Do NOT Buy List: Equity Indexed Universal Life Insurance

Financial noise is everywhere. I try to be selective and only write about a limited amount of unique, profitable, and actionable information. If I see a bad product, I usually just ignore it and move on. Angry rants are not my thing.

However, I do worry that if something happens to me, my surviving loved ones may not know what to avoid. Therefore, I am adding a DO NOT BUY list as part of my estate planning documents. Simply avoiding the worst things is often a better (and easier) strategy than searching for the absolute best thing.

This WSJ article (paywall?) profiles one of the items on my DNB list: It’s the Hottest Thing in Life Insurance. Are Buyers Aware of the Risks?. I was unaware that indexed universal life (IUL) had grown so much in popularity, now making up 25% of new individual life insurance policies as measured by premium:

A universal life insurance policy combines a death benefit with the ability to build up a policy cash value. An indexed universal life policy is a universal life policy that increases the cash value at a rate tied to the performance of an index, often the S&P 500.

Briefly, here are reasons why I avoid Indexed Universal life insurance products:

  • High fees. In fact, probably multiple layers of fees. They might sound simple, but are actually amazingly complex. Per the WSJ – “We joke that it takes an actuary, an attorney and sometimes an engineer to understand the calculations,” said Billie Resnick, co-author of an American Bar Association book on life insurance.
  • No guaranteed return. You are unlikely to get near the long-term S&P 500 returns. Most IULs have floors which protect you from losses in down years, but return caps which cuts off your return on big up years. Stock market returns are lumpy, but with more big up years than big down years. Historically, protecting against the downside does not help enough to offset missing out on the upside. In addition, they almost always exclude dividends, which means you are guaranteed to miss a significant part of total return. So even if you did magically track the S&P 500 perfectly, you’d still be behind by ~2% due to losing the dividend. You’ll get a smoother ride, but at what cost?
  • Life insurance is better when it is simple and transparent. Ideally, the payout should be a guaranteed amount in exchange (i.e. $1 million cash) for a clearly defined event (i.e. death). When something is simple and transparent, you can easily comparison shop and let market competition create a fair price. IUL policies are again highly complex and nearly impossible to compare side-by-side. Maybe one day this will change, but for now it’s buyer beware.
  • More fine print: Insurers can change the rules after purchase?! Per the WSJ: “Insurers generally retain the contractual right to change these percentages, subject to regulator-approved limits. They also typically can raise the cost of the death benefit, per contractual provisions.” What? Even the floors and cap percentages are subject to change and not guaranteed?
  • In my experience, the loudest supporters of this product tend to be the people who sell them. Why are some things pressured upon you initially as the best thing since sliced bread, but immediately after purchase they become nearly impossible to sell again? The second you buy it, it has lost a huge part of its value. Reminds me of timeshares. Look out for big surrender charges for 10+ years because they have to recover the big upfront commission paid to the salesperson.

I can see how the idea of “stock market-linked returns with less risk” can be attractive, and I would be intrigued if there became some sort of commodity product where multiple companies sold essentially the same thing and competed to drive down prices. However, the current way of selling IULs is too vague and hard to understand for the average customer.

I’m a relatively conservative investor myself, but UILs have all sorts of risks. Side-by-comparisons are hard, so you risk buying a bad version of the product. There is no fixed return, like a fixed annuity. If the stock market tanks, you still risk getting a lousy return. There is a risk the issuer will change the growth rules on you. As with all insurance, the issuer could become insolvent somewhere in there. I prefer my term life insurance policy, as it gives my family a guaranteed fixed payout at a low fixed price after comparing prices side-by-side with several issuers that all offered the exact same product.

My recommendation is simply to steer clear of them all. If you are my loved one and are reading this, my advice is not to buy an indexed universal life policy. Definitely don’t use my hard-earned money to buy one!

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