We talked with The Hartford a bit ago about its Hartford Lifetime Income (HLI) fixed annuity, which is available only through 401(k) plans. As anxious pre-retirees began seeking any guarantees they could get for continued income streams, the concept sounded like exactly what they would want to hear.
Back in October, when the product was announced, Patricia Harris, the actuary who designed the product for The Hartford, said in a statement, “It offers predictable income backed by a fiduciary guarantee, and it’s portable.” In a December interview, Harris described the way the annuity worked: “Participants purchase units of guaranteed lifetime income. Each unit pays $10 a month at age 65.”
She explained it this way: “Other providers have guaranteed withdrawal benefits and an underlying portfolio of investment options. This product works very differently. You’re buying a paid-up unit of future income. The money is invested in a general account and the money is guaranteed by the general account. It essentially is a fixed deferred annuity.” Sounds good, right? With nervous would-be retirees looking to shore up their post-retirement income, a product like this sounded like a shoo-in.
But other things were going on at The Hartford; after a screaming Feb. 8 conference call that culminated in a demand a week later by hedge fund manager John Paulson that the company split itself up, putting its life/annuity business into a separate company from its property/casualty business, there was speculation in the industry about possible results.
Then the company announced on March 21 that it was putting its individual annuity business into runoff, with new annuity sales to cease April 27, and was pursuing plans to seek the sale “or other strategic alternatives” of its individual life business, its broker-dealer Woodbury Financial Services and its retirement plans business.
Still, even after that announcement, The Hartford wanted advisors to know that business had not ground to a halt. Dave Potter, director of external communication, said, “Despite The Hartford’s announcement about putting its individual annuity business into runoff in April, we will continue to offer HLI as part of retirement plans.”
He added, “HLI is a group annuity—not an individual annuity—and while the retirement plans business is up for sale, it’s business as usual. Our retirement plans business will continue to sell both fixed annuities as well as variable annuities within our retirement plans going forward.”
Still, it’s liable to be an uphill climb for a new product. Edward Jones announced at the end of March that it was no longer selling The Hartford products; annuity sales were stopped in response to the company’s plans to stop offering them in April; and sales of life insurance and retirement plans were halted pending resolution of the uncertainty around the change in business.
But for those game enough to take a second look, Potter said that early sales of the product indicated market interest. He couldn’t provide current figures on retirement plan sales since that is done on a quarterly basis, and at the time of our discussion, the quarter had not yet ended. The Hartford also, he said, “typically does not provide a breakout for sales of individual products. Having said that,” Potter continued, “we are pleased that the percentage of new 401(k) retirement plans that have included HLI as part of their lineup of investment options has steadily increased since HLI first became available on Jan. 1, 2012. In addition, the percentages of 401(k) plan participants who enroll in HLI are spread across a wide demographic: 16% are in their 20s; 22% are in their 30s; 25% are in their 40s; 29% are in their 50s; and 8% are in their 60s.”
While most of the company’s ratings have not changed as a result of the announcement, A.M. Best placed its life/health insurance subsidiaries’ financial strength ratings under review with negative implications, citing “execution risk” involved with the restructuring plans, as well as possible “continued volatility related to the individual annuity business that will be retained.”