Industrial Alliance Insurance and Financial Services Inc. is poised to continue outperforming Canadian insurance peers as it shores up capital to guard against a decline in stocks.
IAG, as the insurer is known, gained 19 percent this year after raising its capital ratio to a level higher than competitors including Manulife Financial Corp. (MFC), the largest Canadian life insurer by market value. The increased capital safeguards IAG, whose earnings are more sensitive to interest rates and stock prices than peers because they rely more on long-term products.
“It’s a cushion against any worst-case scenario,” Mario Mendonca, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity Inc. in Toronto, said in a phone interview May 7. “As an insurer, their earnings’ sensitivity to economic factors is still high, except now they have this trove of equity to fall back on.”
Quebec City-based IAG, the smallest Canadian insurer, issued C$237.4 million ($236.7 million) in common shares in February, raising its so-called continuing capital and surplus requirements ratio to 238 percent, according to Canaccord. Toronto-based Manulife, Canada’s largest insurer and owner of Boston-based John Hancock Financial, has a capital surplus ratio of 217 percent. Sun Life Financial Inc. (SLF), the No. 3 insurer, was at 209 percent at the end of 2012.
The government requires insurers carry a surplus ratio of 150 percent. When equities decline and interest rates are depressed, insurers’ liabilities can increase on contracts in which they guarantee minimum returns.
Industrial Alliance Chief Executive Officer Yvon Charest wasn’t able to comment because the company reports first-quarter results today at 9 a.m. and is in its so-called quiet period, said Pierre Picard, a company spokesman. IAG is expected to report profit of 79 cents a share, adjusted for certain items, based on the average estimate of 11 analysts in a Bloomberg survey. It reported adjusted profit of 71 cents a share in the year earlier period.
IAG is Canaccord’s preferred life insurance stock and Mendonca rates it a hold.
IAG’s record-high ratio “improves the likelihood of viability in a difficult environment,” said Ian Cooke, fund manager at QV Investors Inc., which runs C$7 billion for Sentry Select Capital Corp. including IAG shares. “It provides comfort for regulators, customers, and for investors.”
“Management has taken a number of proactive steps to strengthen its capital position,” S&P credit analyst David Zuber said in a Feb. 20 note.
“Insurance has been a tough space to be in for a number of years,” QV’s Cooke said in a phone interview from Calgary. “The low interest-rate environment has hampered profitability and challenged businesses.”
IAG, which has a market value of C$3.64 billion, fell 0.9 percent to C$37.20 yesterday in Toronto. The 19 percent gain this year compares with 16 percent for Manulife and 12 percent for Sun Life. Great-West Lifeco Inc. (GWO), the second-biggest insurer, jumped 16 percent.
Over the past five years, IAG has risen 17 percent, including dividends, compared with declines of 17 percent for Sun Life and 49 percent for Manulife. The average target price for IAG for the next year as forecast by 11 analysts is C$38.91, or 4.6 percent higher than yesterday. Four analysts rate the company a buy while seven say hold, with one sell.
“IAG has had a couple of quarters now of earnings improvement and we see that trend continuing,” said Bruce Campbell, portfolio manager at Stone Castle Investment Management Inc., which oversees C$100 million including IAG stock. “We’re seeing improvement in equity markets and that improvement tends to lead to more sales in higher margin products for Industrial Alliance.”
To be sure, the company is the most exposed to interest rate changes among its competitors. A larger portion of IAG’s sales is made up of so-called universal life products, according to Peter Routledge, an analyst at National Bank Financial in Toronto. The company manages these long-term investment products, opening the risk that the company’s assumption of interest rates will be wrong, Routledge said.
The Canadian benchmark overnight rate, which has been 1 percent since September 2010, won’t rise until the third quarter of 2014, according to a forecast of 18 economists by Bloomberg News. In the U.S., the rate isn’t expected to rise until after 2014, a Bloomberg survey of 61 economists shows.
“The path of long-term interest rates poses the greatest risk” to Canadian insurers, Routledge said in an April 18 note to clients. IAG is the most at risk in a continued low rate environment which will persist “for an extended period,” he said.
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