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The Case Against Whole Life Policies

One of the longest-running and most heated-discussions is about who is the greatest quarterback of all time. Many will say Joe Montana, but others will go with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning (among others). This discussion depends on your viewpoint and what you feel is valuable. At one time, the common answer may have been Johnny Unitas or Sammy Baugh, but their names don’t even enter the conversation for most of us any more.

Another long-running argument concerns whether whole life or term life is the greater life insurance product. (For the purposes of this article, we are omitting other common types of life insurance, such as universal life, variable life and indexed life.)  

My colleague and friend Chris Huntley, founder of Huntley Wealth & Insurance Services, is organizing a movement to promote awareness of term life insurance and some of the downfalls of investing in whole life. The Whole Life Rebellion fits into the Insurance Consumer Bill of Rights, which provides that consumers should purchase policies that match their needs.

Whole life insurance remains a top-seller. In fact, the American Council of Life Insurers estimates that 64% of all policies purchased in the U.S. are whole life.  

For the majority of consumers, term life insurance is a better fit. Yet, as with everything, it’s not quite so simple.

See also: Bringing Clarity to Life Insurance

The bottom line is that you need to be able to make that decision on your own, and the key is to become educated. The Insurance Consumer Bill of Rights is designed to provide guidance in knowing what questions to ask and what are reasonable expectations for your insurance agent and insurance company.

Rather than starting with the question of whether whole life or term life is better, consider the following points:

  1. Do you need life insurance? If you have no need for life insurance, then you have no need for either term life or whole life. We’ll go through the various reasons why whole life is suggested when there is no need for life insurance; just remember that, if you don’t need life insurance, then you don’t need ANY type of life insurance. Some day, I might buy a Porsche, but I’m not going to buy auto insurance on the Porsche until I own it.   
  2. How long do you need the life insurance? This is the classic question that really gets at the heart of the debate. Life insurance is needed when someone is financially dependent on you. Most needs for life insurance are for a finite period, such as providing insurance for the benefit of your children, most of whom will be financially independent by the age of 18 to 25. You may also need insurance to make sure your family can pay the mortgage. Well, most mortgages are for a fixed period and can be matched with term life policies, almost all of which are guaranteed for a certain time.   
  3. Will you outlive your term life insurance? What if the need for life insurance is permanent, let’s say for a spouse?  Well, in a situation where there are no other investments available to you or you choose not to participate in them, some type of permanent life insurance may make sense. However, according to the Economic Life Cycle Planning Method developed by Dr. Laurence Kotlikoff, your need for life insurance will diminish as your other assets grow. See my article with Dr. Kotlikoff published in AM Best, “A Different Approach,” or visit Dr. Kotlikoff’s site and learn more about the Economic Security Planner.
  4. Isn’t it true that only 1% of term life policies pay a claim? Out of all the term life insurance policies issued, only 1% will result in a claim. But how many homeowners’ policies pay out? Most people are happy if their home doesn’t burn down, and they don’t have to file a claim. Keep in mind that, while great statistics for whole life aren’t available because insurers consider the information proprietary, estimates are that 15% to 20% of whole life insurance policies result in a claim. One of the big reasons that so few whole life policies result in a claim is that many owners let them lapse every year. A joint study by the Society of Actuaries (SOA) and the Life Insurance Marketing Research Association (LIMRA) on 2007 to 2009 found that, in year one, 7% to 9% of whole life policies lapsed; in year two, 6% to 7% lapsed; and in year three, 5% to 6% lapsed. You can find the study by clicking here
  5. What if you have someone who will always financially depend on you or have some other permanent need? Is this finally a reason to have whole life? Well, almost. However, something called guaranteed universal life insurance acts as a term life insurance policy up to age 120 and does not build cash value. The premium is lower than a whole life policy. And of what benefit is a cash value if you intend to keep the policy in-force for the rest of your life? A primary rule in investing is lowering expenses when looking at two similar financial vehicles.
  6. Can you buy term insurance and invest the difference? That doesn’t work. With whole life insurance, there are very high surrender charges in the first few years of a policy, so when a policy lapses before the fourth or fifth year, the policy owner may only recoup 10% to 20% of the premiums paid. The question should really be, Will you still want to and be able to pay the premiums for a whole life policy?    
  7. Doesn’t whole life allow for tax-deferred cash accumulation? Yes, completely true. And so do 401(k)s, IRAs, etc. In these retirement accounts, you can have a wide variety of investments such as exchange traded funds with expense ratios of less than 1% per year. By contrast, whole life is a black box when it comes to quantifying expense. Costs and expenses are not fully disclosed and are at the discretion of the insurance company. And then, of course, there’s the fact that there’s no guarantee that the tax treatment for whole life insurance will continue. Almost every year, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives discuss the cash value component of permanent life insurance and note that taxation of this “inside buildup” could yield $300 billion over 10 years. Hmmm, with a growing national debt….
  8. Whole life allows me to borrow from my policy: The key here is you are borrowing your own money, which you could do from many other vehicles such as a 401(k). And borrowing from your whole life policy may incur an interest rate that’s higher than interest rates on other types of loans and will also reduce the internal cash value build-up on your life insurance policy. Isn’t this the same as not investing the difference? And if you borrow too much money from your whole life policy, it can lapse without any value AND cause a phantom income tax gain. (See my A.M. Best article on the Pitfalls of Policy Loans.)

