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Liquidity risks at Canadian life insurance companies


Life insurers, like many asset managers, use fixed-income markets to implement their investment strategies. A key quality of fixed-income markets is liquidity. In a liquid market, participants can trade quickly at prevailing prices. This allows asset managers to use securities as collateral or sell them to manage their risk of not meeting short-term cash or collateral obligations, known as liquidity risk.1

However, during periods when many market participants seek liquidity at the same time, the demand for liquidity may overwhelm the capacity or willingness of intermediaries, like bank-owned dealers, to provide it. This risk has come into focus for practitioners and policy-makers since the COVID-19 crisis, the episode of extreme market stress at the onset of the COVID‑19 pandemic in March 2020.2 At that time, central banks around the world intervened to restore market liquidity, including by opening new emergency lending facilities for a wide range of market participants.3

Understanding the potential behaviour of market participants during such episodes can help central bankers develop policy. The Bank of Canada has therefore been deepening its understanding of how various types of market participants manage their liquidity risks and the potential impact of their actions on fixed-income markets. This work has included analyzing mutual funds, hedge funds and pension funds.4

We conducted two rounds of interviews with representatives from four of the largest Canadian life insurers and analyzed several data sources to investigate how life insurers’ business model results in liquidity risks and how they manage this risk.5 Specifically, we use three data sources:

  • the National Balance Sheet Accounts (NBSA) from Statistics Canada, which include aggregated balance sheet information for all Canadian life insurers
  • life insurers’ investment returns from the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI), which include granular information on assets and derivative positions for the three largest OSFI-regulated insurance companies—Manulife, Sun Life and Canada Life
  • the Market Trade Reporting System from the Canadian Investment Regulatory Organization, which contains detailed, dealer-reported information about Canadian bond trades, including those involving life insurers

For clarity, we indicate on each chart that the samples of life insurance companies differ across these data sources.

In brief, we find that the two most important liquidity risks that Canadian life insurers must manage are unexpected payouts resulting from policyholder behaviour and margin calls from derivatives. We examine the effects on insurers from the COVID‑19 crisis and the period of rising interest rates in 2022, which serve as case studies in liquidity risk management. We find that the two liquidity risks did not materialize significantly in either period, which allowed life insurers to continue their typical investment pattern of purchasing long-dated corporate and provincial bonds. These purchases provide an important source of funding for Canadian bond issuers, which supports market liquidity and the real economy.

Life insurers are among the largest institutional investors in Canada

Life insurers are companies that, as the name implies, specialize in providing life insurance and related products. The sector has a small number of large companies that individually manage assets of comparable value to those of some of Canada's big pension funds. This makes life insurers among the largest institutional investors in Canada, managing around $1 trillion of financial assets associated with their Canadian business lines as of the first quarter of 2023 (Chart 1). A large proportion of these assets are fixed-income securities, mainly bonds (Chart 2).6 Therefore, life insurers can alleviate or exacerbate strains on liquidity in fixed-income markets through their transactions.

Chart 1: Life insurance companies are among the largest institutional investors in Canada

Life insurers sell financial products that are typically of two types:

  • life insurance
  • investments such as annuities and mutual funds

These products offer future payoffs to holders, which creates liabilities for life insurers. To meet these future obligations, insurers invest the cash they receive from their clients.

Overall, Canadian life insurers manage roughly equal proportions of assets associated with each type of product. Investment products are often managed in distinct funds, and their liquidity risks come primarily from investor redemptions. Mutual funds manage this risk in a similar way, a topic that the Bank has analyzed in the past.7 We therefore focus our analysis on life insurance products because they present liquidity risks that are unique to life insurers.

Canadian life insurers use bonds and derivatives to match assets and liabilities

Understanding the risks inherent in life insurers’ business models is helpful for understanding their liquidity risks and how they manage them.8 A key risk from the business model comes from the long time horizons over which life insurance contracts pay out. Insurers estimate these horizons, which can be several decades, by using actuarial modelling of policyholders’ longevity and morbidity. This means life insurance products have relatively high duration, meaning they are sensitive to changes in interest rates. This can create a significant risk for life insurers if assets and liabilities respond differently to interest rates. For example, a drop in interest rates could increase the present value of an insurer’s liabilities by more than the increase in the value of an insurer’s assets, making it more difficult for the insurer to meet its obligations to policyholders.

Life insurers choose assets with similar durations and liquidity to hedge the risks from their liabilities. This practice, known as asset-liability management (ALM), aims to immunize insurers against interest rate risk. In Canada, it also helps to satisfy regulatory capital requirements, which are established by OSFI or Autorité des marchés financiers (AMF) for insurers headquartered in Quebec.9 ALM typically matches an insurer’s assets and liabilities to the average duration and a range of specific durations to protect against relative changes in long- and short-term interest rates. The latter practice is called key rate duration management.

