American Equity Investment Life Holding's CEO Presents at Citigroup US Financial Services Conference (Transcript)

| About: American Equity (AEL)

American Equity Investment Life Holding Company (NYSE:AEL)

March 06, 2013 3:35 pm ET


John Michael Matovina - Chief Executive Officer, President, Vice Chairman, Member of Executive Committee, Member of Disclosure Committee and Member of Investment Committee

Ted M. Johnson - Chief Financial Officer, Principal Accounting Officer, Treasurer and Member of Disclosure Committee

John Michael Matovina

Let's see if we -- are we up here yet? There we go. Well, thank you, and it's certainly our pleasure to be here this afternoon as well. American Equity is somewhat of a unique story. It's formed about 18 years ago by a gentleman by the name of Dave Noble. And forming a new company and all that, he was able to build it right from the beginning. So that's our winning corporate culture that we refer to there. And one of the key aspects of what American Equity delivers to its agents and policyholders is a very high level of service that we think is unmatched in the industry. We have a conservatively managed investment portfolio, which has been a real key to the growth of the company, and a cohesive management team that is operated together, I guess I should get closer to the mic, with a long history of success that dates back to even before American Equity was formed. We've got a simple business. Quite frankly, it's pretty easy to understand. As Eric said, we've got fixed indexed annuities as our principal product line. It's well over 95% of our business, a single, really, source of income, and that's our investment spread. We see the annuity deposits and then invest them in the assets and earn that spread over what we pay the policyholder liabilities. That gets a little complex on the indexed annuity side because we've got to hedge that index risk that we promised to the policyholders, but in reality, it actually is a fairly simple model. And I've got to comment we've got a track record of exceptional growth. You'll see some of those -- some statistics on that a little bit later in the presentation.

Our earnings model is really quite simple. We want to grow assets under management. That's where our distribution and gathering comes in. We want to earn that predictable spread as our biggest source of income, and then we want to make sure that we don't forfeit any of that spread earnings to credit losses or invested assets. We've got, I think, great opportunities for future growth. We sell to the retirement savings market. Everybody knows that America is an aging population, so that, we think, bodes well to continued future growth for American Equity. And despite the recent runup on our stock price, we think we're still quite undervalued relative to the performance that we've had.

So a few quick facts on the company, formed back in 1995, public since 2003. The company actually became operational in November '96, about a year after it was born. We've grown that time our assets under management to over $25 billion invested assets, and all that's been achieved one sale at a time by the independent insurance agents who sell our products, so no growth through acquisition, all internal generation from the agents who represent us who are all independent insurance agents.

Our management team, as I say, dates back to Dave Noble, the founder of the company. Mr. Noble's been active in the life insurance business for some 60 years. Many of our senior management team have been associated with American Equity from the beginning -- or prior to that, The Statesman Group, which was a publicly traded company that Mr. Noble was Chairman and CEO of. And our senior managers have at least 20 years of insurance or other professional experience, so we got an experienced group of people that has worked together for a long time. In addition to that, as a management team, we're relatively young, so a team that you can probably count on to be operating the company into the future.

Our product line, as we've said, now is fixed indexed annuities. We often get questions about indexed annuities relative to equity market investments and are sales going to better when markets are up or down. And quite frankly, that's not necessarily where the real comparison is. Indexed annuities are really safe money alternatives. We compete against other fixed annuities or CD-type products, things where you have principal protection and don't have a risk of loss of principal. So people looking for equity market returns really shouldn't be looking at indexed annuities, but if they're looking for guarantees, safety of principal, returns that can beat CDs or other safe money products, indexed annuities are the right product for that. And you see we've got lots of other features described here. It kind of boils down to, as I said, safety of principal and the guarantees.

