Inflation’s Impact on Whole Life Insurance Dividends [Historical Overview]

January 18, 2022
Written by: Steven Gibbs | Last Updated on: April 25, 2024
Fact Checked by Jason Herring and Barry Brooksby (licensed insurance experts)

Insurance and Estates, a strategic life insurance provider composed of life insurance professionals, is committed to integrity in our editorial standards and transparency in how we receive compensation from our insurance partners.

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While many people purchase life insurance for the death benefit protection that it provides, there are numerous other reasons to include this financial vehicle in your portfolio. One of these is the tax-deferred savings that certain types of life insurance policies can offer.

In some cases, for instance, growth of the cash value in a permanent life insurance policy may be based on more than just an interest rate that is set by the insurance company.

As an example, there are some types of permanent life insurance policies, such as participating whole life insurance, that also pay out dividends to their policyholders – and these can help to boost the cash value growth.

Several economic factors can have an influence on whole life insurance dividends over time, though, including the rise and fall of inflation.

As the U.S. continues to seek ways to overcome the impact that COVID-19 has had on the economy, a potentially higher inflationary environment may or may not necessarily be good for whole life insurance policyowners.

Not All Whole Life Insurance Policies are Exactly the Same

Whole life is a type of permanent life insurance coverage that provides death benefit protection, along with a cash value component. The funds that are in the cash account are allowed to grow on a tax-deferred basis, meaning that there is no tax due on the gain unless or until it is withdrawn.

With a whole life insurance policy, the initial amount of the death benefit is fixed, as is the amount of the premium. Over time, provided that the insured is still living, the policy will become paid up, and premiums are no longer due.

Although all whole life insurance policies are structured in a similar manner, not all of them operate in exactly the same way.

As an example, some mutual life insurance carriers – where the policyholders are considered to be part owners of the company – provide the opportunity to receive dividends via “participating” life insurance policies.

Life insurance dividends are somewhat similar to those that are paid by “traditional” investments, such as stocks and equity-based mutual funds, in that they represent a portion of the underlying insurance company’s profit or financial performance.

In the case of life insurance dividends, though, these premium “over payments” are returned to the policyholder if the carrier has shown a profit at the end of the year. These dividends, if placed into the cash value of the policy, tend to provide greater growth of the funds, especially over the longer term time horizon.

There are several ways that a life insurance policyholder can receive dividends. These can include in cash – either by way of a direct payment to the policyholder or as an addition to the cash value.

Alternatively, dividends may be used for paying a portion of the policy’s current premium or for purchasing additional coverage, or even for paying off a loan that was taken out against the cash value.

The dividends that are paid on whole life insurance are based on several key factors, such as:

  • The performance of the underlying investments that are held by the insurance company
  • Interest rates in the economy
  • New policies that are sold by the insurer

Because whole life insurance policy dividends are technically considered to be a “refund” of overpaid premiums, they are typically received tax-free by the policyholder.

While the payment of dividends is not guaranteed, there are some insurance carriers that have regularly made dividend payments to their policyholders for more than 100 consecutive years.

How Whole Life Insurance Policy Dividends Have Changed Throughout the Years

Up until the early 1980s, the primary life insurance products sold were “participating” whole life policies. Although the premiums on these policies were typically higher than those of regular whole life, they were enhanced by the dividends.

During this time, interest rates were at historical highs, with the Federal funds rate (the rate that banks charge each other for overnight loans) hitting 20% in 1980, and 21% the following year. These high interest rates pulled whole life insurance dividends up with them.

But, just as interest rates in the economy have risen and fallen over time, life insurance dividends have also fluctuated. Oftentimes, though, when whole life insurance illustrations are initially calculated, it is assumed that the interest rate will remain the same throughout the life of the policy. But that is rarely – if ever – reality.

So, for instance, if a participating whole life insurance policy was purchased in the late 1970s or early 1980s, its actual performance – especially over several decades – is not likely to be as stellar as the hypothetical illustration initially showed.

Dividend Schedule19801985199019952000200520102017
Policy Dividend Interest Rate8.27%12.20%10.50%9.00%8.30%7.00%6.85%6.70%
Moody's Seasoned Aaa Corporate Bond Yield9.63%12.71%9.26%7.97%7.05%5.63%5.31%3.62%
10-year Treasury (annual rate)9.43%12.46%8.49%7.09%5.65%4.27%3.26%1.75%
Note: This graph, and the accompanying chart below, shows the relative stability of one life insurer’s dividend interest rate as compared to three common income measures over an extended period of time between 1980 and 2017.

Source: A Historic Whole Life Policy’s Fluctuating Dividends.

In fact, even over just the past two decades, the whole life insurance dividend rates at many of the large mutual insurers in the U.S. have vacillated in the 5% to 8% range, based on various economic factors – one of the biggest of these being inflation, with higher inflation lining up with higher whole life dividend rates – and vice versa.

