Variable universal life insurance, or VUL, has a dual nature: it consists of life insurance with an investment component. It has a dual image in the market, too. During the 1990s the market loved VUL: sales of variable life products grew at a compounded rate of 21% annually between 1990 and 2000, according to a study just released by Tillinghast-Towers Perrin. Now that the market has turned sour–sales declined 15% in 2001 and will drop an additional 25% in 2002, according to the same study–it’s hard to find someone, outside the companies that sell it, who doesn’t hate it.
This love/hate relationship is quite extreme, and the industry is experiencing troubles that aren’t due solely to the drop in policy sales. Many companies’ ratings have been downgraded–Fitch Ratings in September released a study of the life insurance industry in which it downgraded 35 life insurance groups comprising approximately 42% of its life insurance universe. The companies soldier on, some doing reasonably well as assets pour into the fixed-income side of their products, but VUL itself remains a flashpoint. Most advisors contacted for this article say it’s a bad product or that it’s sold inappropriately. If you ask the companies, they say it’s a good product that’s often not being used properly.
Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between.
One unhappy customer is Roland Shankles, who cashed in his policy earlier this year. Shankles, a CPA with Summit Accounting Services in Knoxville, Tennessee, is upfront about giving his opinion that VULs offer “high fees and low returns,” and figures that he’s lost a minimum of $14,000 on his VUL policy over the last several years. Shankles, who bought a Western Reserve Life VUL policy in July 1995, put in $200 a month for seven years on the $200,000 policy. He bought it from someone he trusted, and did what the agent recommended. “He [the agent] always said, ‘Stick with me four years,’” says Shankles, who adds that he figured he could easily do that because “most people say 20.” In fact, he stayed for over seven years.
“The thing I did not consider was maintaining a diversified portfolio throughout. From 1995 through ’99, the thing grew rapidly and I just had no idea that” the market would take such a severe downturn. He adds that if you had asked him if he was ready for a market downturn, he would have said that he was. But “Nasdaq is down 75%-80% from its peak,” he points out. “If you had asked me if I was ready for an 80% decline? No. I don’t know who’s ready for that.”
In fact, he called the home office about it after talking to the agent and not accomplishing much. “The fellow at the home office commented, ‘Well, you’ve been pretty aggressive with subaccount selection.’” Shankles concedes that his subaccounts were not sufficiently diversified, but points out that his agent had recommended the investment strategy he followed. Shankles finally decided to cash in the policy after analyzing it–something the average consumer is probably not in a position to do.
In his calculations Shankles included the cost of a term life policy. He says he asked himself how much he had put into the policy in total premiums over the last seven years, “at $200 a month from July 17, 1995, to August 30, 2002.” That totaled $17,200. From that he deducted the cost of a comparable $200,000 term life policy. “I didn’t know what a term policy would have cost in 1995, so I used the numbers for 1998,” he says. That “would have been more expensive than a comparable Western Reserve policy,” he adds, since he was using figures calculated on his age in 1998 and not in 1995 when the policy would have cost less. The cost for the term policy came to $424 a year, or $2,968 for seven years. That left a net investment, says Shankles, of $14,232. “The surrender value was $7,762,” he says–leaving him with a net loss, as he calculates it, of $6,470. He hazards a guess that at a 4% rate of return, an income stream of $200 a month from 1995 till now would have totaled closer to $16,000.
“There were so many fees,” he says, “that it’s like your subaccount is walking down the hall in the insurance building, and everyone reaches into your pocket and takes something out.” Fees did take a good chunk of money. Including a surrender charge that phases out over 15 years, the cost of Shankles’ policy in fees and charges over the last five years were: 2002, $1,030; 2001, $969; 2000, $925; 1999, $901; and 1998, $830.