Consider that the CEO of Northwestern Mutual, John Schlifske, recently stated that face-to-face meetings are the best way to sell life insurance. Why face-to-face? The key word here is “sell.”

What if the goal was to help consumers make the choice that works for them? Yes, it’s a subtle difference, but the tone of the conversation needs to be changed.

If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem is a nail. If the only type of product your insurance agent has is a whole life policy, then every planning issue will be solved by whole life.

See also: What’s Next for Life Insurance Industry?

Having an efficient plan for your insurance and for your finances overall removes the need for whole life. Forty or more years ago, whole life insurance made a lot of sense,  especially as it was pretty much the only type of life insurance sold. But this was before the average consumer had easy access to the stock market through discount brokers, mutual funds and other modern ways to invest.

So, yes, using whole life insurance as a savings vehicle did make sense a long time ago — just like disco, hula hoops, pet rocks and Rubik’s cubes were hot items at one time.  

In today’s financial world, where there are many different types of life insurance and consumers have access to a wide variety of investment options, it does seem like the time for whole life has passed us by.

But the decision is yours. Knowledge is power. Become educated and use the Insurance Consumer Bill of Rights to guide you and your insurance portfolio.

An Open Letter to Federal Regulators

I welcome and applaud the federal government’s interest in the regulation of our nation’s insurance industries and markets. In response to the Federal Insurance Office’s request for comments on the “gaps” in state regulation, I appreciate this opportunity to present my views. Indeed, your request, Director McRaith, for comments upon such “gaps” seems to reveal what a keen, yet heretofore unpublicized, good sense of humor you must have.

To very briefly introduce myself, I am an economist, a CFA and a life insurance agent of more than 20 years who has worked with scores of life insurers. My views have been published by the Journal of Insurance Regulation, the American Council on Consumer Interests and various other industry trade publications. My positions are based on my extensive experiences with our nation’s profoundly problematic state-based insurance regulatory system, problems that those who have not been intimately involved with in the marketplace might find inconceivable.

State insurance regulators have never required the proper disclosure of cash value life insurance policies. Markets do not work properly without adequately informed consumers. While life insurance is, conceptually, a simple product, without the proper conceptual understanding of and the necessary relevant information, consumers cannot effectively search for good value. “The Life Insurance Buyer’s Guide,” published by regulators and mandatorily distributed with policies by insurers and their agents, is not just a little deficient—it is misleading, seriously incomplete and defective. And, it, in all of its various state editions, has been that way for almost 40 years.

Professor Joseph Belth has written about this national problem for more than 40 years. In 1979, the Federal Trade Commission issued a scathing report on the life insurance industry’s cash value products. Cash value policies are composed of insurance and savings components, and consumers need appropriate information about both. This specifically requires appropriate disclosure of these policies’ annual compounding rates on consumers’ savings element as well as annual costs regarding their insurance element. Both Professor Belth and I have separately developed very similar disclosure approaches. (More information about my approach and its comparative conceptual and marketplace tested-advantages is available on my website or upon request.)

The exceptional nature of this regulatory failure can be grasped by specifically contrasting the states’ regulatory track record on cash value policy disclosures with those of other financial regulators’ actions. Investment product disclosures have been mandated since the 1930s. Truth in Lending was enacted in 1969. And yet, while a consumer’s potential risks in making a poor life insurance purchase can arguably be shown to be greater than those in purchasing a poor investment or obtaining an unattractive loan, Truth in Insurance or Truth in Life Insurance legislation has never been promulgated by any state.

A second insightful perspective, and one with much more tangible consequences on its harmful impacts on consumers, can be grasped by reviewing a few basic facts about the current life insurance marketplace.

Three Facts

Fact No. 1: The life insurance marketplace is awash with misinformation; this should hardly be surprising. Life insurers actually run misleading advertisements and conduct training in deceptive sales practices. Evidence of such has been repeatedly submitted to state regulators. Moreover, given the industry’s commission-driven sales practices (commissions that can make those of mortgage brokers, now notorious for their own misrepresentations, look tiny), sales misconduct is pervasive. The harmful consequences of such agent misrepresentations are manifested every day, both directly and indirectly, in unwise purchases or other costly life insurance mistakes by American families. These misrepresentations go unrecognized because of consumers’ inadequate financial grasp of a product’s true conceptual framework, and these go unpunished because, as a past president of the national largest agent organization has written in widely quoted published articles, state laws prohibiting deceptive life insurance sales practices have virtually never been enforced.

