Atlanta, GA (PRWEB) April 22, 2009
Among the news of celebrities like Steven Spielberg and Sandy Kofax caught in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, perhaps the most dramatic report was generated by a suit against Argus Group Holdings, Ltd.
In a lightly-viewed article, "Tremont, Rye Funds Face Lawsuit", the Wall Street Journal reported on January 22 of this year that Argus Group Holdings Ltd., is being sued by some of their own policyholders whose variable life insurance policies invested in the Rye Investment Funds, which had "…virtually all its assets under management, invested with Mr. Madoff."
Policy holders were told recently the values in these funds had been deemed worthless and their policy cash values may now actually be negative. Not only have global banks, billionaires, and celebrities splashed across the news been cheated, but unsuspecting victims seem to sprout up on a daily basis.
How can insurance firms be exposed to this type of investment fraud? Insurance companies, resting on massive deposits, have historically only invested in ultra-safe products such as government securities.
This all changed with the advent of variable life insurance products. In order to contend with surging growth stemming from the most recent bull market, competition among companies to create comparable earnings intensified, dragging non-traditional players into the game. Simultaneously, the majority of the investing population has passively observed their portfolios plummet and retirement accounts diminish while this immense oversight dangerously looms for those unknowingly exposed to the same market forces from their own variable insurance policies.
The net result: The very foundation of insurance had been cracked, its purpose splintered by greed and promises of substantial growth which variable policies professed to secure. It has taken just over six months to obliterate cash values which have possibly accrued for over a quarter century.
A Brief History on Variable Life Insurance
With variable life insurance, policy owners, not the insurance company, were given control to a portion of the cash value inside their own policies to invest into an assortment of provided securities, substituting interest rate risk for investment risk. This flexibility of course came at a price, with higher fees, mortality and expense risk costs charged to the owners. The chosen investments, held inside what is called the secondary account, fluctuated similarly to mutual funds, diverse in nature and generally profitable over time.
Earnings inside the previously perceived impenetrable earnings have been decimated. Along with the loss of value in speculative markets, the anticipated returns and assurances thought to be provided by variable policies have taken heavy casualties. Traditional security investments are understood to swing, wildly at times, and the inherent risk versus reward is commonly known and accepted by investors. However, variable policy owners may have neglected to weigh the risks properly or purchased a fundamentally inappropriate product for their particular insurance needs. Simply put, in most cases, insurance should be purchased for insurance, not as speculative investment vehicles. What's worse, for variable policy values to remain constant, a defined interest rate, generally 4-8% annually, must be at the very least maintained through growth of the selected investments. This means that with the approximate 40% nose dive recently in the general markets, variable policies will need to regain that lost value, plus additional and perpetual annual growth of 4-8% just to sustain the policy values. Investment diversification has proven to be ineffective to stave off historic losses. Popular portfolio categories accessible for secondary account investments are vast and assorted.
The majority of these portfolios have experienced crushing blows to their year-to-date returns, with the worst performance exceeding -50%. Measured by returns from the previous 10 years or since inception of a particular portfolio, you will be hard pressed to find one with double digit growth. Few economic experts believe things will turnaround until at least 2010, let alone provide salvaging returns of any sort.
Calculations performed with Morningstar's "Advisor Workstation" found that returns from 23,308 subaccounts comprising separate accounts for variable life and variable universal (flexible) life policies included YTD 2008 returns of -34.07%, 3 year annualized returns of -7.58% and 5 year annualized returns of -0.90%.
To simplify these figures, imagine that your annual premium allocated to the secondary account was $100,000/year. If the target interest rate assigned by the insurance company was on the low end of the spectrum, at 4% growth, after ten years you would need a minimum of approximately $1,200,611 (less administration fees and mortality charges) of cash value inside the secondary account to maintain the policy values. While the markets were roaring along, everything seemed great and life insurance policies were placed on the back burner in terms of concern. However, consider the current situation. The market tanks 40% in six months. Your cash value plummets from $1,200,611 to roughly $720,366. Now, not only have you paid significantly more into the policy than it is worth, but the guarantees no longer apply to your death benefit because the target interest rates have not been maintained, and unless you pay a single adjustment of around $500,000 (not including additional annual $100,000 premiums), the cash value will never catch up to provide the intended coverage. These policies are an unnecessary financial drain and, quite frankly, useless.
Variable policy owners have been thrust into a realm of uncertainty. The answers lie within the fundamental purpose of purchasing life insurance described above. Chasing returns involves risk. Life insurance by its very nature is a safety net, created and purchased to preserve businesses, properties, and other assets. Once variable life insurance is acquired, that which is to be protected, possibly a home from estate taxes or a family owned and operated company, becomes unprotected because the death benefit initially stated on the policy may no longer be sufficient. Not only that, but the guarantees behind the policy itself will implode well before the anticipated mortality expectancy predicted because the annual target interest rates will not have been met. Now instead of accumulating a substantial cash value within the policy and the expected death benefit amount securely in place, we observe what variable policy owners are finding out the hard way. A fraction of cash value remains and the death benefit has become insufficient or disappears entirely. Don't forget that variable policies cost more to manage and operate, therefore, owners are still paying higher fees for nearly defunct products.
Recommending clients to hold on to a variable policy today, in most cases, is almost indefensible. Hindsight is 20/20, but similarities with this problem resemble a life insurance version of the sub-prime mortgage collapse. Generally all sub-prime mortgages, from inception and by their very nature, had greater risk to default than standard 30 year fixed home loans, and look what happened. Basically all variable life policies, compared to term, whole or universal, had significantly more exposure to the general markets, therefore collapsing alongside them.
Unfortunately, no magic remedy will revive variable policies any time soon. In full disclosure, this is not an "I told you so" debriefing by any means. Roughly 125 companies sell variable life insurance products in the U.S., most of which differ slightly from each in one way or another. Variable policies are insurance products, so the NAIC (National Association of Insurance Commissioners) controls partial oversight, but because the secondary accounts are considered to be securities, the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) also provides regulation.
Complexity notwithstanding, a solution does exist. When purchasing life insurance, in most cases, you want guarantees. If you pay for it, you want to know exactly what will be available for your beneficiaries. Otherwise, market speculation corrupts the primary objective of buying life insurance. The owners of these products have a fiduciary responsibility to review and examine these policies as soon as possible:
1) Immediate Policy Summary: The first step would be to contact the insurance company for a policy summary. Most policy summaries are difficult to translate, especially to the untrained eye. Involving an insurance professional is necessary for complete comprehension.
2) Account Confirmations: Frequent confirmations on account values are a necessity.
3) Viability Verifications: Unfortunately, frequent viability verifications of the insurance companies themselves have become a necessity as well (i.e. Argus Group Holdings Ltd., as previously mentioned).
4) Planning Advice: Seek advice from the data uncovered to formulate objectives.
FYI, we don't expect many insurance agents to voluntarily inform clients of this sleeping nightmare, so responsibility, unfortunately, lies with the victims. Stories describing the inevitable collapse of these policies (similar to the Madoff link described above) should begin hitting the mainstream media en masse nationwide within the next six months and continue for nearly two years. As with most stories, once it becomes public, the window for opportunity to fix the problem will have closed.
Variable policy owners must act now before exposing themselves to senseless additional premium payments as well as the worst case scenario, policy implosion.