Shankles, while a CPA, is neither a financial planner nor an insurance salesman, so perhaps he didn’t understand the policy he was sold. But many planners who do understand the policies still criticize VUL, and one of the biggest reasons is fees. Harvey Ames and Carl Johnson, of Ames Planning Associates, Inc. in Peterborough, New Hampshire, are opposed to the use of VUL in their clients’ portfolios. Johnson points out that many clients do not realize all the charges involved, such as the sales loads of the funds within the accounts, and that they do not realize how much of an effect those charges will have in a down market. Their firm, says Johnson, has used “insurance for insurance purposes and investments for investment purposes; when the two come together it’s poor on both ends.”
Ames, a CLU and fee-only planner, says that the upfront commissions and trails can amount to such a hefty portion of the policy that they eat up too much of the possible return. He relates the case of a doctor client he picked up in 1989; the doctor had been sold VUL policies on each of his two children to fund their education. The policies had been in place for four years, and the investments had grown by “a grand total of 10.2%, and it was a relatively good time in the market,” says Ames. He replaced the policies, bought low-commission straight life, which he placed into an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT), and invest in other arenas. The money that Ames invested on behalf of his client paid for “six years at Northwestern [for the daughter] and the son is now graduating from a school of equal quality.” Ames says that agents are selling this insurance for “10-year-olds. [My client's children] wouldn’t have gotten the education they got” without the change he made, and there is still money left in the portfolio. There simply isn’t time for a VUL policy on a child to bring in returns that will meet the expenses of that child’s college education. Ames is adamant: “They keep coming up with these false constructs that show VUL with high commissions are able to beat straight investments. That’s intellectually, rationally, and intuitively incorrect. If it was so good, every dollar in the universe would be in it.”
Using It Right
Tom Orecchio, of Greenbaum and Orecchio in Old Tappan, New Jersey, says that “agents tend to sell VUL as the Swiss Army knife of financial planning. It fixes every problem you could possibly have.” Orecchio does have one client whose experience with a VUL policy was positive. The client, he says, was a business owner who was not able to save a significant amount of money for retirement. He’d maxed out his SEPs, his Keogh, and his SIMPLE IRA, says Orecchio. The client was pitched the idea of saving in a VUL policy for retirement, but he had an insurance need anyway, Orecchio says; “first and foremost it’s used for his insurance needs.” He also stresses that a conservative estimate was made on the return from the policy, and it was overfunded–”which is key.” This client didn’t run into the problems others had, Orecchio says; the insurance agent “had structured the choices so as to minimize income taxes, and was putting high-income-tax vehicles inside the variable policy. That’s rare. It’s appropriate.” It was also used, he said, as part of an overall financial plan. Even some fee advisors, he warns, tend to regard VUL as a separate entity and don’t allocate among the subaccounts in the policy in accordance with the client’s overall financial plan.
Orecchio is not a big fan of VUL, though. He also has clients such as the 72-year-old woman with a 78-year-old husband who was told she needed to fund the policy or it would lapse. “The projections were too high,” he says. “You have a year or two of bad performance and then they tell you it’s not properly funded.” VULs in general, he says, have “no disclosure, [are] not properly funded, [and] don’t properly allocate assets.”
John Ryan, an independent insurance consultant in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, stresses that policies must be overfunded to be effective. “If the minimum premium is $5,000, I would suggest at least a $7,500, if not $10,000, payment to the policy,” he says. Further, he argues that it should only be bought when someone has a long-term need for death benefit protection. “By long-term I mean 30 years plus,” he says firmly. If it’s less than a 30-year need, he suggests term insurance. Once a policy is bought, Ryan points out, its investments must be tracked to ensure that performance is adequate; sometimes, he says, clients will be told to deposit additional funds.
There are advisors who use and even like VUL. But it has to be carefully managed. Ted Dougherty, a financial advisor with American Express Financial Advisors in Woodbury, Minnesota, says he is not surprised by the current attitude toward VUL and blames it on advisors. “Too often advisors follow the leads of their clients,” he says, “as opposed to providing leadership to their clients. Right now because markets have dropped so much, clients want to be in conservative positions.”