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Don't Forfeit Nonforfeiture.

Opinion: Eliminating laws that require surrender values for permanent life policies threatens to bruise the life industry--both financially and in the eyes of its customers.

The standard nonforfeiture law, a pillar of life insurance practice since the 19th century, remains a foundation of consumer protection. With some modification, it can serve the best interests of the life insurance industry for years to come.

The need for a standard nonforfeiture law was first identified in the mid-1800s by Elizur Wright, an actuary who was insurance commissioner of Massachusetts. On a trip to England, Wright saw speculators amassing fortunes by buying life insurance policies from the elderly and weak. These policies were bought from people whose savings had been spent and who could no longer pay their premiums. Upon his return to the United States, Wright championed reform by requiring surrender values that would benefit and protect policyholders.

Now, as then, fair nonforfeiture values continue to align the interests of the insured and the insurer. The insured wants good value for premiums paid. The insurer provides good value so policyholders will keep their policies in force, because the company will experience a gain for every year that the insured does not terminate the contract. The longer the contract stays in force, the better everybody does. The core premise of the current standard nonforfeiture law is as true today as it was in 1941 when the Guertin Committee of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners explored nonforfeiture values and concluded that a policyholder's investment in a long-term life insurance contract should be protected.

An NAIC task force will continue discussion of nonforfeiture law at its national meeting this month as some industry actuaries propose to eliminate nonforfeiture requirements. These industry actuaries argue that companies should have total freedom in product design, even if that means discarding such benefits entirely. Among other things, this would clear the way for companies to sell "cash valueless" products--life insurance products that would never build cash values, regardless of the level or number of premiums paid.

Consumer Concerns

The major consumer beef about permanent life insurance involves early surrenders. Since the mid-1990s, the Consumer Federation of America and others have decried the "billions of dollars" that consumers waste on cash-value life insurance when they terminate early. The consumerists' point is that someone who surrenders a cash-value policy in the early years receives a cash value (or nonforfeiture benefit) far less than premiums paid.

We could argue that low early cash values are a logical and necessary result of the structure of permanent life insurance. But we don't see how anyone could rationally expect consumers to embrace the idea of receiving no surrender value at all, at any point in time. Such a response to an apparent industry vulnerability is akin to pouring gasoline on a fire.

The absence of nonforfeiture requirements has been a major contributing factor to the appearance in Canada of at least two versions of permanent policies without cash values. The proponents of eliminating nonforfeiture laws often point to the Canadian experience as proof that such policies can work. We believe the Canadian experience demonstrates precisely the opposite.

Of these two Canadian products, one is a "term to 100" plan, essentially a whole life policy with no cash values. The other is a universal life version, with annual mortality charges that remain level rather than increase. No nonforfeiture values are associated with these level charges.

What is the main attraction of these plans? It's simple: lower premiums, at least compared with plans offering the same death benefit guarantees with "regular" cash values. These policies, however, have an Achilles' heel. In order to work at such low premium levels, the policies depend on lapse-supported pricing, a pricing method facilitated by the absence of nonforfeiture requirements. This pricing method is unfair to consumers. And for insurers, it could lead to financial loss and/or unexpected increases in reserves.

Lapse-Supported Pricing

The main problem with lapse-supported pricing is that it depends on forfeiture. Simply put, companies count on policies to lapse in order to support those that don't. Without nonforfeiture requirements, a company does not have to pay a surrender value that bears a reasonable relationship to the assets it has accumulated for each policy.

Therefore, each time a policy lapses, the company's gain is much larger than would reasonably be expected. The company takes these gains to provide benefits for policyholders who don't allow their policies to lapse and who hold their policies until death. These gains are the basis of lower premiums in lapse-supported policies.

In other words, companies price such policies with the expectation that there will be a lot of "losers." If the company's original assumption for lapse rates materializes, it only must pay a few persisters, or "winners." The vast majority of policyholders who lapse their policies before death are the "losers." They receive much less at surrender than what any reasonable person would perceive as acceptable value.

When such products were introduced in Canada, the ultimate annual lapse rates used for pricing were 6% to 7%. A steady 7% lapse rate would result in about 75% of all policies lapsing with no value during the first 20 years. In other words, the companies assumed that at least 75%--and probably a much larger percentage--of policyholders would get less than "fair" value at termination. At that lapse rate, insurers could afford to pay on the remaining 25% of policies that would persist until death.

But actual experience did not turn out as expected. While the Canadian Institute of Actuaries reported that lapses in early years did range from 7% to 10%, actual ultimate lapse rates were much lower than anticipated. They dropped to 3.5% by the sixth year, and fell gradually to about 2% in years nine through 14.

