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Industry: Designations Only Go So Far

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Certification alone is not enough to make one qualified to advise seniors making important financial decisions, several industry groups told the Senate Special Committee on Aging in advance of a Sept. 5 hearing, and more should be done to ensure consumers are receiving the help they need.

The committee’s interest in the issue arose from media reports of seniors being advised to make unsuitable purchases of annuities from advisors using titles such as “senior expert” that require little, if any, substantial training. (See story above.)

In a memo to Committee Chairman Herb Kohl, D-Wis., National Association for Fixed Annuities Executive Director Kim O’Brien said the group “fully supports any activity that protects individuals from purchasing products that do not help fulfill their financial and retirement objectives” and opposes any unethical sales practices.

“As the Committee is aware there are many designations and certifications available to anyone who sells registered security products and regulated insurance products,” she said. “NAFA highly recommends continuous and rigorous education and training for everyone selling these products. One simply cannot be too educated or trained.”

The National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors also noted that a designation does not necessarily indicate an advisor’s ethics. In a statement for the committee, NAIFA said its members “believe that the possession or use of a particular professional designation or certification by an advisor should not, in and of itself, create a presumption about the qualifications or ethics of the advisor.”

Such designations, the group said, may help consumers and regulators identify an advisor’s education and training. “Some require advisors to undertake years of rigorous classroom and independent study, and pass a comprehensive examination. Others require less study,” the group said. “Thus, different designations and certifications can mean different levels of expertise and different areas of knowledge.”

NAIFA noted, however, that certification is not the only part of the process, and that states require licensing and continuing education as well. To that end, the group said it supports adoption of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Suitability in Annuity Transactions Model Regulation and the NAIC Annuity Disclosure Model Regulation.

“In addition,” the group added, “NAIFA believes that full and easy to understand disclosure of all the pertinent facts about insurance and financial products is in the public’s best interest.”

However, the groups argued that annuities aren’t inherently an unsuitable product for seniors. “As 77 million baby boomers turn 65 in the coming years, it is clear that annuities will play an increasingly important role in their retirements–retirements that will last much longer than those of previous generations,” said Frank Keating, president of the American Council of Life Insurers, in a letter to Kohl. “Many baby boomers are using annuities today to supplement their savings for future income needs, while other will use annuities to secure a steady retirement income.”

NAIFA also defended annuities, arguing that “it is not the products that are abusive. Rather, it is the use or misuse to which they are sometimes put.”