Munich Re Warns About Price of Low Interest Rates

Published on August 8, 2010

Nikolaus von Bomhard

Last week, Munich Re announced strong investment returns but warned that low interest rates could impact results going forward.  In an interesting interview with The Financial Times, Nikolaus von Bomhard, CEO of Munich Re, explains the challenges facing insurers due to easy monetary policies that have sent interest rates to record lows in many developed countries.  Mr. von Bomhard expressed some support for a low rate policy intended to boost the economy but he sees broader implications, some of which are not widely discussed.

Insurers typically hold a large fixed income portfolio and low interest rates impact the investment returns available to meet future liabilities.  However, low interest rates also reduce the discount rate used to calculate the present value of liabilities expected in future years which boosts the current value of these liabilities.

Mr von Bomhard said: “Many of the existing local accounting standards fail to show that some customer guarantees and options are increasing in value. If interest rates stay low for much longer, sooner or later things will get a little bit more difficult for some companies and you can’t see this in the accounts.”

Low interest rates reduce what insurers can earn from investments to meet pay-outs, but they also push up the assumed future cost of liabilities. Accounting rules do not always require this assumed higher cost to be shown on an insurer’s balance sheet.

While the impact of interest rates on calculating future liabilities is well understood by sophisticated investors, the story is often missed in the media and by those who do not read financial statements in detail.  We present two other examples of the impact of lower interest rates on financial results.

Lower Interest Rates Impact Berkshire’s Derivatives Liability

Careful readers of Berkshire Hathaway’s recently released 10-Q report, discussed in detail on The Rational Walk, would have noticed an interesting statement regarding interest rates in the company’s disclosure on the equity index put option contract position:

In 2010, we incurred pre-tax losses of approximately $1.8 billion in the second quarter and $1.6 billion in the first six months on equity index put option contracts. During the second quarter of 2010, declines in major equity index values ranged from 12% to 15% and we reduced our interest rate assumptions (emphasis added). As a result, the estimated values of the liabilities associated with these contracts increased.

In other words, Berkshire’s mark-to-market loss on the derivatives position was caused by both the decline in the equity index value and lower interest rates which had the effect of increasing the present value of the theoretical liability that would exist when the put option contracts expire.

Lower Discount Rates Impact Pension Liabilities

The calculation of defined benefit pension obligations represents another case where lower interest rate assumptions reduce the discount rate used to express future liabilities in present value terms.  This causes future pension obligations to increase.  Few investors pay much attention to the rate of return assumptions and the discount rate used in pension plan disclosures.  However, incorrect or unrealistic assumptions can have the effect of understating true liabilities and inflating book values.

Disclosure:  The author of this article owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. No position in Munich Re.

Munich Re Warns About Price of Low Interest Rates