Watch Your ‘Lesser-Known’ Indexes

February 15, 2012

By Linda Koco
Contributing Editor, AnnuityNews

Iowa regulators are taking a serious look at the disclosure practices that insurance producers and carriers use when talking about financial indices with their indexed annuity and indexed life clients.

Last week, the state’s Insurance Division and Department of Commerce hosted a meeting to discuss this informally with 30 or so representatives of insurance companies and trade groups.

The purpose was to learn more about how the industry is disclosing the “lesser-known” indices that some products now include, says Jim Mumford, who is both first deputy insurance commissioner and securities administrator for the state.

An example of a lesser-known index is the Hang Seng (the benchmark index in Hong Kong), he says. Examples of commonly known indices found in indexed policies are the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Not well known

The concern is that, because some indices that appear in indexed policies are not well known, some consumers might ask the advisor for an explanation. If an insurance-only advisor responds by providing in-depth discussion if the index, that advisor could run afoul of state rules prohibiting insurance-only advisors from providing investment advice, Mumford says.

For example, if an insurance-only advisor were to discuss with a client the assets that an index tracks or depict its volatility or other properties, “we would consider that the advisor is providing investment advice,” he says.

Such a discussion would be in violation of the guidance that Iowa laid out last year in Insurance Bulletin 11-4 on what insurance-only advisors can and cannot do and say regarding securities and what securities-only advisors can and cannot say and do regarding insurance, he explains.

Iowa regulators are also concerned about how the indexed product industry portrays and explains:

  • Proprietary indices. A few carriers have established what amounts to their own indices and then they credit interest based in changes in assets that those indices reflect.
    • Multi-index strategies: This where the carrier weights a combination of indices that it selects by percentage, and the interest crediting is calculated off of the combined figure.

The problem Iowa sees with the lesser known indices and approaches is that consumers cannot easily follow and learn about the approaches from the newspaper and/or cannot read about them in easy-to-obtain publications.  By comparison, consumers can easily bone up on the S&P and the Dow.

The fact that Iowa is looking into this area doesn’t mean that Iowa is preparing to draft regulations, Mumford says.  At this point, the regulators are laying out the “issues” and they are asking the industry for information about current disclosure practices, he says.

“We’ve asked the industry representatives to come back with their thoughts on best practices, so we can see if we need to put out guidance in some areas. We might just issue a bulletin or a paper on this so that carriers and advisors can see what everyone else is doing.”

Mumford points out that Iowa has adopted both the NAIC suitability model and the NAIC annuity disclosure model. “We need to make sure that disclosure about indices is in compliance with those regulations,” he says.

No complaints

To date, he adds, “we have not seen any complaints involving disclosure of indices. In fact, our complaints on indexed products are way down from where they were several years ago, before those two models were adopted.”

So why bother with the inquiry?  “We just want to make sure that people understand what they are buying, and that companies and producers understand what they can and can’t do under the insurance and securities laws in this state. We’re saying, if you cross this line (in talking about indices), you may have an issue with the regulators.”

This is to raise awareness, he stresses.  “We’d like to take care of any issues before problems can come up.”

Could the fact that Iowa is conducting an inquiry into this area have a chilling effect on indexed product innovation? Iowa has no intention of stopping product innovation, Mumford says.

But the inquiry may help companies as they think about designing products, he adds, because “they may learn some things that will help them get through the regulatory approval process more easily. We are saying, there are items to think about when designing indexed annuities and indexed life policies. We are saying that proper disclosure is important and there are limits on where producers can go if they are not dual-licensed. But we leave it to the companies to decide what they will do.”

As for producers, Mumford suggests that, if they have questions about what they can say about indices used in a product, they should consult Iowa Bulletin 11-4 for guidance as well as the carrier’s disclosure documents.

Looking ahead, he says, the time may be coming when more producers solve the problem about what they can and cannot say about indexed insurance products, indices, and securities by becoming dual licensed, as both insurance and securities professionals.

Linda Koco, MBA, is a contributing editor to AnnuityNews, specializing in life insurance, annuities and income planning. Linda can be reached at [email protected].

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