Monday, November 2, 2015

No. 124: Annuity Sales Incentives—Results of the Investigation by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren

On April 28, 2015, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Economic Policy of the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, sent letters to 15 major issuers of annuities seeking "information on rewards and incentives offered by your company to brokers and dealers who sell annuities to families and small investors." The companies were AIG, Allianz, American Equity, Athene, AXA, Jackson National Life, Lincoln Financial, MetLife, Nationwide, New York Life, Pacific Life, Prudential, RiverSource, TIAA-CREF, and Transamerica. In No. 97, posted May 4, I wrote about Senator Warren's investigation.

Results of the Investigation
On October 27, Senator Warren released a report indicating that all 15 companies responded at least in part and describing the results of the investigation. The report is entitled "Villas, Castles, and Vacations: How Perks and Giveaways Create Conflicts of Interest in the Annuity Industry." Here are some "key findings" mentioned in the executive summary:
  • The majority of companies admitted to providing rewards and inducements, such as expensive vacations and other prizes, to annuity agents in exchange for sales.
  • Companies also create conflicts of interest by offering perks and inducements to annuity sales agents through third party marketing organizations.
  • Current disclosure rules are inadequate to ensure that customers are informed about the incentives agents receive for selling them specific financial products.
  • Existing rules and regulations to deter conflicts of interest are completely inadequate.
The report includes an introduction, findings, and policy options to address conflicts of interest in the sale of annuities. The report mentions the draft of a rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Here is the conclusion in the report:
This investigation reveals that companies representing tens of billions of dollars in annuity sales are allowed to offer and do offer a variety of kickbacks, from lavish vacations to golf outings to gift cards to iPads, either directly to sales agents or indirectly to these agents via third-party marketing organizations, in exchange for selling a specific company's products. Disclosure of these perks and payments to consumers is inadequate, and even with regulations designed to curb these kinds of payments, some companies have identified and taken advantage of numerous loopholes in those rules so they can continue to offer these kickbacks.
The perks offered by companies to agents create a conflict of interest that result in consumers—many of whom are at or near retirement age—receiving advice about investments in annuities that may not match their needs. The annuity industry is not the only industry affected by these conflicts. Across the financial industry, conflicts cost American investors an estimated $17 billion in retirement savings every year. New regulations are needed to protect consumers and end this financial conflict of interest.
My Public Records Requests
In May 2015, I learned that the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) had asked the 15 companies for copies of their responses to Senator Warren's letters. On May 29, I filed with DFS, pursuant to the New York Freedom of Information Law, a request for copies of the responses. On June 25, DFS said it needed additional time to respond to my request because the documents "require specialized review." In response to my inquiries, DFS said all 15 companies had filed copies of their responses, and DFS intended to respond to my request by August 25. On October 28, having heard nothing further, I contacted DFS again. I have not yet received a response.

When this item is posted, I will send it to Senator Warren's office. At the same time, pursuant to the federal Freedom of Information Act, I will file with her office a request for copies of the 15 companies' responses.

General Observations
In No. 97, I expressed the opinion that the widespread use of annuity sales incentives is a serious problem. I also expressed disappointment at the comments made in April by the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI) and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) suggesting that existing laws and regulations are adequate. According to the recent Warren report, at least two of the companies made similar comments in their responses. The report does not identify those companies.

Available Material
I am offering a complimentary 12-page PDF containing the October 2015 report on Senator Warren's investigation. Also, the complimentary 19-page PDF offered in No. 97 is still available; the package includes a sample of Senator Warren's letters to the 15 companies, examples of annuity sales incentives, a press release about the Warren investigation, the ACLI and NAIC comments about the investigation, and information about the DOL proposed rule. Send an e-mail to and ask for the October 2015 Warren report, the May 2015 package about the Warren investigation, or both.