Tuesday, March 27, 2018

No. 259: MetLife's Lost Pensioners—A Fourth Update

In No. 246 (posted January 2, 2018) I discussed a recent disclosure by MetLife, Inc. (NYSE:MET) concerning lost pensioners. I provided updates in No. 252 (February 12), No. 254 (February 19), and No. 256 (March 6). Here I provide a fourth update on two important aspects of the subject: the unclaimed property laws of the states and the interest rates used to calculate the amount of interest paid to pensioners who are found many years after the benefits were due.

Unclaimed Property Laws
Each state has an unclaimed property law (or "escheat law") that requires many firms, including financial institutions, to turn over to the state any property that goes unclaimed for a certain length of time, such as three years. In 2010 media reports said some families of deceased members of the military services and some beneficiaries of deceased members of the general public were being denied benefits because they could not be found. The reports prompted me to write major articles in the October 2010 and November 2010 issues of The Insurance Forum.

MetLife, as mentioned in No. 256, said in its most recent 10-K annual report (filed March 1, 2018) that the company had "previously released" the reserves (liabilities) associated with lost pensioners. When I saw that language, I wondered whether those unclaimed funds would at some point be turned over to the state (as determined by the pensioner's last known address) in accordance with the state's unclaimed property law.

I raised this question with MetLife. A spokesman replied: "When there is a benefit owed and we cannot find a beneficiary, we will escheat funds to the states based on state regulations and contract provisions."

Interest Rates
When I raised the interest rate issue with MetLife, the spokesman sent me a transcript of an earnings call in which the company said the interest rate is comparable to that used by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). I had trouble with PBGC's website, which seemed to refer to a section of the Internal Revenue Code relating to interest rates paid by taxpayers on late tax payments. When I asked the spokesman for clarification, he said:
The PBGC uses the Federal mid-term rate, as determined by the Secretary of the Treasury. MetLife is using the 5-year treasury rate as a comparable rate for administrative ease.
An Interesting Dispute
While working on this post, I learned of a recent lawsuit filed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, a unit of MetLife, against Michelle Smith, the executrix of the estate of William P. Toland Sr. The dispute was over the amount of interest credited for the period between Toland's retirement and the company's payment of the benefits. The retirement benefits were unpaid for many years because the company had not been informed of Toland's retirement. (See Metropolitan v. Smith, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts, Case No. 1:16-cv-11582.)

Toland retired on February 1, 1994. His employer's retirement plan was subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Metropolitan did not receive notice of Toland's retirement until September 2012. After the company received the needed documents, it tried to make payment in April 2013, but learned that Toland had died in March 2013.

Metropolitan received new documents in December 2013 and sent the estate two checks. One was for $49,346.50 representing the amount due under the plan. The other was for $14,984.10 representing interest from February 1, 1994 to March 1, 2013, which was the last date for which a retirement payment was due. Smith did not cash the checks because she believed that the amount of interest was inadequate.

In July 2016 Metropolitan sent the estate two new checks. One was for $49,346.50 representing the amount due under the plan. The other was for $15,450.06 representing interest from February 1, 1994 to July 1, 2016. Again Smith did not cash the checks because she believed that the amount of interest was inadequate.

Smith appealed without success to several government agencies. Then, because the retirement plan was subject to ERISA rules, she began an arbitration proceeding through the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). Metropolitan filed a lawsuit arguing that the dispute was not appropriate for FINRA arbitration. The judge closed the case after the company and Smith entered into a confidential settlement.

However, among the many documents included in exhibits in the lawsuit was an excerpt from a Metropolitan letter explaining exactly how the company made the interest calculation in 2013. The excerpt said:
Delayed Interest was calculated from the effective date of each retroactive payment due to the true up date of March 1, 2013. Interest was calculated on retroactive payments from February 1, 1994 through March 1, 2013. Interest is based upon the average 3-month Constant Maturity Treasury Rate from the Federal Reserve Board H.15 Release. A minimum interest rate of 1.50% was in effect at the time of the interest calculation for Mr. Toland. Interest is compounded annually in our calculation methodology. Following are the interest rates used for each year for Mr. Toland's delayed interest calculation: 4.37% in 1994, 5.66% in 1995, 5.15% in 1996, 5.20% in 1997, 4.91% in 1998, 4.78% in 1999, 6.00% in 2000, 3.48% in 2001, 1.64% in 2002, 1.50% in 2003 and 2004, 3.22% in 2005, 4.85% in 2006, 4.48% in 2007, and 1.50% in 2008 through 2013.
General Observations
With regard to the unclaimed property issue, MetLife's reference to "released reserves" implied that the liabilities had been transferred to the company's surplus. I think the liabilities for lost pensioners should be moved to the company's liabilities for unclaimed property.

With regard to the interest rate issue, when I first asked MetLife for clarification, I mentioned the idea of using the company's interest rates on settlement options, such as the interest-only option, the fixed-amount option, or the fixed-period option. I think it is common for the interest rates in those settlement options to be subject to change, and sometimes the options guarantee a minimum interest rate such as 3 percent. I mentioned the idea because I thought it would be appropriate to use interest rates resembling MetLife's rate of return on its invested assets, rather than arbitrary interest rates. The MetLife spokesman did not comment on the idea of using settlement option interest rates.

Available Material
I am offering a 22-page complimentary package consisting of the two 2010 Forum articles about unclaimed property (9 pages), the text (without exhibits) of Metropolitan's complaint against Smith (12 pages), and the company's explanation of the interest calculation (1 page). Email jmbelth@gmail.com and ask for the second March 2018 package about MetLife's lost pensioners.