SEC headquarters in Washington. (Photo: National Law Journal) (Photo: National Law Journal)

The Securities and Exchange Commission proposed late Tuesday its long-awaited summary prospectus for variable annuities and variable life insurance contracts.

The plan is designed to help investors “better understand these contracts’ features, fees, and risks, and to more easily find the information that they need to make an informed investment decision,” the SEC said in releasing the plan.

SEC Chairman Jay Clayton said the proposal “is another important step in the commission’s efforts to provide Main Street investors with better information to make informed investment decisions.”

Clayton said during the roundtables with retail investors over the last several months, “investors have emphasized their preference for clear and concise disclosure. Providing key summary information about variable annuities and variable life insurance contracts to investors is particularly important in light of the long‑term nature of these contracts and their potential complexity.”

The 480-page proposal would allow, for the first time, these contracts to use a summary prospectus to provide disclosures to investors, akin to the mutual fund summary prospectus that’s been around since 2009.

“This document would be a concise, reader‑friendly summary of key facts about the contract,” the SEC said. “More detailed information about the contract would be available online, and an investor also could choose to have that information delivered in paper or electronic format at no charge.”

Cathy Weatherford, outgoing president and CEO of the Insured Retirement Institute, said in a Wednesday statement that the annuity trade group’s “decade-long effort” for “a more rational, useful, consumer-friendly disclosure of essential information about variable annuities may be nearing an end.”

Consumers, Weatherford said, “should receive useful information about the products that they buy but the amount of currently required information in a typical prospectus is so complex and overwhelming that few consumers even read it. That helps no one.”

Full statutory prospectuses for variable annuity products “can range from 150 to 300 pages and contain language that most ordinary investors would find difficult to understand,” Weatherford added. “As a result, full prospectuses are rarely used by most investors, with less than 3% of investors saying they always read some part of the prospectus.”

Cipperman Compliance Services noted in a statement that the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority “has consistently prioritized the regulation and disclosure of variable products and has issued multiple rules and notices to members about sales practices.”

While Cipperman said it supports summary prospectuses, “we are not sure whether this will materially improve investor knowledge or reduce sales practice abuses.”

The commission will take comments until Feb. 15 on the proposal as well as on hypothetical summary prospectus samples that the agency has published.

A feedback flyer will also be used by the securities regulator to seek investor input “about what improvements would make the summary prospectus easier to read and understand, and what information investors would like to see included.”

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