Looking at how the product works, which we've got lots of questions on that through the years, and so we brought in this chart here. This is actually one of our annuities of a real life policyholder. The green line there that reaches the highest level was the actual performance of the indexed annuity, so that's the index-linked interest that's been achieved. The light blue line in the middle that goes up by the straight line, that's the guaranteed rate of interest. That's what makes the product and insurance product. You can never do worse than that. And then the red line there is the performance of the S&P 500, and what this shows is that in years where the S&P is negative or goes down, the indexed annuity holds its value. There is the -- in that year, you earn 0 interest on your policy. And then in points in time when the market is going up, the indexed annuity performs in -- I think you see pretty clearly that the rate of growth in the S&P, if you look through, like, 2002 to 2006, is faster than the rate of growth that was experienced by this particular indexed annuity, and that's because you can't get all of the equity market return for having a safety of principal and the guaranty of no loss. So you participate in the market, but you don't have the full exposure and are not going to realize the full benefits of the equity market. But over -- at least this last 12-year period, this particular annuity has performed quite well to what somebody could have achieved by being in the market in that time frame. And actually, this one's -- this product has its anniversary on September 30, so the recent activity in the market will not be reflected in this chart until we get to September of 2013. So all these products, you have to wait until the anniversary to determine what your outcome was for your index credit that particular year.

Our asset gathering, kind of going back to the theme at the beginning, how we make money, the biggest or one of the first things as we got to get business in the door. We do that through independent insurance agents, 24,000 these days. If you look back to some of the history of the company, we were as high as the low 50,000 agents. Over the past number of years, we've been reducing the agent count, primarily eliminating guys who are not producing business. We'll keep people as long as they write one app within a year, but when we get guys that go 12 months or even longer without sending us business, we'll then contact them, encourage them to write an app, let them know that if we don't see some activity out of them in the near future, we're going to terminate their relationship with us. And so that's helped us get more efficient in the distribution area of our business, keeping us involved with those agents who are writing for us.

We have a big emphasis on something called Gold Eagle. Those are agents who sell over $1 million of annuities each year for American Equity. That's our answer to what some of our competitors have in terms of agent incentive programs. And how we distinguish ourselves from those competitors, though, is American Equity being really the only publicly traded entity in the universe. A number of our major competitors are subsidiaries of foreign corporations or owned by private companies. They can't offer equity-based compensation. We've had a long history at American Equity of trying to get the producers' compensation aligned with the company and its stockholders to some sort of equity-based compensation. And the agents these days get stock options, an American Equity stock for each $1 million dollars of business they write. We also provide some cash incentives to them in terms of marketing financial support and as is typical in the business, incentive trips based upon production on a given year.

We focus on the relationships with those agents. We've developed many of those relationships over the last 15, 16 years, and that's another distinguishing thing with American Equity relative to our competition. We've got very strong relationships with our agents that actually go quite a ways up in terms of the company management. We're one of the few companies where the senior managers, the president, myself, the president of our insurance company, Ted, our CFO, you will hear from him in a minute, interact with the agents at these functions. So at American Equity, they have access to the highest levels of management, a level of opportunity they don't have with many of our competitors or pretty much all of our competitors.

Here's a look at the competitive landscape. Allianz, Aviva and American Equity have been top 3 companies for many, many quarters. Security Benefit is one of the more recent entrants into the market. They've actually only been in for a couple of years. Security Benefit is a company that is now controlled by Guggenheim Partners, which might be a name familiar to many of you. And they managed to crack the top 3 for the first time in the third quarter of last year.

The reason we've got third quarter data up here is the fourth quarter information has not been released yet. So if you're interested in seeing that, we'll update this presentation, perhaps, within the next week with the fourth quarter data, which we're expecting to see anytime now. We don't really want to speculate on where the positions might be, but I think the top 4 seemed to be at levels above the next level, so we're reasonably comfortable we're going to stay in that 3 or 4 position, where we've been for a number of years.

