Nothing happens in a vacuum. If it weren’t for Dateline NBC’s 2008 “sting” operation featuring hidden cameras and shills posing as equity indexed annuity prospects, it is very likely that the Securities and Exchange Commission would not have voted to characterize IAs as securities.
You’ll recall that then SEC Chairman Christopher Cox made it quite clear that “senior investment fraud” motivated the SEC to act. He even kicked off the SEC open meeting on indexed annuities by playing excerpts from the Dateline program.
The SEC’s action came in direct response to the failure of IA firms to self-regulate incomplete, misleading and confusing sales practices involving their products.
For all practical purposes, however, it was this mass media, televised exposure of annuity sales practices that sealed the fate of indexed annuities.
What’s in store for the indexed annuity industry now?
Once again, present events are not taking place in a vacuum. If the industry wipes away the bad sales practices, overly complex contract designs, and too high fees, then insurers could better leverage the important value proposition that IAs offer to consumers: downside protection combined with upside growth potential.
What value proposition could be more attractive today to consumers, especially the millions now entering the “transition management” phase of retirement? The meltdown in the equity markets has driven these individuals to seek safe money alternatives to equities.
But the big question for the future of indexed annuities is how product providers choose to respond to this opportunity. Their future success will surely require more than a “tweak” to their existing business models.
Product providers that lead in the future will need to have embraced consumer-oriented contract designs and transparency in fee structure and performance.
They will also need to have adapted to a rapidly changing regulatory landscape that will, in my judgment, within 2 years deem advisors of all stripes to be fiduciaries. That is, all advisors will be held to the highest standard of care and trust in carrying out their duties for clients.