As life insurers alter variable annuity contract language and implement other changes to escape from their large VA liabilities, compliance experts and regulators are stressing that suitability rules apply and reps are ultimately responsible for the guidance they give clients on how to proceed.
Carriers like Axa Equitable Life Insurance Inc., The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. and Transamerica Life Insurance Co. have instituted programs that allow them to buy out clients' variable annuity benefits in exchange for a higher account value. Others have tried to limit their VA liability by cutting off additional contributions to contracts that have already been purchased or by nudging clients to reallocate their investments to options with less risk and less return.
Though the methods carriers use are the domain of insurance regulators, broker-dealer representatives are on the hook for what they tell clients to do next, panelists said at the Insured Retirement Institute's Government, Legal and Regulatory Conference in Washington yesterday.
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc.'s Rule 2111, the suitability rule, applies when reps make a recommendation, even after the initial sale of the annuity.
“If the rep says, 'yes, you should take the buyout' or 'no, you shouldn't' or if they suggest that the client put in more money before the insurer cuts off [subsequent premiums] — that brings in suitability,” said Thomas J. Christel, lead senior regulatory specialist of member regulation at Finra.
Indeed, even a suggestion that a client hold on to an old variable annuity contract instead of taking the buyout is technically a suggestion that the client “hold” the investment and that recommendation should be documented, Mr. Christel noted.
To contend with the number of contracts that are going to be subject to buyouts, Jim Shorris, executive vice president and deputy general counsel at LPL Financial LLC, suggested that firms come up with a due diligence process that vets these offers — and does so separately from the rest of the annuity business.
“It shouldn't be exposed to the firm's desire to curry favor with an insurer,” he said. “If a carrier wants to get rid of unprofitable business, use your due diligence team to come up with an internal review.”
On the insurance regulation side, state insurance cops are responsible for examining the buyouts carriers pitch and the notification they give clients. They also can veto these programs.
“We look at the program, the letters [to clients] and the ads,” said James R. Mumford, first deputy commissioner in Iowa's insurance division and securities administrator at the state's securities bureau. “We give a thorough review at the state level on how [the business] is being treated. There are programs that have been proposed that we haven't approved.”