UK’s Equitable seeks compromise deal on liabilities


LONDON -- Troubled UK mutual life assurer Equitable Life is continuing efforts to seek a compromise deal over its liabilities after a poll of its members showed a majority in favour of a settlement.

Equitable, the world’s oldest mutual life assurance company, is still solvent after falling foul of a combination of legal, strategic and interest rate risks.

But in December it closed its doors to new business after a decision last year in the House of Lords, Britain’s highest court, left the company with uncovered liabilities of around £1.5 billion ($2.1 billion).

UK pension industry analysts estimate about 1 million people could face reduced retirement incomes as a result of the debacle.

Vanni Treves, who took over as Equitable chairman earlier this year, reported the results of a poll of Equitable’s members to the company’s surprisingly subdued annual meeting in May.


The poll, undertaken by Mori, showed a majority of policyholders in favour of a compromise that would cap Equitable’s liabilities to its guaranteed annuity rate (GAR) policyholders.

The GAR policies, sold to some 90,000 Equitable members from the 1950s to 1980s, guaranteed a minimum rate of return based on interest rates that were at times at record highs. In effect, GAR policyholders held a call option on interest rates.

Judges in the House of Lords last year rejected Equitable’s argument that it could reduce the terminal bonuses of those GAR policyholders who exercised their right to a guaranteed rate.

The judgement sparked the crisis because Equitable had made insufficient provision against the risk of losing the case.


The Mori poll of 1,000 policyholders found 57% of GAR policyholders were in favour of a compromise deal that would give them an improvement in the return on their policies in exchange for waiving their guaranteed annuities.

Among non-GAR policyholders, 73% found the idea acceptable. But 66% of non-GAR policyholders weren’t prepared to allow GAR policyholders to get more than they had already obtained at any further cost to non-GAR members.

Any compromise would have to be reached by next March for Equitable to qualify for a further £250 million payment from Halifax, the UK mortgage bank that paid an initial £500 million for Equitable’s operational assets earlier this year.

Meanwhile, senior lawyers engaged by Equitable advised in May that the House of Lords’ decision cannot be re-opened or challenged, as some members had urged.

However, lawyers Nicholas Warren and Thomas Lowe said the law lords’ decision didn’t preclude non-GAR policyholders from asserting any claims they might be able to establish against Equitable, even if success would mean the value of the guarantees to GAR policyholders would be diminished.

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