Let’s focus for a minute on the index annuity market. This is a “goofy” market. Have you even seen anything like this in your insurance career? We have products that take most agents 30 minutes to understand. How are we supposed to explain them to a prospect or client in three (3) minutes?
Please allow me to quote Jack Marrion, President of the Advantage Compendium, “Fixed index annuities can best be described as savings instruments offered by insurance companies that provide a minimum guaranteed return. Insurance companies’ earnings, above and beyond what is needed for this minimum guarantee, are used to purchase an index-link providing the potential for the crediting of excess interest above the minimum guarantee.”
Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? This is even better when you explain to the prospect that their principal and past interest gains are never subject to investment risk. They are backed by the faith and credit of the insurance company. This is safe and this is simple.
Some might want a simple explanation of the difference between a “fixed rate” annuity and a “fixed index” annuity. Marrion says, “The difference between the two is that with a fixed index annuity, most of the interest paid is used to buy an index-link on an equity index. This gives your client the potential for more interest if the index cooperates.” This sounds pretty simple to me. You do, of course, have the benefit of many fine point of sales pieces along with historical performances of each crediting methodology. So what’s happened? Why all the confusion?
Okay, many companies have made these products difficult to understand ... too many index choices and too many games. Some products have stretched the surrender periods without giving anything back to the client. Don’t get me wrong, long surrender periods are okay if the client gets something in exchange and fully understands what he/she is buying. Some products will never, in my opinion, perform well. Why? They are building in unmanageable commission structures. I like high commissions as well as anyone, but not at the expense of our clients.
- How will we ever be able to go back on an annual review with our clients?
- How can we look them in the eye? Well, don’t worry, changes are coming!
Before we analyze potential changes, let’s look at the traditional “fixed annuity.” The traditional, non-index annuity, has been around for quite some time. It has really served a great purpose. People have been able to save money through this vehicle on a tax deferred basis. The last ten (10) years provided our industry with an excellent opportunity for explosive growth. Boy did it ever happen! Bank annuity sales took off; agents were experiencing tremendous increase in incomes and companies’ assets exploded.
The annuity design was simple. They mimicked CDs. That’s the greatest benchmark for today’s consumer – “is this annuity paying more than my CD?” This is very important because that is the most important factor in your client’s decision to purchase. Tax deferred growth, freedom from probate and an income they can’t outlive is a distant second to “beating” the CD. But things started to get a little cloudy. Let’s take a look.
Companies wanted an increase in market share. They wanted more assets under management. Remember, that’s one of the two (2) biggest factors in which an insurance company makes money. It’s called the spread. It’s the difference between what the company earns in investment income and what they pay your client. The bigger the spread…..the bigger the profit. The other main factor is expense (home office costs and of course, your commissions). So, enter the day of the first year bonus. This “sizzling” first year rate brought in a lot of money. These bonuses have brought about some critics from the press, as well as, disgruntled clients. Why? Renewal rates, in many cases, tanked. These were declared rate annuities that allow the company to “declare” where they set the renewal rates.
Many companies in search of income reduced your client’s rate to increase the spread. Wall Street liked it….but not the policyholder. I believe that it’s in your best interest, as well as your clients, to purchase a multi-year rate guaranteed annuity if you are not proposing an index annuity. Otherwise, your client is saving in a vehicle with no guarantee of future results. They surely wouldn’t do this with a bank CD. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of honorable companies that will treat your client fairly. Also, we do want the company to be profitable. They are our partners. There are many ways to analyze a company to determine how they will renew your client’s rates.
- Make sure they have plenty of capital and/or strong reinsurers.
- Review their annual statement to see if they are making money.
- Check to see if they have been selling off their portfolio to take investment gains. If they have, the probably reinvested at lower rates which reduce their spread (profit). They may reduce rates to increase that spread.
- Ask to take a look at their past renewals. History is not always an indication of the future, but could prove to be a guide.
I have been fortunate to be on both sides of the fence. I’ve been an insurance company president as well as having twenty (20) plus years in the field as an agent, general agent and owner of an insurance marketing organization. So, please excuse me if I tend to over-analyze. But, I am happy to say that the next couple of years will get our annuity industry back on track.
Companies are now designing new products, pulling old products and adhering to new regulatory guidelines. The business is going to be better than ever! The policyholder, the insurance company and the agent will all do well! We are getting back to a level playing field. I, for one, am extremely happy with the direction our industry MUST take if we are going to be able to operate profitably without government intervention. So, what do we do next? Here we go: Sell only what you believe in. Don’t rationalize away parts of the contract you don’t like. Only sell “GOOD STUFF”. Have a concise presentation that provides your prospect or client with all the information they need to make a decision. They buy easier when they understand what you are selling. Don’t over promise. Don’t sell the stock market. This isn’t an investment.
The fixed index annuity is the most important annuity in the industry. Seniors and Boomers will continue to buy. Our future is bright for multiple sales of annuities and ancillary products - but, only if they are happy with previous purchases. This product is simple and beautiful. Sell it properly and you will profit immensely. The answer is simple. Sell it right and sell what’s good. Good for everyone. We can’t lose.
Until Next Time ... Good Selling!
Raymond J. Ohlson, CLU
President & CEO of The Ohlson Group and SMP International LLC