Fixed-income securities are natural investments for life insurers’ ALM since these securities can have a high duration like life insurance products (Chart 2, panel a). Among these securities, Canadian life insurers hold primarily long-term corporate or provincial bonds (Chart 2, panel b). Regular cash premiums from policyholders are typically invested into these instruments as quickly as possible, making life insurers a stable source of funding for bond issuers. Provincial bonds and, to a greater degree, corporate bonds are less liquid than Government of Canada (GoC) bonds but have the benefit of higher yields. Despite the relative illiquidity of such bonds, these holdings do not expose insurers to large liquidity risks because their liabilities are also relatively illiquid, as will be explained in the section on liquidity risks.

Life insurers also invest in foreign fixed-income assets and alternative assets with high duration, such as infrastructure, real estate, private debt and private equity. These assets help insurers diversify their portfolios and can, to some extent, substitute for high-duration domestic corporate and provincial bonds, which can be in limited supply (Chart 2, panel a). These alternative assets also tend to offer insurers higher yields than bonds.

Chart 2: Life insurers’ assets are concentrated in fixed-income securities, most of which are corporate bonds

Chart 2: Life insurers’ assets are concentrated in fixed-income securities, most of which are corporate bonds

Composition of total assets and fixed-income assets as at the end of the first quarter of 2023

Note: Figures include the market value of life insurers’ Canadian-domiciled branches but not life insurers’ mutual funds.
Sources: Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions and Bank of Canada calculations
Last observation: 2023Q1

Life insurers also use derivatives to hedge exposures to risks. These exposures are from two main sources:

  • residual interest rate risk
  • investment assets risk

Securities and alternative assets with durations similar to those of insurance products are often in limited supply. One reason is that bond issuers rarely raise public debt with terms greater than 30 years while some insurance liabilities have longer terms. Life insurers therefore use derivatives such as interest rate swaps and bond forwards to extend the duration of their portfolios (Chart 3). We find that the average term to maturity of these derivatives is typically long, ranging from 5 to just under 15 years. This means that interest rate derivatives typically carry risks comparable with those of bonds of similar terms to maturity, particularly for interest rate derivatives.

In addition to extending duration, derivatives are well suited to quickly adjust mismatches in duration between assets and liabilities because they are relatively liquid and do not require significant initial cash outlays. These quick adjustments can be needed when the values of assets and liabilities respond differently to a large change in interest rates or other economic conditions, causing their durations to become misaligned. This is called convexity risk, which investors can hedge by using certain derivatives like swaptions.

Derivatives also serve to hedge risks not related to interest rates. For example, investing in foreign assets to match domestic liabilities produces currency risk. Life insurers typically hedge this risk by using cross-currency swaps or currency forwards, which are the second-largest class of derivatives for life insurers (Chart 3). Large investments in corporate bonds expose life insurers to default risk. However, credit derivatives, which provide protection against default, make up less than 1% of the notional value of derivatives held by insurers.

Chart 3: Life insurers use derivatives to hedge against interest rate and foreign exchange risks

Chart 3: Life insurers use derivatives to hedge against interest rate and foreign exchange risks


Note: Figures include the derivative securities of life insurers’ Canadian-domiciled branches but not life insurers’ mutual funds.
Sources: Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions and Bank of Canada calculations
Last observation: 2023Q1

Life insurers face two main liquidity risks

The business model and investment strategy of Canadian life insurers give rise to two main liquidity risks:

  • policyholders’ behaviour that can cause:
    • lower-than-expected cash inflows if a policyholder temporarily or permanently stops paying their premiums—known as a lapse
    • higher-than-expected cash outflows if contracts are redeemed before maturity—known as a surrender
  • margin requirements on derivatives that can increase the need to deposit cash or securities to protect a derivatives counterparty against potential losses in the event of default

Policyholders’ behaviour may trigger a need for liquidity when economic conditions stress household finances. Policyholders typically cannot lapse or surrender a policy without facing a penalty. Life insurance liabilities can therefore be considered to be relatively illiquid. However, if economic conditions cause widespread unemployment or income loss, the resulting lapses or surrenders could impose large, immediate and unexpected cash outflows on an insurer.

Margin calls on derivatives may become unexpectedly large when the underlying risk factors, such as interest rates or exchange rates, change sharply or become volatile compared with their historical levels. Life insurers are typically positioned in interest rate and foreign exchange derivatives such that a simultaneous rise in interest rates and a weakening of the Canadian dollar would increase margin requirements.

