Steven A. Zabel
Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at Unum Group
Great. Thank you, Rick, and good morning, everyone. As I discuss our fourth quarter financial results this morning, I will again primarily focus on an analysis of our fourth quarter results relative to the third quarter of 2021, allowing us to show how the company's business lines are progressing through the pandemic. I will also describe our adjusted operating results by segment, excluding the impacts from our GAAP reserve assumption updates that did occur last quarter.
I'll start the discussion of our operating results with the Unum US segment, where COVID again significantly impacted our results this quarter, driving high mortality and a high average claim size in the group life business and higher claims in the group disability business. For the fourth quarter in the Unum US segment, adjusted operating income was $81.4 million compared to $88.5 million in the third quarter.
Within the Unum US segment, the group disability line reported adjusted operating income of $34.1 million in the fourth quarter compared to $39.5 million in the third quarter.
We saw promising trends in premium income, which increased 2.9% relative to the third quarter and 5% on a year-over-year basis, with increasing levels of natural growth as we benefit from improving employment levels along with rising wages.
The expense ratio was elevated this quarter at 29.9% compared to 28.1% in the third quarter, which reflected higher people-related costs and technology spend to support our digital strategies. The benefit ratio for group disability and the underlying drivers were generally steady in the fourth quarter relative to the third quarter.
The ratio did improve slightly to 78.3% from 78.9% in the third quarter, primarily driven by a lower level of incidence in the short-term disability line.
While short-term disability results did improve this quarter, SDD continues to be impacted by high COVID-related claims and, therefore, remains a drag on the overall profitability of this line relative to our pre-COVID trends.
The LCD line experienced generally stable incidence in the fourth quarter relative to the third and claim recoveries remain strong. We expect to continue to see an elevated overall group disability benefit ratio as COVID and the current external environment continued to impact our results. We do feel that COVID is a key driver of the high benefit ratio for the group disability line and that as direct COVID impacts lessen over time, we will see improvement in the benefit ratio back towards pre-pandemic levels.
Adjusted operating income for Unum US group life and AD&D declined to a loss of $71.7 million for the fourth quarter from a loss of $67.1 million in the third quarter. This quarter-to-quarter decline was primarily impacted by a decrease in the deferral of acquisition costs in the quarter due to lower expected recoverability in the short term as a result of the losses driven by COVID-related life claims for the full year. This impacted the quarter by approximately $15 million.
The benefit ratio improved to 98.3% for the fourth quarter compared to 100.6% in the third quarter. We were impacted by the continued high level of national COVID-related mortality, which was a reported $94,000 in the third quarter and increased to a reported $127,000 in the fourth quarter.
Age demographics continue to show a high impact on younger, working-age individuals though this impact is lessened in the fourth quarter.
For our group life block, we estimate that COVID-related excess mortality claims declined from over 1,900 claims in the third quarter to an estimated 1,725 claims in the fourth quarter. Accordingly, our results reflect an improvement to approximately 1.4% of the reported national figure in the fourth quarter compared to approximately 2% of the reported national figures in the third quarter.
We also experienced a higher average benefit size, which increased to around $65,000 in the fourth quarter from just over $60,000 in the third quarter. And then finally, non-COVID-related mortality did not materially impact results in the fourth quarter relative to the experience in the third quarter.
So looking ahead, the level of composition of COVID-related mortality will heavily influence our group life results. While we are waiting until later this month to hold our 2022 outlook meeting when we expect to have a more informed view of potential trends for the year, it is clear that first quarter mortality will continue to impact our group life results and we suggest that you follow the national trends as a basis for your projections and estimates.
Now looking at the Unum US supplemental and voluntary lines, adjusted operating income totaled $119 million in the fourth quarter compared to $116.1 million in the third quarter, both of which are very strong quarters that generated adjusted operating returns on equity in the range of 17% to 18%.
Looking at the three primary business lines. First, we remain very pleased with the performance of the individual disability recently issued block of business, which has generated strong results throughout the pandemic. The benefit ratio was generally stable at favorable overall levels from the third quarter to the fourth quarter, with strong recoveries offsetting an increased level of incidents.
The voluntary benefits line reported a strong level of income as well, with a benefit ratio in the fourth quarter declining to 42.9% from 46.6% in the third quarter, primarily reflecting strong performance across the A&H products. And finally, utilization in the dental and vision line decreased relative to the third quarter leading to an improvement in the benefit ratio to 65.6% compared to 75% in the third quarter.