So opportunities for future growth. As I said earlier, the population is playing into our hands. That was actually one of the motivations of Mr. Noble when he created American Equity, to sell fixed annuities and fixed indexed annuities serving the retiree market. Longevity risk is something that also is working in our favor, and it's actually, perhaps, one of the new elements of how we see future growth for our company. Fixed annuities, fixed indexed annuities, for the longest time, have been sold for their savings or cumulation elements of that, and that's really been motivation in how we've competed at American Equity for -- since inception. But as the population ages and those retirement savings dollars have to be converted to lifetime income, fixed indexed annuities have a place in that marketplace as well. As a matter of fact, this lifetime income benefit writer that is at the bottom there, the list of characteristics attracting attention, is a very popular feature. It's similar to writers that you might be familiar with or heard about invariable annuities in that it provides a level of lifetime income. What's unique to the indexed annuity writer is there's not the same level of financial risk to the company in having that writer add it to its annuity. And it provides an attractive way for people to obtain their money or use their money in retirement. The real benefit relative to historical ways of getting money in retirement, which is what we call a payout or immediate annuity, in those types of annuity is you give up access to your underlying principal, which are guaranteed a lifetime income from the insurance company. With this lifetime income benefit writer, you get your lifetime income, but you still have access to your underlying account value. In the case you might have unexpected financial needs, medical or whatever, you can still get some additional dollars from your annuity each year. The trade-off for that is you don't get the same level of income you would get if you're annuitized, but Americans are kind of opposed to the concept of annuitization. I think the statistics are like less than 2% of annuities of all kinds get annuitized because people don't like giving up that access to their underlying principal. And this is a good way for them to kind of get a combination of both, a high level of income but retaining flexibility for future needs.

Market growth on the indexed annuities more than doubled over the last decade. I think the numbers for this year that I did see today would have showed that the sales for 2013 were a little bit ahead of where they were in 2012. To kind of put that into perspective, here's a look at how -- the various types of annuities and the percentage of total annuity sales over the last number of years. You can see the red line in the bottom. Indexed annuities have been gradually picking up a bigger piece of the share from the total annuity pot. Fixed annuities in the middle, without the indexing features, on a decline. And then variable annuities in the dark there, kind of holding steady the last several years in the mid- to high 60%. And we think the attractiveness of an indexed annuity, particularly the fact that the guarantees are in the contracts, and as more and more people reach that retirement age and they can't afford to put their principal money at risk, that indexed annuity is out to continue to gather an increasing share of the annuity market, as I said, coinciding with what changes in the demographics.

So with that, I'll turn the podium over to Ted Johnson. Ted is our CFO at American Equity. He'll go through our financial results with you.

Ted M. Johnson

Thank you, John. Showing here is our operating income statement, and we've simplified it by collapsing it down into our just main areas of operation. Our reported GAAP statement of operations, it's fairly difficult and complicated to understand due to accounting for derivatives we own to hedge the index growth within our indexed annuity policies and also the embedded derivatives within our policies, both of which we must record a fair value through net income on a reported basis. In addition, fair value fluctuations from derivative accounting cause the amortization of our deferred acquisition costs and our deferred sales inducements to fluctuate. Our operating statement percentage here remove all of that volatility caused by those derivative fair value adjustments and also adjust for realized gains and losses and expense associated with the establishment of litigation reserves.

As John stated before, we have a simple business that is easy to understand, with one single source of income. And you can see that in our annuities margin line. That annuity margin line is made up of spread income, surrender charges and fees less the cost of money. The reduction in the growth of the annuities margin line that you see between 2011 and 2012 is due to the effect of excess cash and other short-term investments held during the year related to proceeds from callable agency securities, which I will discuss more later in my presentation.

Amortization here includes the amortization of costs deferred related to the acquisition of policies and sales inducements paid on those policies. The increase in amortization that you see from year to year is mainly due to the growth of our annuity business and corresponds to the growth in our annuity margin line.

We periodically revise the key assumption used to calculate amortization expense, and we refer to this as an unlocking process. The impact of unlocking can cause amortization and operating income to fluctuate between years. The impact on operating income from unlocking in 2012 decreased operating income by $6.3 million, and of -- I'm sorry, excuse me, $6.3 million, while the impact in unlocking increased operating income by $12.5 million, which explains part of the differentiation between operating income between the 2 years.

Operating expenses increased from 2012 mainly due to a change in accounting for deferred policy acquisition cost that was adopted prospectively at the beginning of 2012. This increased operating expenses by $9.1 million in 2012, and it decreased operating income by $5.8 million.

Our return on average equity for the year for 2012 was 11.1% compared to 14.8% in 2011.

