Friday 25 June 2010

Life Insurance Basic Principles (Part V) - The Building Blocks of Life Insurance - Mortality, Interest, and Expense

The Basic Principles of Life Insurance (Part V)

Mortality, Interest, and Expense

All life insurance products are actuarially created by calculating the relationships of mortality, interest, and expense, and the financial values resulting from each based on time. The assumptions made concerning these three factors will determine the premium at which a policy is sold, the structure of the policy, and over time the performance of the policy and the profitability and solvency of the life insurance company. ALL life insurance policies, regardless of type, are based on these same elements.

Mortality rates project the cost of covering death claims as they occur. Interest earnings reflect the income the company expects from the investment of premiums over time that will be added to the reserves, held aside to pay future claims. Expenses include the cost of creating, offering, and maintaining the product to pay all promised benefits. These factors must also provide profit to the insurer.

Different products handle these factors differently. Term insurance has a pay-as-you-go structure. Premiums increase as mortality increases and the policy does not build cash value. Interest earnings have a smaller impact on the premium than in permanent policies and expenses are largely covered by the policy fee.

In permanent whole life insurance (WL), the policyowner pays premiums in advance, paying a higher, or excess, premium that can be “reserved,” so that increases in premium are not required. This higher premium level builds cash value the policyowner can access through loans or cash surrender of the policy. In WL, these factors are “bundled,” meaning they are not itemized or disclosed separately.

In universal life (UL), the costs are unbundled, meaning the components of mortality, interest, and expense in the policy are identified and the values and charges for each are itemized in regular reports to policyowners.

Mortality charges are identified as cost of insurance (COI), which are monthly charges based on the insured’s issue age, attained age, net amount at risk, gender, and underwriting class. Interest is paid each month on the cash value at the current crediting rate. Administrative expenses are charged monthly. All of these elements have a current rate, and are subject to maximum and minimum guaranteed charges or interest crediting as stated in the policy.

Because of the unbundled nature of policy costs, UL looks like an investment account with term coverage. The mortality charges are similar to those of term, and the interest rates reflect the current market and adjust to changing market conditions. The policyowner accepts more of the investment and mortality risk, with a minimum guaranteed interest crediting rate, and maximum mortality and expense charge guarantees.

Variable universal life (VUL) contains death benefits and cash values that vary with the performance of the subaccounts selected. The death benefit and cash value are not guaranteed, and can fluctuate according to market performance. The life insurance aspect of VUL is essentially the same product as UL with the same features and specifications for the most part.

The main difference between UL and VUL is the variable investment aspects of the VUL product.


To price insurance products, and ensure the adequacy of reserves to pay claims, actuaries use mortality tables to project the number and timing of future insured deaths. They study the incidence of deaths in the recent past, and develop expectations about how these events will change over time and develop an expectation for what the timing and amount of such events will be into the future. A safety margin is built in that increases the mortality rates above what is expected. In participating policies, savings created by these conservative assumptions can be returned as dividends. In nonparticipating policies, the safety margins must be smaller in order for the premium rates to be competitive.

A mortality table shows mortality experience used to estimate longevity and the probability of living or dying at each age, and is used to determine the premium rate. Mortality tables may include the probability of surviving any particular year of age, remaining life expectancy for people at different ages, the proportion of the original birth cohort still alive, and estimates of a group’s longevity characteristics. Life mortality tables today are constructed separately for men and women, and are created to distinguish individual characteristics such as smoking status, occupation, health histories, and others.

With significant improvements in mortality over the last 20 years, mortality rates are decreasing. One resulting change is the extension of the life span in the 2001 CSO Mortality Table to attained age 120 (compared with age 100 in the 1980 CSO table). The CSO mortality tables represent the most widely used estimates of expected rates of death in the United States based on 2001 CSO Mortality Table age. The data used for the CSO tables is taken from data developed by the American Academy of Actuaries, and adopted by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). The CSO mortality tables are used to calculate reserves and minimum cash values for state regulatory purposes, as well as life insurance premiums. The recent changes will lower the statutory reserves required by state insurance departments on all life products. Larger insurance companies use their own mortality statistics to calculate their pricing of products, based on their own selection and underwriting practices. Since 1980 CSO mortality represents the vast majority of in-force policies, it is, and will be, relevant for years to come, even though newly issued policies will increasingly be using 2001 CSO rates.

The 2001 CSO Mortality Table is currently being introduced and approved for use in the various states. Companies can base product designs on either the 1980 or the 2001 CSO mortality tables. As of January 2009, all new products must use the 2001 CSO table. For term products, this means mortality costs, and consequently premiums, are going down. For cash value products, the 2001 table lowers the amount of premium that can be put into accumulation products and still be considered life insurance, based on IRS rules for defining life insurance. These rules, will allow individuals to pay less premium for the same amount of life insurance. Since the life insurance will be less costly, the allowable cash value must also fall, due to the maximum ratio of cash value to death benefit.


Insurers invest the premiums they receive and accumulate them for future claims and other obligations, such as policy loans and surrenders. Life insurance company portfolios are traditionally long-term and emphasize safety of principal and predictable rates of return, to accommodate their long-term obligations. Typically, two-thirds or more of this capital is invested in bonds and mortgages, which meet the above criteria. A smaller percentage is invested in common stocks, due to their volatility, and these represent less than 10 percent of an insurer’s general portfolio.

Since recently issued policies have low claims experience as a whole until years later, there is an adjustment in the calculation of the premium for the time value of money (compound interest). If the investment results exceed the guaranteed minimum, policyowners benefit from either participating dividends or excess interest crediting to the policy’s cash value.


Life insurance companies incur acquisition and administrative expenses in the course of doing business. Acquisition expenses include the costs incurred in obtaining business and placing it in force, such as advertising and promotion fees; commissions; underwriting expenses; costs associated with medical exams and attending physicians’ statements, inspection report and credit history fees; home office processing costs; and an addition to the insurer’s reserve, surplus, and profits. Administrative expenses include the costs associated with collecting premiums and distributing dividends, continuing producer compensation, investment expenses, and home office overhead. Any costs the insurer incurs must be recovered through mortality savings, expense charges, or reduced interest crediting.

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