Fonds en euros in assurances vie policies.
There has been concern for some time, about how plummeting bond yields may affect the extremely popular ‘fonds en euros’ (by far the most popular choice for French investors in assurances vie policies). The question is how life insurers are going to be able to continue paying an acceptable annual return to their policyholders, while sovereign bonds offer increasingly low (or even negative) returns?
To explain, these ‘fonds en euros’ have to guarantee capital whilst paying a bonus every year. The only way that a fund manager can be sure of meeting this obligation is to put the vast majority of investors’ money into French government bonds. By doing so, they fund government debt to the tune of trillions of euros.
As recently as 2007, they were paying an attractive 5% per annum net. This has now fallen to about 2.5% and are set to fall further, almost certainly to under 2% for 2016. With bond rates at historically low levels, they should now only be paying about 1%, but companies have been dipping into their reserves as they fear that such a low rate would lead to a mass exodus from these policies. This has inevitably caused concerns about the financial stability of the insurance companies.
There have been several recent developments:
1) The state has imposed new reporting requirements on life insurers from 1 January 2016 under which they are obliged to provide details of policies with a value of more than €7,500. This is to assist the fight against money laundering but it could also be used to test the solvency of insurance companies.
2) For the past few years, the French Ministry of Finance and the Governor of the Bank of France have been consistently urging life insurers to lower returns on their ‘fonds en euros’. This has not been sufficiently acted upon and the government has now passed an amendment to Article 21a of the law “Sapin 2”.
Voted in secret on June 23 (with the French population concentrating on their imminent summer holidays and the euphoria of the European Cup!), the new legislation passed virtually unnoticed by the mainstream media.
There were very few immediate reactions, even though some members of parliament were taken aback by this amendment when it was presented to them to vote on by the MP proposing the bill.
The government, as has often happened in the past, conveniently happened to be going on their own summer holiday immediately afterwards. This avoided their having to answer any awkward questions, had this matter happened to come to the attention of the media!
Whether this legislation ever needs to be acted upon depends on government bond and bank interest rates. However, the future certainly looks bleak for investors in ‘fonds en euros’ (probably 90% of all French assurance vie policyholders).
What does this new law actually say and how will it affect you?
It gives the ‘Financial Stability Board’ (‘HCSF’) the power to ‘suspend, delay or limit temporarily, for all or part of the portfolio, withdrawals or the option to switch funds’.
The implications of this are clear: overnight, at the request of Governor of the Bank of France, the HCSF may prohibit you carrying out all normal policy operations, including withdrawals and fund ‘switches’.
In short, some or all of your assets could be frozen for “a period of 6 months, renewable” (i.e. for whatever time is required for the crisis threatening an insurance company to pass). It is not inconceivable that your investment could be reduced in value in order to avoid an insurance company becoming insolvent. Article L.612-33 of the Monetary and Financial Code provides the means for this reduction to be imposed. It is not known how this would affect the official guarantee of €70,000 for every assurance vie policy.
People are becoming increasingly disturbed, and rightly so, that this draconian law will now allow the authorities, in total disregard of contract law, to deprive you of access to your money!
However, on closer inspection, the powers given by this new legislation were already granted to the ACPR (Prudential Control Authority and Resolution) by Article L. 612-33 of the Monetary and Financial Code, as follows:
“If the solvency or liquidity of a person or institution subject to supervision by the Authority or when the interests of its customers, policyholders, members or beneficiaries, are compromised, the Prudential Control Authority shall take the necessary precautionary measures […] it can, as such: […] 7. instruct a person or institution […] to suspend or limit payment of cash values, the option of switching investments, or the granting of policy loans.”
One should remember that similar provisions exist in the banking sector. The directive on the recovery and resolution of banking crises (BRRD) authorizes freezing of clients’ assets and potential loss of money in bank accounts, in case of any difficulty that might lead to insolvability..
The new version of the text is intended to prevent and reverse the effects of a contagion that could affect assurance vie investors in the event of a severe financial crisis, It is designed “to preserve the stability of the financial system or prevent risks seriously threatening insurance companies or a significant number of them.”
Clearly, these measures are intended to protect insurers, especially if investor panic sets in and there were mass surrenders of assurance vie contracts, an event which insurers would be hard pressed to cope with. They are holding bonds with maturity dates of ten or even thirty years from now. To try and offload trillions of euros of bonds would just not be possible.
How to react?
One suspects that this situation is worrying insurers because they are struggling to meet the expectations of their investors. This is eating into their reserves and, regardless of the prospect of an eventual increase in bond yields, some of them could find themselves in a precarious situation in the months and years to come.
The threat is therefore not just a short term one.
Of course, it would be reassuring to think that worried investors would not panic and withdraw their money from these policies, knowing that this would only exacerbate the situation.
Policyholders are all too well aware that if they rush en masse to cash in their contracts, they could actually cause the assets in these policies to be frozen. But is that going to stop them trying to be ‘first in the queue’ and avoid the suspension of withdrawals?
The ideal scenario would be for investors to stay calm and avoid possible future difficulties by gradually switching out of ‘fonds en euros’ to other assets (unit linked multi-asset funds, property funds, etc). We will see if this is what happens!!!
In spite of all this, assurance vie remains an attractive investment, especially in view of its advantageous tax benefits. Investors therefore have to weigh up the advantages compared to what is obviously an increased element of risk.
Fortunately, there are companies who offer alternative funds to ‘fonds en euros’. There are also policies domiciled outside of France (in Dublin, for example) who should be completely immune to this French legislation.