Now looking at premium trends and drivers, we were pleased to see an acceleration in premium income growth for Unum US in the fourth quarter, with a year-over-year growth of 3%. For full year 2021, premium income increased 1%. The group disability product line had a very positive quarter with premium increasing 5% year-over-year, with strong growth in the STB line as well as the benefit of natural growth on the in-force block. We estimate the benefit we're seeing from natural growth across our businesses to be in the 3% to 3.5% range measured on a year-over-year basis, with different impacts to our various product lines. To date, we've seen more of a benefit from rising wages overall, with the benefit from higher employment levels being more pronounced in the less than 2,000 life sector of our blocks than in our larger case business.
Persistency levels were slightly lower year-over-year, but remain at strong overall levels. New sales were down for both the STD and LTD lines reflecting the pricing actions we are taking in the market and increased competition.
For the group life and AD&D line, premium income increased 2.1% year-over-year, benefiting from higher persistency and favorable trends and natural growth. Compared to a year ago, fourth quarter sales were lower by 4.7%.
Finally, in the supplemental voluntary lines, premium income increased 0.6% in the fourth quarter relative to last year, with strong sales growth in both the voluntary benefits and the individual disability recently issued lines, a year-over-year increase of 8.3% in dental and vision premium income, as well as strong improvement in persistency in the voluntary benefits line.
Now moving to the Unum International segment. We had a very good quarter with adjusted operating income for the fourth quarter of $27.1 million compared to $27.4 million in the third quarter. The primary driver of our International segment results is our Unum UK business, which generated adjusted operating income of GBP18.7 million in the fourth quarter compared to GBP18.4 million in the third quarter. The reported benefit ratio for Unum UK was 81.4% in the fourth quarter compared to 79.2% in the third quarter.
The underlying benefits experience was generally consistent between the two quarters, with favorable experience in group life offsetting a slightly higher benefit ratio in group disability. The quarter-to-quarter increase in the benefit ratio was largely driven by the impact of rising inflation in the U.K. As we have outlined in previous quarters, the higher benefit payments we make that are linked to inflation are offset with higher income that we received from inflation index-linked yields in the investment portfolio.
Benefits experienced in Unum Poland continued to trend favorably, and adjusted operating income was generally consistent from quarter-to-quarter. The year-over-year premium growth for our International business segment was also strong this quarter. On a local currency basis to neutralize the impact from changes in exchange rates, Unum UK generated growth of 5.1% with strong persistency, good sales and the continued successful placement of rate increases on our in-force block.
Additionally, sales in Unum UK were strong in the fourth quarter, increasing 28.1% over last year. Unum Poland generated sales growth of 43.6%, a continuation of the strong growth trend this business has been producing.
So next, I'll move to the Colonial Life results. They remain at healthy levels and in line with our expectations, with adjusted operating income of $80 million in the fourth quarter and $80.1 million in the third quarter. One of the primary drivers of results between the third and fourth quarters was an improvement in the benefit ratio in the fourth quarter to 52.5% compared to 55.9% in the third quarter. This was largely driven by lower cancer and life insurance claims. Offsetting this improvement was a lower level of miscellaneous investment income, with the fourth quarter at an average level for bond calls compared to the unusually high income we saw in the third quarter from calls.
We were pleased to see a continuation in the improving trend in premium growth for Colonial Life, which did increase 1.1% on a year-over-year basis after being flat to negative over the past four quarters. Driving this improving trend in premiums is the improvement in persistency and sales activity. For the fourth quarter, sales for Colonial Life increased 7.8% compared to a year ago, and for the full year 2021, sales increased 16.1%. Persistency for Colonial Life ended the year in a strong position, increasing to 79.3% for the full year compared to 77.8% in 2020.
In the Closed Block segment, adjusted operating income, excluding the amortization of cost of reinsurance related to the Closed Block individual disability reinsurance transaction and the items related to the reserve assumption update in the prior quarter, was $76.7 million in the fourth quarter compared to $109.8 million in the third quarter. For both the long-term care and Closed Block individual disability lines, we saw favorable results relative to our long-term assumptions, but we did see benefits experience continuing to return to more historic levels of performance.
For LTC, the move in the interest adjusted loss ratio to 82.2% in the fourth quarter from 74.8% in the third quarter was driven by less favorable terminations and recoveries, partially offset by lower submitted new claims. For the Closed Block individual disability line, the move in the interest adjusted loss ratio to 75.4% in the fourth quarter from 58.2% in the third quarter was driven by higher submitted claims. Again, the experience for both lines in the fourth quarter remained favorable relative to our long-term assumptions.
Higher miscellaneous investment income continues to contribute to the strong adjusted operating income for the Closed Block segment. However, we did experience a reduction of approximately $10 million in total miscellaneous investment income from the third quarter to the fourth quarter, with the reduction driven by a lower level of bond calls. The contribution to income from our alternative asset portfolio remained approximately the same between the two quarters, with improved results from our exposure to real asset partnerships.