Within our capital structure, our notes payable are comprised of 3 different issuances of convertible notes. We have $116 million of convertible notes with a conversion price of $9.57, which have a put-call date on December 15, 2014. We also have $28 million of convertible notes with a conversion price of $13.74. That also have a put-call date on December 15, 2015. And finally, we have $200 million of convertible notes that mature September 15, 2015. This subordinated debentures are trust preferred issues.

During the second quarter of 2012, we called for redemption 23 million of 8% convertible trust preferred securities and approximately 20.6 million converted into 2.5 million shares, and 1.3 million was redeemed for cash. Our book value increased to $16.49 compared to $16.9 in the prior year.

The management of spread is key to our operating results. Our objective is to earn a 300 basis point spread target. Our investment spread in 2012 in the fourth quarter was 259 basis points, which was impacted by shortfalls in net investment income from excess liquidity from a lag of reinvestment of proceeds from government agency bonds called for redemption and lower yields available on investments for reinvestments of those bonds. This callable agency securities have been a cornerstone of our investment portfolio since the company was formed. Through the years, they have provided acceptable yields that met our spread targets without any risk-based capital charges. We have gone through several cycles of calls on these securities and each time have reinvested a portion of the call proceeds into new callable agency securities with lower yields than what was called.

We implemented rate reductions in the fourth quarter of 2011 on policy renewals originally issued through November of 2009. And in the fourth quarter of 2012, we extended those rate reductions to policies issued subsequent to November 2009 through 2010. The 2012 spread results reflected here reflects the benefit from these rate reductions. However, the reduction in cost of money was offset to a greater extent by the shortfalls in investment income from excess liquidity.

Here, we show our path to our spread restoration strategy. During 2012, we had $4.3 billion in calls of government agency securities due to the low market rates. Our call exposure for 2013 is limited to $728 million, with $50 million of that are already occurring in the first quarter and the remaining $628 million will occur in April. Our average cash and other short-term investment balance held during 2012 was $1.7 billion, and we ended the year with $2.2 billion of cash and other short-term investments. We anticipate having a meaningful reduction in our excess cash and other short-term investments during the first quarter due to the period -- due to the fact that we only have $50 million of calls during that quarter.

Our progress in getting this excess liquidity invested will slow down some during the second quarter in relation to the calls that we will see in April. But we do believe that we should be fully invested by the end of the year, and if needed, we will make additional crediting rate adjustments necessary to reach our targeted spread of 3%.

We have very strong surrender charge protection on our block of business, with 96% of our annuity fund values covered by a surrender charge. This surrender charge helps to facilitate the period of time that we have to earn our spread on the block of business, with the average remaining surrender charge on our in-force block is 15.4% and the average remaining years is 9.9

Our investment philosophy has been structured to have a portfolio investments that maintains policyholder and shareholder safety while maximizing investment return within established risk parameters. 98% of our fixed maturity securities are rated either an NAIC 1 or 2, and we manage our portfolio of durations to closely match that of our liability.

The overall credit profile of our portfolio continues to remain very high with an A average rating and only 1.9% below investment-grade securities. The difference that you see here between the NAIC ratings and the rating agency ratings is due to how the NAIC rates RMBS securities.

During 2012, we invested $7.1 billion at an average yield of 4.14%. Total calls, sales and pay-downs on fixed income securities and commercial mortgage loans was $6.2 billion, with an average yield of 5.36%.

For the key investment considerations of why AEL, we have demonstrated an 18% annual compound growth rate, and we've grown our assets under management to approximately $29 billion over that period of time. We've had a 26% annual growth rate in operating income. While we did take a step back in 2012 due to the excess liquidity, we do believe that once we are fully invested and we are back to obtaining our 3% targeted return, we will see that growth in income continue.

The annual return on our stock of 5% sales to reflect the growth of the company and the growth in book value, and our valuation does not reflect our high return on average equity.

In closing, American Equity has a winning corporate culture with a strong management team, a track record of exceptional growth and significant opportunities for future growth.

Thank you for coming, and I guess with that, I'll open it up for any questions that you may have.

Question-and-Answer Session

Unknown Analyst

I guess to start off, one, you mentioned, John, that private equities become more active in this space. And if you could talk a little bit about the competitive environment in particularly, what you're seeing from these private equity firms in terms of pricing or how that's changing the dynamics in the marketplace.