Life insurers use liquidity coverage ratios to manage risks

We heard in our interviews that Canadian life insurers manage liquidity risks by holding a buffer so that they can meet unexpected liquidity draws. Insurers often use a liquidity coverage ratio (LCR) to estimate how large the buffer should be, similar to the framework used by banks, pension funds and other asset managers. An LCR compares the value of the buffer to the total value of possible and expected liquidity draws in a stressed scenario over a given time period. While a standardized LCR is a regulatory requirement for banks, it is not for insurance companies. This means that its specifications may vary across companies. For example, some companies may use an LCR that is based on past stressed periods to prepare for unexpected liquidity needs. Others may take a broader approach that incorporates expected liquidity needs such as operational cash flows. Companies may also have different definitions of a high-quality liquid asset. A typical LCR can be represented as:

\(\displaystyle LCR\) \(\displaystyle=\, \frac{cash + high\ quality\ liquid\ assets + other\ liquidity\ sources}{surrenders + margin\ calls+other\ potential\ outflows}\) \(\displaystyle,\)

where, other liquidity sources in the numerator can include relatively illiquid or volatile assets that are discounted appropriately, committed credit lines with banks and expected cash contributions from policyholders within the LCR time horizon. Therefore, policyholder lapses affect the numerator by reducing expected cash contributions. In the denominator, other potential outflows may include life insurance claims, payments needed for maturing debt and capital needed for private assets. As with other liquidity sources, these inflows or outflows can vary across insurance companies.

Life insurers seek to always keep their LCRs substantially above one so that they can meet significant draws on their liquidity. The assets in buffers may differ across insurers but are typically composed of cash and relatively liquid securities like GoC or provincial bonds and bills, which represent about 20% of insurers’ financial assets (Chart 4).

Chart 4: Liquid assets of the largest life insurers have been relatively stable over time

Responses from interviewees indicate that insurers typically use conservative assumptions to calibrate LCRs. Potential cash outflows are often projected using:

  • multiple horizons, such as 10 days, 30 days or longer
  • observations from past episodes of stress
  • large hypothetical shocks to interest rates, credit spreads and policyholders’ mortality

Correlations between pricing factors, such as interest rates and exchange rates, are usually assumed to produce worst-case outcomes despite any historical tendencies to mitigate liquidity draws. In addition, life insurers make assumptions about the appropriate discount to apply to an asset’s value to capture the fact that prices may be worse in stressed situations. For example, they will assume that the value of provincial bonds will decline by more than the value of GoC bonds during periods of stress.

Life insurers continued purchasing bonds during recent periods of stress

The COVID‑19 crisis in 2020 and the period of rising interest rates in 2022 serve as case studies to better understand how life insurers managed their two main liquidity risks. The number of lapses and surrenders could have been unusually high during the COVID‑19 crisis because of widespread lockdowns that caused employment and income losses for millions of Canadians. Margin requirements on insurers’ derivative positions could have also been higher due to the volatility in financial markets during the COVID‑19 crisis and then again as interest rates rose in 2022.

The life insurers we spoke to indicated that they did not experience large lapses or surrenders from policyholders during the COVID‑19 crisis. Even so, they increased monitoring of their liquidity positions and tested their ability to withstand a potentially higher number of lapses, surrenders and payouts. They also extensively modelled changes in mortality rates from the COVID‑19 pandemic to prepare for a potential increase in payouts, although these did not become a significant draw on liquidity.

During the COVID‑19 crisis, total margin requirements for the three largest Canadian life insurers were not unusually large because the margins for interest rate and foreign exchange derivatives were offsetting (Chart 5).

Chart 5: Market values of interest rate and foreign exchange derivatives offset during the COVID-19 crisis

Market value reflects profits and losses on derivatives contracts due to movements in their underlying price factors and is a proxy for the magnitude and direction of margin requirements. The offsetting market values observed in the first quarter of 2020—the peak of the COVID‑19 crisis—were driven by a decline in interest rates and a strengthening of the US dollar, which are typical movements in these markets during turmoil. In the first quarter of 2020, the three largest Canadian life insurers received margin on interest rate derivatives as the market value of these derivatives increased by $1.5 billion. This mitigated the effect of needing to post margin on foreign exchange derivatives, whose market value decreased by $3 billion.

Given that liquidity risks did not materialize at the peak of the crisis, life insurers continued purchasing long-term corporate and provincial bonds. They did this by rebalancing their portfolios out of short- and medium-term GoC bonds and using regular cash inflows from life insurance premiums.

We find that life insurers sold close to $2 billion worth of GoC bonds and purchased around $5 billion worth of corporate and provincial bonds (Chart 6, panel a). They sold bonds in the 2- and 5-year sectors and purchased bonds in the 10- and 30-year sectors (Chart 6, panel b).