Looking ahead, I'll reiterate from our messaging in prior calls with you that we estimate quarterly adjusted operating income for this segment will, over time, run within a $45 million to $55 million range, assuming more normal trends for investment income and claim results in the LTC and closed disability lines.
So then wrapping up my commentary on the quarter's financial results, the adjusted operating loss in the corporate segment was $45.1 million in the fourth quarter and $45.4 million in the third quarter, which are both generally in line with our expectations for this segment. This excludes the special items we listed in our premium -- our previous earnings release.
I'd also mention that the tax rate for the fourth quarter of 2021 was lower than we historically reported at 17.3%, with the favorability as compared to the U.S. statutory tax rate, driven primarily by tax exempt income and various credits. The comparable full-year tax rate of 20.2% is consistent with our expectations and in line with the past two years.
Moving now to investments and net investment income. Miscellaneous investment income has had a meaningful impact on our financial results and quarterly comparisons. For the fourth quarter, we saw a decline of approximately $16 million relative to the third quarter, driven by a significant reduction in bond call activity, which was unusually high in the third quarter, but was still elevated above average levels for us in the fourth quarter. Our alternative investment portfolio remained very strong, generating income of $39.4 million in the fourth quarter compared to $38.2 million in the third quarter.
The Closed Block segment continues to be the primary beneficiary of the strong performance of the alternatives portfolio, while the reduced level of net investment income from bond call activity primarily impacted Colonial's sequential results. For the full-year 2021, miscellaneous investment income generated unusually high levels of income, which we expect to moderate in 2021.
Moving now to capital. The financial position of the company continues to be in great shape, providing us significant financial flexibility. The weighted average risk-based capital ratio for our traditional U.S. insurance companies improved to approximately 395%, and holding company cash was $1.5 billion at the end of the year, both well above our targeted levels. In addition, leverage has again trended lower with equity growth and is now 25.3%.
During the fourth quarter, we successfully added $400 million of contingent capital through pre-capitalized trust securities, with a 4.046% coupon and 20-year tenor, which we view as a cost-effective way to enhance our balance sheet strength and flexibility. In terms of capital deployment in the fourth quarter, we executed an accelerated share repurchase transaction to buy back $50 million of our shares. We continue to anticipate repurchasing approximately $200 million of our shares during 2022.
In looking at the capital contribution to support the LTC business, we were really pleased with the improvements in the fourth quarter outcomes. Capital contributions in the Fairwind subsidiary were $165 million for the fourth quarter and totaled $285 million for the full-year 2021, which was a decline from $424 million in 2020. The recognition of the premium deficiency reserve for LTC, which is included in the Fairwind capital contributions, totaled $346 million after tax for full year 2021. A portion of the funding for the PDR was generated from the favorable operating earnings in the Fairwind subsidiary and its high capital levels.
Moving to First Unum, given the better position of the LTC Block in that subsidiary, resulting from higher interest rates and the benefit of rate increase approvals for that block during 2021, we were in a position to release $75 million of the asset adequacy reserve after many years of additions to that reserve. With this reserve release, we were able to take a $30 million dividend out of First Unum in the quarter, the first in several years.
Finally, we have a small portion of our LTC business in the Provident Life and Accident subsidiary. And with the increase in interest rates and repositioning our investment portfolio, the premium deficiency reserve in that block was reduced by $66 million after tax.
To summarize, we experienced favorable outcomes for LTC contributions given the improved interest rate environment, recent underlying performance of the block and rate increases on the in-force block.
So in closing, I wanted to give you an update on our progress in adopting ASC 944 or long-duration targeted improvements. As I mentioned in October, this accounting pronouncement applies only to GAAP basis financial statements and has no economic, statutory accounting or cash flow impacts to the business. We continue to feel good about our readiness to adopt the pronouncement as of January 1, 2023, and began to communicate some qualitative information with the filing of our third quarter Form 10-Q.
Although we continue to evaluate the effects of complying with this update, we expect that the most significant impact of the transition date will be the requirement to update our liability discount rate with one that is generally equivalent to a single A interest rate. As we stated in the 10-Q, we expect this will result in a material decrease to accumulated other comprehensive income and primarily being driven by the difference between the expected interest rates from our investment strategy and interest rates indicative of a single A-rated portfolio.
We plan to provide updates to you in 2022 as we near adoption. Specifically, we plan to provide an update on the impact at the transition date as well as our 2022 outlook with a conference call on February 25. We'll release details on the logistics for that call in the next several days.
So now I'll turn the call back to Rick for his closing comments and I look forward to your questions.