MetLife to cut jobs as rates hurt returns

The MetLife Building is visible above trees on Park Avenue, in New York, Tuesday, July 12, 2016.
The MetLife Building is visible above trees on Park Avenue, in New York, Tuesday, July 12, 2016. AP

MetLife Inc., the largest U.S. life insurer, plans to cut expenses by 11 percent as low interest rates squeeze investment income.

The plan is to reduce annual costs by about $1 billion by the end of 2019 and will include job cuts, Chief Executive Officer Steve Kandarian said Thursday in a conference call without specifying how many workers will be dismissed by the New York-based company. The insurer had 69,000 employees at the end of 2015, according to its most recent annual report.

MetLife has said it has about 1,500 workers in Charlotte, where its U.S. retail business is based. The company, however, is in the process of splitting off that business, which will be rebranded as Brighthouse Financial.

The U.S. retail operation includes products such as variable annuities where results are closely tied to fluctuations in financial markets. Kandarian’s goal is to focus more on businesses like group benefits while pursuing expansion in Asia and Latin America. The company said Thursday that it plans to file documents for a public offering or spinoff of the unit after a board meeting in September.

MetLife has halted share buybacks until it makes more disclosures about the U.S. retail unit. Kandarian said Thursday that he can’t say at this point when repurchases will resume.

“Our first order of business is to work on the separation and make sure we have a clear understanding about capitalization of Brighthouse, the form of the separation. Once we get through that, we’ll focus on the issue of how we’ll use any remaining excess capital,” Kandarian said. “We’re not at that point yet where we can really speak to when share repurchases may begin.”

Central bank policies to suppress interest rates have reduced the income MetLife makes on a bond-dominated investment portfolio valued at more than $500 billion. The company said late Wednesday that second-quarter profit tumbled 90 percent to $110 million on a review of the prospects of a variable-annuity business that the CEO is seeking to exit as part of a proposed separation of a U.S. retail operation.

“In light of the significant headwinds our industry is facing, MetLife must do even more to avoid simply running in place,” Kandarian said. “We know this will require us to reduce headcount, which is never an easy step for an organization to take. Our overall goal is to be more efficient, so that we can better serve our customers and provide a fair return to shareholders.”

A spokeswoman said it was too soon to say what impact, if any, the reductions would have on Charlotte.

He cited a deal, announced this week, in which Computer Sciences Corp. will administer almost 7 million policies for the insurer. The agreement includes call-center and information- technology support, and CSC said it would offer employment to more than 1,000 people who work for MetLife in the U.S. and India. Kandarian has previously moved jobs to North Carolina to help save costs.

MetLife dropped 6.8 percent to $40.72 at 9:33 a.m. in New York. The company has tumbled 16 percent this year, compared with the 5.8 percent gain of the S&P 500 Index.

“The rate and economic environment is not conducive in allowing a company like Met to thrive,” David Havens, a debt analyst at Imperial Capital, said in a note. “It can certainly get by and remain a solid credit.”

The decision by U.K. voters to leave the European Union hurt insurers as financial markets responded to the referendum by pushing down interest rates in nations such as the U.S., Kandarian said. The company is projecting 10-year Treasury yields will increase to 4.25 percent by 2027, Chief Financial Officer John Hele said on the call. That outlook is even worse than in November when the company said they won’t reach a “normalized” level of 4.5 percent for 11 years.