Life insurers not as easy a call this year

|By:, SA News Editor

The prospect of higher rates helped the life insurers on their big 2013 run, but - priced in and with rates still pretty low - what's going to be the catalyst going forward? Maybe capital management, namely repurchases, writes Adam Cancryn. Buybacks can be made when convenient and boosts EPS in this slow growth environment, while dividends lock the company into a quarterly payout schedule it may not want to keep.

Acquisitions? Sector valuations are a lot closer to historical norms now, says Macquarie's Sean Dargan, and a deal might be the way for a company looking to spur growth and attract investor attention. "At the end of the day, you want there to be earnings growth, not just EPS growth due to share repurchase," Dargan says. "If you can't do that organically, I think it makes sense to be acquisitive."

The bottom line is lower rates fed through (in a negative way) to the bottom line very slowly, and higher rates are going to boost income just as slowly. Performance going forward might be less about industry conditions and more about individual strategic decisions.

"We started out the year recommending everything," says RayJay's Steven Schwartz. "We're down to four companies, which tells you where my head is at."

Names of interest: MET, PRU, MFC, SLF, PRI, VOYA, PL, LNC.