Startup offers annuities online on a subscription plan

Blueprint Income's founders aim to save America from retirement insecurity

Mar 1, 2018 @ 11:47 am

By Bloomberg News

Matt Carey studied Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania, preparing for what he hoped would be a career at the Central Intelligence Agency. Eleven years later, he's pitching annuity contracts.

He's actually happy about that. A summer job at the State Department persuaded him that government service wasn't as exciting as he first thought. So he headed to Wall Street, specifically Lazard Ltd. A stint at the advisory firm piqued his interest in a growing threat to the national welfare that didn't involve espionage — retirement security. Or, more precisely, the lack of it across the U.S.

At Lazard, Mr. Carey helped advise the Treasury Department on General Motors Co. after its bankruptcy. The carmaker's underfunded pension got him thinking about 401(k)s and how they aren't a great strategy for making sure Americans have enough savings. A subsequent job at Treasury, where he got to know Mark Iwry, a key architect of retirement policy in the Obama administration, gave him an idea for a new kind of business (as did Mr. Carey's struggle to map out his parents' retirement).

His elevator pitch for a company now called Blueprint Income? "We are building the first digital retirement plan that guarantees you won't run out of money as long as you live."

He and two co-founders are building a way for consumers to more easily buy what has notoriously been a hard sell: annuity contracts, both those that create an immediate income stream and others that produce income years down the road. The idea was inspired in part by the research of Olivia Mitchell, a professor and retirement security expert at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

One of Blueprint's innovations involves how deferred income annuities are sold. They typically require five- or six-digit sums in return for a future stream that, should someone die prematurely, may never be used. Mr. Carey's website spits out a quote for a contract in 60 seconds and requires an initial investment of $5,000. The real twist is part of a trend that's swept industries from mattresses to clothing to movies: subscription-based business models. After the initial investment, buyers can increase their retirement income stream with deposits of as little as $100 a month to create what Blueprint calls "a personal pension."

Mr. Iwry recalled that, at Treasury, Mr. Carey was "intrigued by how that key feature of the declining defined benefit pension plan — a stream of retirement income guaranteed to last a lifetime — could be provided by the market more simply, more cheaply and in a way that's easier for ordinary people to access and buy."

New York Life Insurance Co. and Guardian Life Insurance Co. are Blueprint's current partners in the subscription service. New York-based Blueprint, which acts as a fiduciary, gets a onetime commission of from 1% to 4% of the initial investment when it sells immediate, deferred and qualified-longevity annuity contracts, or QLACs. (A QLAC is an annuity funded by money from a qualified retirement plan or an IRA). For the subscription product, the commission is split into two payments over two years.

"The insurance industry is far slower to adapt to newer technologies. And within insurance, annuities are by far the slowest."

Blueprint just announced seed funding of $2.75 million from a group including Green Visor Capital, where former Visa CEO Joseph Saunders is a general partner, and NextView Ventures, where Lee Hower, an early PayPal employee and member of the founding team at LinkedIn, is a partner. The board of advisers includes Mr. Iwry, who isn't an investor, and Jean Chatzky, personal finance editor of "The Today Show," who has invested.

"The insurance industry is far slower to adapt to newer technologies" than other parts of the financial services industry, said Michael Walsh, a general partner at Green Visor Capital. "And within insurance, annuities are by far the slowest."

Making the purchase of annuities a subscription accomplishes the once-impossible feat of explaining annuities to the average American. "If you break down retirement savings into a way where it's almost like a subscription for your future, it's a lot easier to think about what it means," Mr. Walsh said. "For every dollar you put in, you know how much more you will have on a monthly basis when you retire."

Blueprint's initial challenge as a business, though, is to show that consumers will buy annuities directly—by subscription. About four years into its existence, the startup has placed $10 million to $30 million of insurance premiums across hundreds of consumers, according to Carey. The subscription product became available in beta form late last year, drawing customers from age 32 to age 70.

Blueprint's larger goal is to get into 401(k) plans and have employers make some, or all, of their matching contributions into annuities, just as Blueprint does. That would create a product similar to a defined benefit plan, lessening the dilemma of how to invest a lump sum from a 401(k). For now, Mr. Carey has no illusions about the challenge Americans face in deciding how to invest their savings so they won't die poor.

"In a world where employer pensions don't exist, you need something that does the same thing," he said. Otherwise, "retirement is going to become a luxury good."

(More: Retirement-income theories confront reality)

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