High exit penalties on Ulips added to insurance companies’ profits, till they were capped. However, they still exist for traditional insurance plans. We asks the experts if exit loads on traditional plans too need to be capped.

Sanket Kawatkar, principal and consulting actuary, life insurance (India), Milliman India Pvt. Ltd

In the case of unit-linked insurance plans (Ulips) it’s true that surrender profits have come down after the surrender penalties were capped, but the lapse rates haven’t really come down in many insurance companies. So more than the high surrender penalties levied earlier (which were designed to recover the high up-front costs, and to deter policyholders from lapsing early), it was the high levels of lapses that contributed to high lapse profits in the past. And this is primarily related to how the business was sold (or missold). So, it’s not possible to address the issue of misselling by simply capping surrender penalties.

Coming to traditional plans, currently the implicit surrender penalties on traditional products are high, leading to high lapse profits if lapse rates are high. Of course, in case of participating products, shareholders are entitled to only 10% of such profits. However, given that the issues in the industry have been on ‘distribution’ front (such as: high up-front costs, misselling resulting into high lapses and low consumer awareness) and given the experience of Ulips, I don’t think it is appropriate to cap the implicit surrender penalties in traditional products in order to improve the persistency levels in the industry. Instead, measures are required to address the problem where it actually belongs: from the ‘distribution’ side.

High surrender penalty in life insurance products in itself is not an issue. Low consumer awareness, lack of appropriate level of training to distributor, market conduct of the distributor, resulting misselling and high lapses, high distribution cost are the real issues and we need to address them directly. If these issues are addressed, high surrender penalties wouldn’t actually be an issue because not many policyholders would lapse to begin with.

K. S. Gopalakrishnan, chief executive officer, Aegon Life Insurance Co. Ltd.

From a customer’s point of view the comparison is straightforward. If I break a recurring deposit with a bank, I will get my money back with some interest income. Why can’t traditional life insurance plans return my money with some interest income?

Life insurers incur significant costs in selling the plan and in issuing a policy. If I pay Rs5,000 premium, more than half of it in the first year will go towards distribution costs. And then the life insurer pays stamp duty, incurs processing costs in issuing the policy and also has to pay for any death claims. Thus, the life insurer is probably left with only a small amount at the end of the first year of the policy. The expenses from the second year will be lower and the situation will get better for me as a customer. But it will still take several years before my ‘account value’ becomes equal to the premiums I have paid.

So if I stop paying premiums any time during the first few years, the life insurer does make some profits in most of the situations and incurs a loss in other situations (particularly when the premium amount is small). In a with profits business (plans where there is a bonus) the profits (and losses) get shared by customers who are continue to pay premiums.

The real issue therefore is the high costs that are incurred in selling and issuing these plans. As a customer, my question is a fair question: what happened to my money? I believe that technology can play a significant role in bringing costs down and also improve transparency of these plans.

P. Nandagopal, founder and chief mentor, OpenWorld Insurance Broking Ltd

Whether rules permit huge surrender charges in traditional par or non-par policies is beside the point. Is it good for the customers or does it just favour the insurer, is the key issue. Traditional investment cum insurance plans are, prima facie, anti-customer. They are non-transparent and hardly provide any meaningful returns, thus eroding value of customers’ hard-earned savings.

They have no place in the modern financial world unless they bring down their huge hidden costs. The only justification they provide is the so-called guaranteed return. Anyone who understands the intricacies of risk-return rewards would realise that such poor guarantees mean nothing in a long-term investment product. But Insurance companies continue to sell and profit from them because they provide the most lucrative opportunity to create value for their shareholders.

The hidden value for the shareholders in a traditional policy is the sum total of subtractions the company makes from returns earned on customers’ savings. And even when the customer wants to pull out of a policy, the surrender charges make sure insurers are provided with some profits even from surrenders.

This situation is more like: tails the company wins and heads the customer loses. If the customer continues to pay premium each year—the insurance company takes away a sizable value every year, which is unknown to the customer. If the customer likes to exit, then too the company makes money by imposing huge surrender penalties that hardly leave any cash in the hands of the frustrated customer. In my opinion, there is no justification for traditional plans to impose such high exit loads or for such high surrender penalties. A sweeping reform to rationalize the charge structure of traditional plans, like it happened in the case of Ulips is long overdue.

Kapil Mehta, co-founder, SecureNow Insurance Broker Pvt. Ltd

Are surrender charges in traditional life insurance fair? Three sub-questions must be understood to answer this. Are reasonable policyholder expectations being met in surrenders? Are surrender-related profits distributed fairly? Does the insurer have an incentive to let surrenders remain high? The answers are no, yes and maybe, respectively.

Policyholder expectations are set through conversations with agents and salespersons, brochures and documents. Surrender will always be low priority at sale and unlikely to be discussed. Therefore, in most cases customers are not aware of the surrender costs. The most common query I get in life insurance is about low surrender values. That’s why the industry and regulator should reduce surrender costs. The industry should consider surrenders similar to Ulips, where there are no surrender costs after 5 years. Alternately, they should allow withdrawals at low cost in emergencies such as death or ill health in the family. It is also important that surrender penalties be highlighted prominently at the time of sale.

Regulations ensure that profits are distributed fairly because at least 90% of surplus must be redistributed to policyholders in the case of participating plans. So, the main beneficiaries of profits from lapses are policyholders who do not surrender. This is consistent with the concept of a participating fund and pooling of risk. But in the case of non-participating plans the surrender profits can be taken completely by the insurer and this is where high cost of surrenders hurt customers.

Finally, the insurer’s perspective makes a difference in designing life insurance policies. Insurers who take decade-long views see more value in retaining and renewing business. Insurers with a short-term orientation may be less concerned about lapses. Public recognition of insurers with high renewals (as well as those with low persistency) can constructively highlight these differences.

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