Handing over a large lump sum out of your life savings to an insurance company to buy a lifetime stream of income in an annuity is a sobering step. It is irreversible. A critical question, considering that your retirement can easily last 30 years or more, is whether the insurance company will be able to carry out its promise to pay. How sure can we be of actually getting those payments?
Protection level 1: Assuris - the backstop for failed insurance companies
As the Assuris website explains in more detail, all companies selling annuities in Canada are required to be members of Assuris, which does a very useful thing. It guarantees up to $2000 per month (or equivalent quarterly or annual amounts) in annuity income, or 85% of income, whichever is higher. It is on a per company basis so it is wise to pick different insurance companies for income above $2000 per month. Thankfully, one of the Assuris FAQs advises that if companies subsequently merge the guarantee continues on the previous basis, i.e. independently and not combined.
The ability of Assuris itself to carry out its guarantee is based partly on keeping a $100 million fund. That's not much at first glance considering the amount of outstanding annuity obligations - e.g. even a small player like Equitable Life had $456 million in outstanding annuity contracts in 2013 per its Annual Report. However, the $100 million fund is importantly supplemented by Assuris' power to levy all its insurance company members for any shortfall. Given that a failing insurance company would most probably still have considerable assets to pay a good chunk of its annuity obligations the net shortfall from the fund and the levy would seem fairly limited.
Assuris has been effective so far in its 25 years of existence. The four insurance company insolvencies in that time resulted in no losses to Assuris-covered customers and only miniscule losses to some non-covered customers.
Protection level 2: OSFI Regulation - a strict culture of caution
The second reason that annuity holders can find considerable comfort is the strict regulatory regime for insurance companies in Canada, as carried out by the federal government's Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions. There are requirements for companies to maintain high levels of capital to withstand financial shocks. All the major insurance companies exceed the OSFI recommended level by a large degree, let alone the legal minimum. A recent International Monetary Fund Review of the effect of the harmful low interest rate environment on Canadian insurance companies notes that the regulatory regime in Canada has forced the companies to make required adjustments. Various standards are being revised to improve safety. In the IMF's words "The regulatory regime has served Canada well in the adjustment to a low rate environment". Any future rise in interest rates will benefit companies.
It is reassuring to remember that though insurance companies suffered in and after the 2008 financial crisis, they weathered the storm. One failed but the Assuris guarantee worked. The current solidity of the Canadian insurers is reflected in their high credit ratings shown in this February 2015 compilation of the annuity issuers by McGill University. Some, like Canada Life with AA ratings, are higher rated than a weaker province like New Brunswick with only A(high) from DBRS. A culture of caution in Canada, that seems to be continuing, reassures for the future.
Protection level 3: Politics, a possible potent wildcard
"Too big to fail" and "too many voters" adds another dimension, possibly the most powerful of all, to the likelihood that annuity holders will not be left high and dry by insurance company failure. It is hard to imagine that, in the face of a single company failure that Assuris could not cope with, which would entail one of the huge companies such as Manulife or Sun Life, the federal government would not step in to bail out the millions of life insurance holders. Systemic risk domino effects on other companies and on banks might force the issue.
All in all, it seems that the safety of annuities in Canada is pretty darn good. There's no certainty that things cannot or will not change (is there ever?) but the situation looks very solid at the moment. It's one worry I will not have about my annuity purchase.