John Michael Matovina

Well, there's 3 private equity firms that have come into the space. The first would have been probably Harbinger, which bought the Old Mutual group. And for a while there, there really wasn't much competition from that group. They weren't really that active in new sales, and that did change in the first quarter of last year. All of a sudden, they just kind of appeared again and started attracting some sales with some product offerings that were priced to be competitive, and they obtained some market share, although they seem to be less aggressive in their pricing. And if you would remember back to the chart for the third quarter sales, they weren't even in the top 10. They would have been in the top 10 in the first half of the year or the first 2 quarters of the year, and we really haven't seen any additional changes out of them just yet. The Guggenheim Partners company that I mentioned that own Security Benefit, they also own now EquiTrust company, which they bought from FBL Financial. They've been in now for just a couple of years, and actually, that EquiTrust transaction is just a little more than a year old, but that's really been the new competitor. They previously -- Security Benefit as a company has been around for a long time, but they were not active in indexed annuities, and under Guggenheim's control, they've developed the product. They located some distribution, and they distribute through now 4 marketing companies that also represent American Equity and are significant producers for us. So they've kind of done it the way American Equity did from the beginning, from scratch, but actually with even faster runup rate than we have. We believe they've done that with a product offering that is quite attractive, one that we cannot see but don't understand the product terms -- we understand product terms, excuse me. The level of benefits that they provide are higher level of benefit than our pricing tells us that we can allow. So what they may be thinking in pricing assumptions, we don't know, but nevertheless, they have a product offering out there that the agents find superior to ours, and that has helped them develop their company in a fairly short period of time. And then the third element of private equity is Athena Apollo. While they've bought some companies, they have not been that active in distribution yet. Actually, they just got into distribution in the third and fourth quarters of last year. But their latest transaction is the acquisition of Aviva, which has been the #2 market share position for a number of years now, actually, probably going back to the point in time of 2007 or '08, when Aviva U.K. acquired a company that was also based in Des Moines by the name of Amours. Amours is a publicly traded company for many years, operated in the top 5 but never in the #1 or 2 position. And then under Aviva's ownership, they became, for at least 1 year, the #1 carrier, and the last several years, they've been the #2 carrier. So their private equity is acquiring a very large established company. It remains to be seen how their competitive position might change in their new ownership versus what it was when they were owned by Aviva. They want to give you the microphone.

Unknown Analyst

Given the competitive environment that you just discussed, and I think you had a slide at the beginning of the presentation showing the number of independent agents carrying your product, how are the agents responding to the current environment? So I think you said here 24,000. Is that what you need to achieve your growth goals going forward? And if you could talk a little bit about that.

John Michael Matovina

24,000 is a good agent count for us. If we could add another 10% of good producers, we'd love to do that and we continue to do that. So we were $5.1 billion a couple of years ago with about the same count, although that particular year, we had 1,200 guys qualified for Gold Eagle at $1 million or more. For 2012, we only had 925, and I suspect the number of those guys, instead of writing for us, were writing for the Security Benefit or Aviva -- excuse me, Security Benefit company, not Aviva. So we can continue to produce a high level of sales from our existing agents, but it would be helpful to expand that count, and we're regularly looking to obviously maintain the relationship we have and expand those and to get more of our agents to produce at a higher level.

Unknown Analyst

Just getting back, similar to Guggenheim, I was just wondering, are there other companies who have similar products that are being launched similar to the Guggenheim products? Is that a one-off? And if it's not a one-off, how do you try to defend your market share? Are you happy with 10% market share? What's your thinking with regards to the growth you've seen with the Guggenheim product?

John Michael Matovina

Our historical posture has been, and I suspect this would continue, that when companies capture market share with product offerings that we find to be -- if we try to match them, we would find them unattractive from returns to us that we let the market share go and maintain pricing discipline and accept the level of sales that our pricing discipline will provide to us. So returns are more important than defending market share. That being said, we do want to keep -- we don't want any further reduction in our sales. The $4 billion level that we wrote last year is one we really would like to maintain and not see any slippage from there.

