The pension scheme de-risking market: how to find value?

Ian Aley, Head of Transactions at Willis Towers Watson, shares his views on the relative attractiveness of the current bulk annuity and longevity hedging markets.

Ian Aley, Head of Transactions, Willis Towers Watson

The dynamics of the pension de-risking market may be summarised as: market conditions mixed with supply and demand forces, with an overlay of regulation. This melting pot leads to a cyclical market with different structures, offering more value for money than others at a particular time. Since I started working in this market as an insurer some twenty years ago, I’ve observed many such cycles, and now as a de-risking adviser to pension schemes I help my clients seek the best available opportunities.

The longevity hedging market in late 2015/16 is a good example. Over £20bn of longevity risk associated with ‘back-books’ (insurers’ historic bulk and individual annuities) was passed to reinsurers over the period. This activity kept reinsurers very busy, diverting their attention away from pension schemes. Furthermore, the insurers were a somewhat ‘forced seller’ of the risk, driven by changes to their regulation. For this reason, we advised our clients seeking to hedge longevity risk to wait for this ‘back-book bulge’ to subside before hedging. This back-book longevity hedging activity has now reduced and we believe longevity hedging fees have become more attractive.

However, the fee isn’t the only element of the cost of longevity hedging. A question currently attracting significant debate is whether now is a good time to lock into reinsurer longevity assumptions, in light of two years of heavier than expected deaths. Our research shows that reinsurers have reflected the heavier deaths experience within their pricing assumptions. The pricing we have obtained has reduced over the past two years on a like-for-like basis, and significantly in the case of some reinsurers.

So my advice to schemes is that now is arguably a good time to hedge, as the fee levels have reverted following the back-book rush, whilst the underlying assumptions have been relaxed following the heavy mortality observed in 2015 and 2016.

The bulk annuity market has also been interesting from a supply and demand perspective over recent years. Price attractiveness in this market has driven the yield achieved above risk-free through the insurer investing in credit. For the past ten years we have been receiving a live feed of pricing from insurers’, analysis of this data reveals that the relative value available for pension schemes reduced in general over 2014/15, returning to more attractive levels during late 2016. The pricing observed recently remains compelling for many pension schemes. Looking forwards, however, there remains a big caveat regarding back-books. To the extent that an insurer puts its back-book up for sale, this has the potential to distract the bulk annuity providers from pension scheme deals, as was the case in early 2016 as Aegon transferred their £9bn back-book. This activity can result in providers targeting their pricing resources and high-yielding assets on trying to win the back-book transaction. Back-books may be attractive to the providers, both as they already hold ‘insurer friendly’ assets so larger transactions are achievable, whilst the sellers are motivated in order to release reserves. My advice to schemes, particularly those looking to complete larger transactions, is to be aware of the back-book market when considering the timing of their approach to the market. On a positive note, insurers are likely to offer more attractive pricing if they have been left disappointed after missing out on back-books.

There will always be cases where completing a transaction makes sense despite the market dynamics. For example, many of our larger clients need to phase in their longevity hedging over time as their liabilities are too big to transact at once. For these schemes starting now with an initial ‘proof of concept’ trade, which locks into the known reinsurance capacity, makes sense. Similarly, we have clients who have taken advantage of particularly attractive pockets of opportunity in the buy-in market. Many schemes have taken significant de-risking actions on the investment side meaning longevity risk becomes the dominant risk. Here removing longevity risk – either through a buy-in or a longevity hedge – makes sense from a risk-return perspective.

For more information, please click here.

Get our latest features in your inbox

Join our community of business leaders