By: Jenny Anderson
The New York Times
After the mortgage business imploded last year, Wall Street investment banks began searching for another big idea to make money. They think they may have found one.
The bankers plan to buy “life settlements,” life insurance policies that ill and elderly people sell for cash — $400,000 for a $1 million policy, say, depending on the life expectancy of the insured person. Then they plan to “securitize” these policies, in Wall Street jargon, by packaging hundreds or thousands together into bonds. They will then resell those bonds to investors, like big pension funds, who will receive the payouts when people with the insurance die.
The earlier the policyholder dies, the bigger the return — though if people live longer than expected, investors could get poor returns or even lose money.
Either way, Wall Street would profit by pocketing sizable fees for creating the bonds, reselling them and subsequently trading them. But some who have studied life settlements warn that insurers might have to raise premiums in the short term if they end up having to pay out more death claims than they had anticipated.
The idea is still in the planning stages. But already “our phones have been ringing off the hook with inquiries,” says Kathleen Tillwitz, a senior vice president at DBRS, which gives risk ratings to investments and is reviewing nine proposals for life-insurance securitizations from private investors and financial firms, including Credit Suisse .
“We’re hoping to get a herd stampeding after the first offering,” said one investment banker not authorized to speak to the news media.
In the aftermath of the financial meltdown, exotic investments dreamed up by Wall Street got much of the blame. It was not just subprime mortgage securities but an array of products — credit-default swaps , structured investment vehicles, collateralized debt obligations — that proved far riskier than anticipated.
The debacle gave financial wizardry a bad name generally, but not on Wall Street. Even as Washington debates increased financial regulation , bankers are scurrying to concoct new products.
In addition to securitizing life settlements, for example, some banks are repackaging their money-losing securities into higher-rated ones, called re-remics (re-securitization of real estate mortgage investment conduits). Morgan Stanley says at least $30 billion in residential re-remics have been done this year.
Financial innovation can be good, of course, by lowering the cost of borrowing for everyone, giving consumers more investment choices and, more broadly, by helping the economy to grow. And the proponents of securitizing life settlements say it would benefit people who want to cash out their policies while they are alive.
But some are dismayed by Wall Street’s quick return to its old ways, chasing profits with complicated new products.
“It’s bittersweet,” said James D. Cox, a professor of corporate and securities law at Duke University . “The sweet part is there are investors interested in exotic products created by underwriters who make large fees and rating agencies who then get paid to confer ratings. The bitter part is it’s a return to the good old days.”
Indeed, what is good for Wall Street could be bad for the insurance industry, and perhaps for customers, too. That is because policyholders often let their life insurance lapse before they die, for a variety of reasons — their children grow up and no longer need the financial protection, or the premiums become too expensive. When that happens, the insurer does not have to make a payout.
But if a policy is purchased and packaged into a security, investors will keep paying the premiums that might have been abandoned; as a result, more policies will stay in force, ensuring more payouts over time and less money for the insurance companies.
“When they set their premiums they were basing them on assumptions that were wrong,” said Neil A. Doherty, a professor at Wharton who has studied life settlements.
Indeed, Mr. Doherty says that in reaction to widespread securitization, insurers most likely would have to raise the premiums on new life policies.
Critics of life settlements believe “this defeats the idea of what life insurance is supposed to be,” said Steven Weisbart, senior vice president and chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group. “It’s not an investment product, a gambling product.”