What happens when lapses are lower than expected? To begin with, even a steady lapse rate of 2% would result in fully one-third of all policies lapsing with no value during the first 20 years, and almost 65% of policies lapsing with no value over 50 years (which, for many life insurance buyers, is a reasonable estimate of the number of years remaining in their lives). So even when lapse rates are lower than expected, a significant number of policies deliver no value. This does not seem like a path to consumer satisfaction.

Second, and perhaps of more concern, lapse-supported pricing could create financial problems for insurance companies. For policies already issued, companies must either encourage lapses or increase reserves. One Canadian company noted that a decrease in lapse rates on a 5-year-old policy--from 3% to 2%--would require it to increase reserves by 15% to 40%. How many companies could do this without creating financial strain?

Even so, lapse-supported pricing for permanent life insurance is now crossing over into the United States. Some permanent policies are being sold with grossly inadequate cash values. In these cases, companies typically circumvent the standard nonforfeiture law by adding so-called "no-lapse, secondary guarantees" to universal life products.

As in Canada, the primary attraction of these U. S. products is low premiums, which may look great at point of sale. But what will policyholders think about this 10, 20 or even more years down the road? Will they blithely accept nothing upon lapse or surrender? Will they recall the disclosure at point of sale, that this is a new kind of permanent policy with no cash values? The recent history of the life insurance industry suggests otherwise.

In fact, the not-so-recent history also suggests otherwise. Lapse-supported pricing already has been "field tested" in the United States, and it didn't work then, either. The tontines of 100 and more years ago were also built on lapse-supported pricing. These policies, introduced in the United States in the 1860s, provided nonforfeiture benefits only to survivors who lived to the end of a certain period of time. The consumer dissatisfaction they generated contributed to the 1905 Armstrong investigation, which led to stricter supervision of the insurance industry by New York and other state insurance departments.

Rush to Viaticals

The current environment suggests that if an issuing company does not provide fair value, policyholders will proceed directly to a secondary market--presumably, a viatical company--to get a better deal. There will be a secondary market for these contracts, and this will not be good for the life insurance industry.

Interestingly, this procession would lead to a final irony. Any mass rush to viatical companies would cause the lapse-supported pricing method to crumble altogether, because the policies just won't lapse. The viatical companies will see to that; they will continue to pay premiums to maintain the "no-lapse" guaranteed death benefit. This could result in financial problems for the issuing companies.

In short, lapse-supported pricing is not only unfair but in the long run, it's unworkable.

Revise, Don't Eliminate

The presence of nonforfeiture values is an excellent safeguard for both policyholders and companies, but the current standard nonforfeiture law should be modified.

One important modification would be to revise the law to make it clear that a fair value is required at termination for universal life, universal life with no-lapse guarantees and other nontraditional products. This revision would also help eliminate lapse-supported pricing.

Other revisions might include market-value adjustments and modified guaranteed cash values. Such revisions would permit longer-term investments, which would deliver much of the improved value that innovators attribute to "no cash value" policies.

However, one revision should not be considered: the elimination of cash values. The simple truth is that cash values for life insurance are accepted and even expected, because standard nonforfeiture law provisions have trumpeted them for years. Consumers expect cash options for life insurance contracts that require pre-funding. It would be impossible to create enough disclosure to ward off complaints at termination if neither cash options nor loan provisions were offered.

Finally, cash values are needed to strengthen the standard nonforfeiture law's ability to eliminate lapse support.

The issue of nonforfeiture values is more than just an academic exercise. Today, the prevalence of industry mergers and acquisitions is generating more and more "orphaned" blocks of lapse-supported business. Policyholders can find themselves at the mercy of "new" owners, whose emotional attachment and commitment to them and their policies is tenuous at best. In the past, the realities of the marketplace might have prevented the new company from treating its inherited policyholders less than fairly. But with lapse-supported pricing, the company has a clear financial incentive to treat policyholders unfairly and actively encourage them to lapse. This puts policyholders in "no-win" territory--either stick with a company that doesn't want them, or lapse a policy with little or no surrender value.

What should protect policyholders is a standard nonforfeiture law that requires fair nonforfeiture values and applies to all life insurance contracts. What should protect them is a standard nonforfeiture law that requires "fair value" to help align the interests of both insurer and insured. Such a law would empower insureds by giving them some financial leverage in their otherwise mismatched dealings with insurers.

Without such laws, policyholders who find themselves in this position will be as powerless as the penniless individuals who fell prey to speculators in 19th-century England.

With some minor revisions, the standard nonforfeiture law can be as important and vital today as when it was introduced more than a century ago. To keep a great industry great, we must ensure that this law is maintained and strengthened.

William C. Koenig, FSA, MAAA, is senior vice president and chief actuary and Stephen H. Frankel, FSA, MAAA, is vice president-actuary at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., Milwaukee.
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Article Details
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Author:Frankel, Stephen H.
Publication:Best's Review
Article Type:Industry Overview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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