Ruark Releases Fall 2018 Variable Annuity Study Results

Ruark Consulting today released the results of its fall 2018 studies of variable annuity (VA) policyholder behavior. The studies, which examine the factors driving surrender behavior, partial withdrawals, and annuitization, were based on experience from 13.3 million policyholders spanning the period January, 2008 through June, 2018. Twenty-four variable annuity writers participated in the study, comprising $840 billion in account value as of June, 2018.

Study highlights include:

  • Surrender rates have not returned to 2008 levels, even as strong equity market performance has boosted account values in recent years. Newer sales include more lifetime benefit guarantees, which have strong incentives for persistency. Also, VA writers retrenched their product offerings in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, so transfers to competing products would not generally provide richer guarantees. Low market interest rates similarly reduced the attractiveness of non-VA investment alternatives.

  • Ruark sees three surrender regimes in the study window: surrenders at the shock duration (the year following the end of the surrender charge period) were nearly 30% at the onset of the 2008 economic crisis; shock rates below 10% were observed during 2016; and otherwise a post-crisis regime has prevailed, with shock rates in a range of 12-16% from 2009 through mid-2015 and 2017-18. The 2016 dip is believed to be the result of uncertainty surrounding the DOL’s proposed Fiduciary Rule and other political factors.
  • The presence of a living benefit rider has a notable effect on surrender rates; contracts with a lifetime benefit rider have much higher persistency than those with other types of guarantees. Also, a contract’s prior partial withdrawal history influences its persistency. Contracts with a lifetime benefit rider that have taken withdrawals in excess of the rider’s annual maximum have surrender rates three points higher overall than other contracts with those riders.  In contrast, those who have taken withdrawals no more than the rider’s maximum have the lowest surrender rates (three points lower at the shock, for example, compared to contracts who have taken no withdrawals).
  • Policyholders that take systematic withdrawals on lifetime benefit riders exhibit a select-and-ultimate effect, with very low surrenders in the first systematic withdrawal year and increasing thereafter. In the fourth systematic withdrawal year and beyond, surrender rates are comparable to those of contracts that have not taken any withdrawals.

  • When calculating relative value for lifetime withdrawal guarantees, use of a nominal “moneyness” measure — account value vs. the benefit base — can be deceiving. A nominal measure fails to reflect important aspects of the product’s economics. Therefore, it may be preferable in many cases to use an actuarial measure of moneyness that incorporates interest and mortality rates. Moneyness exhibits a dynamic relationship to surrenders, whether measured on a nominal or actuarial basis, with out-of-the-money contracts surrendering at rates about triple those of in-the-money contracts. However, when measured on an actuarial basis, we find that most exposure is at-the-money or out-of-the-money: 78% of GLWB exposure is nominally in-the-money, whereas only 11% is in-of-the-money when measured on an actuarial scale.

  • As the market for guaranteed lifetime withdrawal benefit (GLWB) riders matures, it is possible to see the effects of long-dated insurer incentives to delay benefit commencement. Commencement rates are 12% in the first policy year, reflecting the popularity of “income now” designs, and approximately half that in years 2-10. However, usage jumps in year 11, with the expiration of ten-year bonuses for deferring withdrawals common on many riders. Commencement frequency thereafter settles in to an ultimate rate. Among contracts that take a withdrawal, over 85% continue withdrawals in subsequent years.
  • Overall living benefit annual withdrawal frequency rates have continued to increase, and utilization has grown more efficient. Withdrawal frequency for guaranteed lifetime withdrawal benefit riders is now 25%, up one percentage point over the rate reported in Ruark Consulting’s fall 2017 study and three points over the fall 2016 value. GLWB withdrawal frequencies have increased consistently at normal retirement age and above. Most of the increase is attributable to more efficient utilization of the rider benefit, with over half of withdrawals now at or near the maximum benefit amount.

  • The effects of moneyness (account value relative to the guarantee base) on partial withdrawal behavior differ depending on circumstances. We find that the income commencement frequency on contracts with lifetime withdrawal benefits is sensitive to moneyness, consistent with greater benefit exercise when the benefit is more valuable. The effect is quite pronounced after the expiration of deferral incentives, with commencement rates after duration 10 ranging from 2% to 29% depending on moneyness. At all durations, when contracts move out of the money, withdrawals in excess of the maximum amount are more common. This is suggestive of policyholders taking investment gains out of the contract.

  • Annuitization rates on policies with guaranteed minimum income benefit (GMIB) riders continue to decline. The overall exercise rate for the riders with a 10-year waiting period is below 2% for the full study period. Rates have been falling steadily since 2010, and quarterly observed rates have stayed at or below 2% since 2014. “Hybrid” rider forms that allow partial dollar-for-dollar withdrawals have much lower exercise rates than traditional forms, which reduce the benefit in a pro-rata fashion – less than 1% for hybrid, vs. 5% for pro-rata; the increasing share of exposure in the study from the hybrid type is a partial explanation for the decrease in annuitization rates over time. The difference is magnified by different patterns of benefit utilization following the end of the waiting period: Owners of pro-rata contracts have 9% exercise rates at the first opportunity, and declining utilization thereafter, whereas hybrid contracts exercise at low but consistent rates across all durations.

Detailed study results, including company-level analytics and customized behavioral assumption models calibrated to the study data, are available for purchase by participating companies.

For further information on results, to purchase the study, or if you have any other inquiries, click here or email Timothy Paris (