INSURANCE is banking’s boring cousin: it lacks the glamour, the sky-high bonuses and the ever-present whiff of danger. So European stress tests for insurers, whose results were due to be published on December 15th after The Economist went to press, have attracted far less attention than those for banks in July. Yet insurance also faces a grave threat, from prolonged low interest rates.

Insurers invest overwhelmingly in bonds, so low interest rates make their lives difficult. The last time the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA) conducted an insurance stress test, in 2014, a quarter of participants scored poorly: they would not have met their capital requirements in the test’s long low-interest-rate scenario. The proportion jumped to 44% in an alternative scenario involving an asset-price shock. The new results are unlikely to be better. Each year of low interest rates worsens the problem. Higher-yielding bonds mature and insurers end up with ever more newer ones with low, or even negative, interest rates.

Insurers are focused on the problem. One strategy is to outsource more to external…Continue reading