Tuesday, March 6, 2018

No. 256: MetLife's Lost Pensioners—A Third Update

In No. 246 (posted January 2, 2018) I discussed a recent disclosure by MetLife, Inc. (NYSE:MET) concerning about 600,000 lost pensioners. I provided updates in Nos. 252 (February 12) and 254 (February 19). Here I provide a third update.

MetLife's 10-K Report for 2017
In its discussions of the problem of lost pensioners, MetLife said it would discuss the subject in the 10-K report as of December 31, 2017 to be filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on March 1, 2018. The first reference to the subject is this paragraph on page 87 of the 417-page 10-K (all references to the subject are in the complimentary package offered at the end of this blog post):
On December 15, 2017, the Company announced that it was undertaking a review of practices and procedures used to estimate its reserves related to certain RIS [Retirement Income Solutions] group annuitants who have been unresponsive or missing over time. As a result of this process, the Company increased reserves by $510 million, before income tax, to reinstate reserves previously released, and to reflect accrued interest and other related liabilities. Of the increase of $510 million ($331 million, net of income tax), $138 million ($90 million, net of income tax) was incurred in 2017 and $372 million ($241 million, net of income tax) was considered an error and, recording this amount in the fourth quarter of 2017 financial statements would have had a material effect on the results of operations for 2017. Approximately 25 years ago, companies that are or have been MetLife, Inc. subsidiaries established a practice of releasing the full insurance liability after two attempts at contacting these annuitants, based on the presumption that these annuitants would never respond and had not become entitled to benefits based on certain contractual provisions. The number of impacted annuitants for whom the Company released the full insurance liability was no more than 1,000 in any one year, and over the entire period totaled approximately 13,500 as of December 31, 2017, which is approximately 2% of the total group annuitant population.
The Lenna Retirement
On February 27, 2018, The Wall Street Journal carried an article by reporter Leslie Scism entitled "MetLife Pension-Benefits Executive to Retire." The article cited an internal memorandum indicating that Executive Vice President Robin Lenna will retire as of March 1 after 14 years at the company. According to the article, she headed the company's "Retirement Income Solutions unit, which oversees a 'pension-risk-transfer' business in which the insurer assumes responsibility for some or all payments due participants in private-sector pension plans."

Identify Theft Alerts
In recent months at least four state insurance departments have issued consumer alerts warning the public about the activities of criminals engaged in identity theft. In July 2017 and September 2017 the Nebraska Department of Insurance issued alerts. The first was entitled "Beware of Fraudulent Attempts to Disburse Funds from Annuity Contracts." The second was entitled "Fraudulent Disbursement of Funds from Annuity Contracts." The thieves had annuitants' contract numbers, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth.

In November 2017 the Kansas Insurance Department issued an alert entitled "Identity thieves go after annuities." The thieves had annuitants' account numbers, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth.

On February 6, 2018, the Colorado Division of Insurance issued an alert entitled "Identity thieves target annuities." The division warned annuitants to watch for unauthorized withdrawals.

On February 28, 2018, the South Carolina Department of Insurance issued a media release entitled "South Carolina Department of Insurance Warns of Identity Thieves Targeting Annuities and Annuity Recipients." The thieves had annuitants' account numbers, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, names and addresses of relatives, and other information.

Steven Weisbart's Comments
In my previous posts about lost pensioners, I invited comments from readers, especially from those with direct knowledge of record keeping procedures. I heard from several readers who had no inside information, but recently I received an email from Steven Weisbart. He served on the faculty at Georgia State University, later worked at TIAA-CREF, and is now senior vice president and chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute. I edited his comments lightly, and he approved my editing. Here are his thoughts on the subject of lost pensioners:
I have dealt with the issue of "lost participants" at two points in my career. The first was at TIAA-CREF. The second is at a defined benefit pension plan for insurance-support organizations. Although it is clear that MetLife "dropped the ball," I understand that this is a very difficult problem to overcome, particularly if success is defined as not losing anyone.
There are several problems that should be recognized. First, methods of keeping records have changed dramatically over the last 50 years or so. The older a record, the harder it is to search. This is not just paper-to-computer, but one computer system to another. Companies are replacing "legacy" systems with newer ones that do not necessarily read older data.
Second, a related problem is that record keepers are often changed. When they are, some historical records, which might have been helpful in a search, are likely lost. In my current defined benefit plan, for example, we switched record keepers in 2010, and some useful historical information on current participants might not have been handed over to the new record keeper.
Third, in establishing non-pension records, such as drivers' licenses, people often use different forms of their names, making a match uncertain. For example, I sometimes use my middle initial and sometimes do not. Also, some external data bases, such as the Social Security Master Death File, contain errors that pose a challenge in locating a lost participant accurately.
Fourth, most lost participants have small benefit amounts at stake. Thus they have little incentive to keep the contact information accurate.
Fifth, even when you think you have found a lost participant and want to confirm it by direct contact, the person may not respond because he or she interprets the inquiry as a marketing effort, or worse, a senior citizen scam. That is especially true in a case such as MetLife, where the obligation was originally assumed by a different sponsor. A recipient may never have dealt with MetLife and may think the contact letter is a fake.
I am not trying to excuse MetLife. Rather, I am trying to explain why they may continue to struggle with this issue for a long time.
Available Material
I am offering a complimentary 12-page PDF consisting of excerpts from MetLife's 10-K filed March 1, 2018 (6 pages) and consumer alerts from state insurance departments (6 pages). Email jmbelth@gmail.com and ask for the March 2018 package about MetLife's lost pensioners.