Unknown Analyst

And Ted, maybe if you could talk a little bit more on the assets, I have 2 questions for you. One, is there anything that you're contemplating differently to boost yields to maintain spreads? And then secondly, you mentioned historically being involved primarily in callable agencies, and how has that shifted? How are you comfortable with kind of the negative convexity risk of being callable mortgages where the product in low rate environment, where people will hold on to it longer?

John Michael Matovina

We're currently addressing the negative convexity. We have actually had not been reinvesting the proceeds that we received on the callable agencies in this last cycle back into them. So that has cured the negative convexity, and we're actually in a positive convexity now. In addition to that, we've looked into some other asset categories that we've allocated funds to. We've gone into some CMBS securities. We've entered into some leverage loans also, but we've mostly allocated those proceeds from those calls into corporate bonds.

Unknown Analyst

And you've been active in commercial mortgages as well?

Ted M. Johnson

We've continued to be active in commercial mortgages. That market and the competition out there for commercial mortgages have gotten tighter and more difficult to put those on the books. We're still very active in that, and that has led to the combination of the CMBS and our direct writing of our own commercial mortgage loans.

Unknown Analyst

In regards to the agents, back to the line of questions earlier, so this program that you offer to the benefit of those who write more than $1 million in a given year of premium, how much is disclosed? And is that being replicated by a security benefit or others? Because it sounds like an obviously pretty enticing program. How much, though, is disclosed to their clients as they write those insurance?

John Michael Matovina

Is the question how much do the policyholders know about? There's no obligation to disclose commissions to policyholders or the level of -- either even the commissions the agents get or the incentive compensation is not -- the agent is not obligated to disclose that. I know we've got things like fiduciary standard, and in the securities world, you've got 2 different standards these days. Insurance agents, though, are still salesman, and they -- their commission-based salesman is the way they operate.

Unknown Analyst


John Michael Matovina

The other -- our development of that program was intended to respond to a program that we knew Allianz had that they called Perks or something like that. I forgot the name. But anyway, there was a level of incentive compensation that their agents was receiving -- were receiving over and above what they could get from the sales contests that were run periodically. So our thought -- in Allianz's deal, they -- I think it was called Perks. I think they could get TVs or things like that. And our motivation was we want the agents to have some sense back to American Equity since they're loyal, and actually, we rolled the program out as a way of American Equity reinvesting in their business. The initial aspect of it, in addition to stock options, was what we called marketing dollars. And in order to get the marketing dollars, they had to demonstrate they were spending their money on further business development. So our message was you spent your own money to get your first $1 million in sales. American Equity is going to send some money back to you to reinvest in your business to help you get to the next million, and in addition to that, you get your stock options. Well, the administration of those marketing dollars got to be overly complex, and we no longer require them to demonstrate to us they're spending the money on incremental marketing. We just give them the cash. But the stock options do make us unique in that nobody else has that type of benefit because the American Equity is uniquely positioned as a pure-play public company on the indexed annuity business.

Unknown Analyst

One final question for me. I know a couple of years ago, you're more of the mainstream, call it, the mainstream life insurance company. Annuity companies looking to enter the indexed annuity market, particularly, they're getting out of DAs. Have you seen that, and do you expect more competitors to come into the market?

John Michael Matovina

There was a little wave of that, you're right, a year or so ago, but it really hasn't surfaced in any meaningful way. Longer term, I guess I'd say I'd be surprised if they didn't get into the market because of our beliefs about how good the product is and how appropriate it is for the aging demographics in the country. And of course, the securities where all broker-dealers have a big -- they have control already have a big slice of America's money. I mean, we're actually trying to, through a set of subsidiary, start selling through broker-dealers, so branch out from our traditional independent insurance distribution. We've gotten, I'd say, very modest success so far, but we have the effort underway primarily because we think there is a large pot of money there that could even get bigger as time goes on and that eventually, the people who have sold securities for the longest periods of time will recognize that an indexed annuity has a position alongside those securities in a diversified portfolio.

Unknown Analyst

Great. Well, there's no further questions from the audience. Thank you very much.

John Michael Matovina

Thank you.

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