Photography by Tim Barber / Martha Leiper, Unum's chief investment officer

While higher interest rates are a plus for financial companies such as Unum as government regulators try to stem inflation, the increases need to be measured, a top official for the insurer said Friday.

Also, wage inflation could bring higher insurance premiums for customers of Chattanooga-based Unum, said Martha Leiper, the company's executive vice president and chief investment officer.

Leiper was among about 100 people at Unum's downtown headquarters, where they stuffed some 1,000 hygiene and snack bags for the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. It was the insurer's first large-scale, in-person volunteer event in two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.

Leiper said in an interview that all of Unum's major campuses in the United States are taking part in the volunteer effort in their cities. Unum employs nearly 3,000 workers in Chattanooga.

Concerning the economy, Leiper said many Americans have "less to spend at the end of the day" because of rising inflation, which the Labor Department this week reported jumping 7.9% over the past year at the consumer level.

"It's hitting individuals very hard," she said.

Because of what Leiper termed "a perfect storm" that included loose monetary policy and supply chain disruptions, the nation's Federal Reserve Board has indicated higher interest rates are coming to stop inflation. Higher rates tend to help Unum because of its massive investment portfolio.

Still, the Unum official is seeing cheaper gasoline futures long-term in the energy sector, where fuel prices have skyrocketed over the past month. Also, Leiper is expecting supply chain issues to moderate and inflation to ease.

"This time next year, it will not be so high," she said, adding that it may not fall to the government's 2% target.

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Unum official says rate hikes to tame inflation must be measured

At the same time, the chances of a recession increase, she said. Higher interest rates could stall demand and hinder the economy. That scenario could lead to "stagflation" moving ahead, she said.

The 7.9% climb in consumer inflation over the past year was the sharpest spike since 1982, according to the Associated Press. The increase reported last Thursday by the Labor Department reflected the 12 months ending in February and didn't include the oil and gas price surges that followed Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Since then, average gas prices nationally have jumped about 62 cents a gallon to $4.32, according to AAA. For most Americans, inflation is running far ahead of pay raises that many have received in the past year, making it harder for them to afford necessities like food, gas and rent.

Meanwhile, Davvin Gilkey, Unum's director of inclusion and diversity infrastructure and external relationships, said during the volunteer event that the company looks for ways for employees to engage in the community.

"This is great to come together and see each other do a good thing," she said.

Trish King, the Community Kitchen's volunteer and church relations coordinator, said she's excited to have its first big interaction with Unum in two years.

She said the Community Kitchen generally uses about 300 hygiene and snack bags a week.

"It's a constant need," King said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.