This activity provided cash to bond sellers and issuers at a time when the demand for cash was high.10 It also added to overall GoC bond selling during the COVID‑19 crisis when markets were stressed. However, any effect on market liquidity was likely small since around 80% of insurers’ sales of GoC bond took place between February 18 and March 6, the three weeks before the period of peak market illiquidity.11

Chart 6: Life insurers continued purchasing bonds during peak of COVID-19 crisis

Chart 6: Life insurers continued purchasing bonds during peak of COVID-19 crisis

Cumulative net purchases, daily

Note: 30-year refers to any bond with a term greater than 10 years. Data presented include all Canadian life insurance companies and Canadian securities only.
Sources: Market Trade Reporting System and Bank of Canada calculations
Last observation: April 30, 2020

Similarly, the three largest Canadian life insurers made net purchases of $3.3 billion worth of bonds in secondary markets during the first half of 2022 as interest rates increased. This happened even though the margin requirements for interest rate and foreign exchange derivatives did not offset. During this period, the market value of these life insurers’ derivatives declined by $4.5 billion (Chart 7). Even so, the larger margin requirements did not undermine the ability of the three largest Canadian life insurers to purchase bonds in secondary markets. This may be because the increase in interest rates was gradual and somewhat anticipated, allowing insurers to prepare for liquidity needs without disrupting their regular patterns of investing contributions from policyholders.

Chart 7: Life insurers’ bond purchases remained stable during the period of rising interest rates


Unlike other asset managers who broadly sold bonds during the COVID‑19 crisis, life insurers bought bonds. In addition, the period of rising interest rates in 2022 did not greatly affect life insurers’ usual investment pattern of stable bond purchases. While this behaviour could change under different market conditions, the findings nonetheless provide insights into the nature and severity of past periods of market turmoil that life insurers were able to withstand. This work deepens the Bank’s understanding of market stress and how various participants react during these periods. These insights combined with those the Bank has collected about other asset managers inform the design of the Bank’s policies and facilities.

  1. 1. For a discussion of pension fund liquidity management see G. Bédard-Pagé, D. Bolduc-Zuluaga, A. Demers, J.-P. Dion, M. Pandey, L. Berger-Soucy and A. Walton , “COVID‑19 crisis: Liquidity management at Canada’s largest public pension funds,” Bank of Canada Staff Analytical Note No. 2021-11 (May 2021).[]
  2. 2. For an in-depth description of the COVID‑19 crisis in Canada, see J.-S. Fontaine, C. Garriott, J. Johal, J. Lee and A. Uthemann, “COVID‑19 Crisis: Lessons Learned for Future Policy Research,” Bank of Canada Staff Discussion Paper No. 2021-2 (February 2021).[]
  3. 3. For a summary of the Bank of Canada’s liquidity facilities during the COVID crisis, see G. Johnson, “A Review of the Bank of Canada’s Market Operations related to COVID‑19,” Bank of Canada Staff Discussion Paper No. 2023-6 (March 2023).[]
  4. 4. Recent work by the Bank of Canada on asset managers includes J. Sandhu and R. Vala, “Do hedge funds support liquidity in the Government of Canada bond market?” Bank of Canada Staff Analytical Note No. 2023-11 (August 2023), and G. Ouellet Leblanc and R. Shotlander, “What COVID‑19 revealed about the resilience of bond funds,” Bank of Canada Staff Analytical Note No. 2020-18 (August 2020).[]
  5. 5. We are grateful for the generous cooperation of Manulife, Sun Life, Canada Life and Industrial Alliance in this work.[]
  6. 6. This excludes assets managed on behalf of their clients, such as mutual funds.[]
  7. 7. To learn more about how mutual funds manage liquidity, see G. Ouellet Leblanc and R. Arora, “How do Canadian Corporate Bond Mutual Funds Meet Investor Redemptions?” Bank of Canada Staff Analytical Note No. 2018-14 (May 2018).[]
  8. 8. While we focus on economic considerations in this description, accounting and regulation can also influence life insurers’ investment strategies.[]
  9. 9. OSFI and the AMF impose harmonized capital requirements to ensure solvency for life insurance companies. Insurers regulated by OSFI must satisfy the Life Insurance Capital Adequacy Test. Insurers regulated by AMF must satisfy capital adequacy requirements for life and health insurance.[]
  10. 10. For more details, see Bank of Canada, "Fixed-income market liquidity," Financial System Review—2022 (June 9, 2022).[]
  11. 11. For more on market illiquidity, see J.-S. Fontaine, H. Ford and A. Walton, "COVID‑19 and bond market liquidity: alert, isolation and recovery," Staff Analytical Note No. 2020-14 (July 2020).[]


Bank of Canada staff analytical notes are short articles that focus on topical issues relevant to the current economic and financial context, produced independently from the Bank’s Governing Council. This work may support or challenge prevailing policy orthodoxy. Therefore, the views expressed in this note are solely those of the authors and may differ from official Bank of Canada views. No responsibility for them should be attributed to the Bank.


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