Private life insurers benefit from focus on 'protection' products

HDFC Standard Life Insurance, ICICI Prudential Life Insurance and SBI Life Insurance, the three in the segment from the private sector, reported healthy results at the operating level for the September quarter. The mark-to-market losses (redoing asset calculations at current values) on account of the pressure in bond markets, however, restricted the increase in their embedded value (EV), a key valuation parameter for life insurance companies.

HDFC Life had growth in profit after tax of 17.4 per cent from the same period a year before, to nearly Rs 2.9 billion, beating most analyst estimates. Net premium income grew 25.7 per cent year-on-year to Rs 67.8 billion. New business premium (NBP) income grew 43 per cent in the financial year’s first half (April-September) to Rs 62.9 billion. Group premium rose 36 per cent in the first half, to Rs 32 billion.

ICICI Life reported a PAT of Rs 3.01 billion for the quarter; the analyst consensus as reported by Bloomberg was Rs 2.96 billion. Investment income more than halved to Rs 13.7 billion, from Rs 29.8 billion in the year-ago quarter. Net premium income grew 16 per cent to Rs 76 billion. Importantly, the good operational performance at all three companies is expected to continue; though rising bond yields could also continue to weigh on their valuations. All three have invested over 50-60 per cent of their assets under management (AUM) in the debt market. Due to elevated levels of bond yield, they had to book mark-to-market losses. This restricted the growth in their embedded value, which is based on present value of future cash flow.

On the positive side, most key operating parameters showed improvement. First, value of new business (VNB) at all three grew a strong 23-42 per cent year-on-year during the first half. VNB indicates present value of future profits associated with new business written during the period. Importantly, all three saw expansion in the VNB margin during the first half. Those of SBI Life and HDFC Life rose 170-190 basis points (bps) to 17.3 per cent and 24.3 per cent, respectively. ICICI Life’s shot up by 580 bps to 17.5 per cent. This was led by a rise in share of the more-profitable protection products and improvement in key operating assumptions.

Protection products include term policies, wherein the entire premium earned becomes revenue (after subtracting expenses such as commissions and customer claims) and percolates to profits; it is seen as the most profitable of all offerings. Insurance players continue to focus on the protection business by improving the contribution in annual premium equivalent or APE (SBI Life’s protection share is in terms of new business premium) by 360-484 bps as compared to the year-ago period. Protection-based policies (on the basis of APE) of HDFC Life now comprise 16.2 per cent of the business share in H1FY2019 as against 11.8 per cent in H1 FY2018.

However, amid the liquidity crunch being faced by non-banking finance companies (NBFCs), including housing finance ones, many analysts and even the management of some (HDFC Life) sound cautious about growth of credit protection.

ICICI Life’s management, however says their diversified base in terms of tie-ups with lenders for the credit protection business would help mitigate the overall impact.

All three also reported improvement in the persistency ratio (indicating customer loyalty) almost across all the cohorts (barring 61st month), further supporting the margin.

The improving operating momentum is likely to remain strong, with the increase in financial savings of households and insurance being one of the safest investment vehicles currently, when debt and equity markets are volatile. “Overall, the performance trajectory would continue, with focus on protection products. But, the growth would come down a bit, amid the high base,” says Avinash Singh, analyst at SBICAP Securities.

On the downside, if bond yields continue to move up during the coming days, insurers will again have to bear the heat on their embedded value (EV). This could lead to downward revision in valuation (price to EV) and target price. An analyst at Emkay Securities, for instance, revised SBI Life’s valuation down to three times the FY20 estimated EV, from 3.3 times earlier, due to elevated bond yields. SBI Life’s results came last weekend.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel