Annuity guru Moshe Milevsky contends that, concerning annuities, the Department of Labor’s fiduciary standard rule’s overriding emphasis on fees is deeply flawed.
All in all, he says, the rule—which will see the first phase of implementation in April 2017—cries out for the expertise of financial economists.
In an interview with ThinkAdvisor, Milevsky, finance professor at Toronto’s Schulich School of Business at York University and a leading annuities consultant to the financial services industry, discussed his views on the controversial rule, which holds advisors and insurance agents to a fiduciary standard for advice regarding retirement accounts.
Milevsky’s short-term forecast for the annuity industry: pessimistic.
Long-term outlook? Upbeat. What with widespread confusion about the rule and industry lawsuits seeking to halt it, the professor anticipates two years of uncertainty, if not turmoil, before homeostasis returns to the annuity space.
Following are highlights from ThinkAdvisor’s interview with Milevsky:
What affect will the DOL’s fiduciary standard rule have on the annuity industry?
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it will have a very big impact. It’s already having impact. Variable annuity sales have declined quite dramatically in the last year, partially due to uncertainty about the rule. Indexed and fixed annuity sales have increased, partially because [advisors and agents] thought they wouldn’t be covered by the rule.
But if indexed annuities are considered to be part of it and require a BIC [Best Interest Contract Exception], I think they’ll decline too.
Do you expect companies to introduce variable annuities with only a basic asset management fee and no commission?
Could be. Commissions will have to change. Commissions will become illegal if you’re a fiduciary unless you have a BIC in place.
What do you predict for annuities in the near-term?
Next year is looking bad. It’s going to be shaky, especially with uncertainty about the implementation of the rule and the presidential election. If Trump gets in, I really don’t know what will happen to a rule like this – but I don’t think Thomas Perez will still be running the DOL. [Twenty-eighteen] will probably be a bit better than next year. Projecting beyond, I think there’ll be a growing recognition: “When I’m 90 years old, I want my annuity.”
What’s the current mood of people in the annuity industry?
You sense the uncertainty in their morale. There’s a feeling of gloom, especially in the variable annuity [space]—that “this is going to make life more difficult for us for the next year or two.”
Could the rule bring better annuity design and more transparency?
I wish it would go in that direction. But what worries me is that it will just make prospectuses longer and create a lot more paperwork for everyone—and [clients] won’t necessarily pay more attention to what they’re signing.
How do you suggest the rule could be improved?
There has to be a little bit more financial economic thinking. I’d love to have more of a transparent cost-benefit analysis done by financial economists of what products belong in what categories. The notion that something is an insurance contract versus a security was driven purely by lawyers. I look at some of this and say, “Really! That’s surprising!”
What else do you find objectionable?
There’s an extreme emphasis on fees—that fees are obviously bad, and the lower the better. No, not necessarily. But if you charge too much in fees, you’re going to be running afoul of the rule.
Fees, of course, have long been an issue with VAs.
Variable annuities have suffered as a result of the emphasis on fees: their fees are clear and observable, and they seem high. With a variable annuity, fees are quite explicit. Once you read the contract, you see it’s 3%, or possibly 4%. On the other hand, with indexed annuities and fixed indexed annuities, it seems like there are no fees because there’s no explicit line anywhere saying, “Your fee is 2%.” So, because these fees are implicit and very, very difficult to discern, you think you’re not paying them.
But are there any “hidden” fees in annuities?
Almost every single fixed index annuity I’ve seen does not include a dividend. So right off the top, you’re not getting the 1% to 2%, or possibly 3%, dividend yield that you’d get if you held the underlying index. I’m sorry—if you’re not giving me a dividend, that’s a fee because you’ve taken away that 2% or 3%. Why isn’t this explicitly called a fee? If people were told they were losing that, the variable annuity wouldn’t look so bad relative to the fixed indexed annuity. This is just one example of [the rule’s] obscured thinking and total emphasis on fees.
What’s your opinion of the industry lawsuits that seek to kill the rule?
There’s a big debate as to what “reasonable compensation” is for selling an annuity. We all know that annuities are more complicated than index funds. Explaining to a client how an annuity works takes more time than explaining an index fund. So, obviously, an annuity should pay the advisor more. Anyone who thinks that everybody should get paid the same, regardless of how complex the product is, doesn’t understand how incentives work. So I have sympathy for that.