Historical Whole Life Insurance Dividend Rates from 2020 to 2022

YearMassMutualNew York LifeNorthwestern MutualPenn MutualOhio NationalGuardian Life
Source: Top Whole Life

Even so, as compared to more “traditional” investments, such as stocks and mutual funds, while the opportunity for significant growth does certainly exist, so does the potential for loss – and when there are any negative returns included in the mix, even if the overall average return is positive over time, investors can still end up with an actual dollar amount loss.

In fact, as long as there are any negative numbers in the average return mix, the actual return will never equal the average return. Here is an example of how a $1,000 investment that vacillated between positive and negative yearly returns of 10% would look over a ten-year period of time.

End of YearGain or LossValue of Account
Source: The Retirement Miracle. By Patrick Kelly.

Therefore, while the “average” return in the above example is 0%, the actual return is approximately negative 5%. In addition, when a loss is incurred in an investment portfolio, future gains must be higher in order to simply get the value back to “even.”

For instance, if the value of an investment falls by 20%, it will require a 25% positive return following that loss in order to get back to the value prior to the loss – and the larger the loss, the higher the future return that is necessary.

Percent Loss versus Percent Needed to Recover

% Loss of Capital% Gain Required to Recoup the Loss
Because the cash value in a participating whole life insurance policy does not incur market-related losses, though, even a lower interest rate and dividend could surpass the value of other financial vehicles because previous gains (including gains that are generated through dividends) are protected.

The Impact of Inflation on Whole Life Insurance Policy Dividends

Different types of financial instruments can be affected differently during inflationary and deflationary times. As many people are aware, inflation refers to a steady increase in the general level of prices for goods and services.

The inflation rate demonstrates the health of the country’s economy, which in turn can signal whether or not action is needed by the Federal Reserve to keep the economy healthy.

When inflation is considered to be “steady” – at approximately 2% – the economy is considered to be relatively healthy. But, during times of higher inflation, the same amount of money will buy less in terms of goods and services.

Ever since the start of the Great Depression roughly 90 years ago, the United States has seen an average annual inflation rate of 3.2%.

But this is just an average, because there are times when inflation can be in the double digits, and conversely, there are other periods when inflation can be negative. (The latter refers to deflation, or a time when the general level of prices in an economy are reduced.)

Year-Over-Year Inflation Rate in the United States (1929 – 2021)

YearInflation Rate %YearInflation Rate %YearInflation Rate %
Source: The Balance

Inflation Also Impacts ROI

Inflation can have an impact on more than just the price of goods and services, though. It can also affect the returns on investments and other financial vehicles – including interest rates offered on CDs and savings accounts, as well as the dividends that are paid out on participating whole life insurance policies.

As an example, if inflation is high, then life insurance carriers are usually more apt to see a reduction in the purchase of new policies – and this could have a substantial impact on the companies’ financial performance over a given time period, which is one of the primary criteria for the payout of dividends.

That being said, interest rates will generally rise in times of higher inflation, which can be a positive for life insurance companies because they could benefit from higher bond yields on their own underlying investments.

In addition, life insurance companies may incur other advantages, too, due to higher interest rates because a rising-interest economic environment can also lower the net present value of the insurer’s liabilities, such as its outstanding death benefits on the life insurance coverage it has in-force.

This, in turn, could free up more capital so that the insurance company can make more investments, which has the potential to create more net positives to its business operations.

So, while inflation can have an effect on whole life insurance policy dividend payouts, it is less worrisome for insurers in terms of paying death benefit claims.

Even though the U.S. inflation rate has been relatively stable over the past few years, there are no guarantees that it won’t change over time – and because of that, it is essential for investors and retirees to not only be prepared, but also to be protected financially. Dividend-paying whole life insurance can help with both.

Is Whole Life Insurance Right for You?

Although whole life insurance can offer a wide range of benefits, this type of coverage may not be right for everyone – and, if you already own a whole life insurance policy, it is possible that you may need to make some adjustments, based on any life changes that you’ve experienced, such as marriage or divorce, the death of your spouse, or other significant life events.

With that in mind, before making a long-term commitment to purchasing a policy, it is recommended that you first discuss your short- and long-term goals with a life insurance or estate planning specialist.

From there, if you find that whole life is a good fit, the next step should be evaluating policies and insurance companies in order to narrow down the best choice.

There are actually many ways to design whole life insurance. But not all insurance professionals are adept at creating the right policy for their clients and ensuring that it is the best fit for their particular needs and objectives.

So, if you would like additional information, or if you still have any unanswered questions, feel free to contact the experts at Insurance and Estates by calling (877) 787-7558 or leaving us a message in the comments below. We look forward to assisting you.

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