said Walter White, chief executive officer of Allianz Life, speaking in an interview that aired on Tuesday for the Reuters Future of Insurance U.S.A. conference.
Private equity firms are using such investments to boost returns on the nearly $380 billion of insurance assets they own.
“We have to be prepared to deal with what is still an historically low-rate environment,” said White, who will step down as CEO September 1. While he expects rates to rise, “I don’t see rates radically changing” from current yields around 1.50% to 1.60% on 10-year Treasuries.
Insurance stocks have lagged as investors fret that insurers cannot operate well in a low-rate environment, White said. In contrast, private equity firms have taken a bullish long-term view on demand for annuities by the aging U.S. populous. That’s an optimism White shares: “These products are critical, and the market is inexorably growing because of demographics.”
PE firms have purchased annuity companies and redeployed the assets into areas insurers have typically not used, creating pressure for independent insurers to follow. “We have to keep pace with that,” White said. “They’re finding arbitrage opportunities … we also have to be savvy about those choices and respond.”
But insurers need to balance the risks. “We’re here to deliver a commitment to our customers 30, 40 years out. So a few basis points of investment yield can’t be attained at the expense of not being able to meet that commitment,” he said. “In fairness to customers, we have to be extremely conservative in our investment strategy.”
Allianz has moved more of its portfolio into alternative investments. It is “still not a huge percentage of the total portfolio, but it’s a growing percentage,” he said.
White also said older customers want technology, not just younger ones. “There’s just a huge expectation across all generations that you’ve got digital capability,” he said. Even senior centers are “completely outfitted with technology to do things virtually.”