Fact No. 2: Cash value life insurance policies that are sold to be lifelong products have extraordinary high lapse rates. Data shows that over an eight-year period, approximately 40% of all the cash value policies of many life insurers are discontinued. It is true there are many possible causes for consumers to discontinue coverage, but age-old evidence of consumer dissatisfaction has been a virtual five-alarm that state regulators have ignored for more than 40 years. Such lapses are especially financially painful to consumers, as the typically sold cash value policy has huge front-end sales loads (sales loads regarding which agents are trained to make misrepresentations).

It is very important that all readers fully understand that, contrary to pervasive misconceptions and misrepresentations, cash value policies do not avoid the increasing costs of annual mortality charges as a policyholder ages. The fundamental advantages of cash value life insurance products come from the product’s tax privileges. Tax privileges, however, are essentially a free, non-proprietary input. In a competitive marketplace, firms cannot charge consumers or extract value for a free, non-proprietary input. No one pays thousands of dollars in sales costs to set up an IRA. Cost disclosure will enable consumers to evaluate cash value policies by the policies’ price competitiveness and, as such, will drive the excessive sales loads out of cash value policies.

The heart of the battle over disclosure is that disclosure threatens to—and, in fact, will—undermine the industry’s traditional sales compensation practices. For example, over the past five years, Northwestern Mutual, the nation’s largest insurer, with $1.2 trillion of individual coverage in force, paid $4.5 billion in agent life insurance commissions and other agent compensation, while its mortality costs for its death claims were only $3.5 billion. (Northwestern paid more than $12 billion to policyholders surrendering their coverage during the same five years.)

Agents, naturally, do not like the idea of reduced compensation, but their arguments are not compelling. Insurers believe little life insurance would be sold without such agent compensation; that is, that the large and undisclosed agent compensation cash value policies typically provide is, 1) necessary to compensate agents for their sales efforts and yet, 2) could not be obtained from an informed consumer.

My position is that good disclosure on life insurance will drive the excessive and unjustified sales loads out of cash value policies, making them price competitive with pure-term policies, thereby enabling consumers to truly benefit from the product’s tax privileges. Also, product cost disclosure is an essential component of any fair business transaction (and, as all readers properly educated about life insurance know, a cash value policy’s premium and annual cost are different.)

Fact No. 3: It is undeniable that the sales approaches used today are not effective. Unbiased experts have, for decades, demonstrated that Americans have insufficient life insurance. In August 2010, the Wall Street Journal’s Leslie Scism reported that levels of coverage have plummeted to all-time lows. Contrast that with data showing consumers’ ever-increasing voluntary purchases of additional coverage via their employers’ group life insurance plans. Marketing research shows that fear making a mistake is the primary reason consumers avoid or postpone purchases and financial decisions. Inadequate disclosure on life insurance policies not only prevents consumers from being appropriately informed; it is also a main factor in their avoidance of the very product they so often need.

I predict publicity of appropriate disclosure will lead to: unprecedented sales growth, policyholder persistency, different levels of coverage, positive impacts on all other measurements of satisfaction regarding consumers’ future life insurance purchases and life insurance agents becoming trusted and esteemed professionals. Admittedly, appropriate disclosure could lead to litigation over agents’ and insurers’ prior misrepresentations.

As I think you may now understand, inadequate life insurance policy disclosure is a regulatory “gap” that is virtually the size and age of an intergalactic asteroid.

Other Gaps

As it is currently marketed, long-term care insurance (LTCI) constitutes another serious problem. While, theoretically, LTCI can make sense, the devil is in the details. Essentially, LTCI is a contingent deferred annuity, yet one where insurers retain an option to increase the premiums for entire “classes of insureds” and where consumers must confront post-purchase price risks without the information necessary to assess alternatives. Furthermore, consumers cannot transfer their coverage to a new insurer without forfeiting the value they’ve previously paid. Defective LTCI policies have let consumers be shot like fish in a barrel; in fact, the policies’ inherent unfairness makes loan sharks envious. Appropriate disclosure on LTCI would bring consumers drastically superior value and understanding.

Regulation of life insurance agent licensing is incredibly deficient. Agents should truly be financial doctors. However, states’ agent licensing requirements fail to make sure consumers are served by financially knowledgeable professionals; licensing exams are a joke. While there are many competent agents, it is quite possible that the overwhelming majority of agents—many of whom are new and inexperienced, as more than four out of five recruits fail in the commission-based environment within the first few years—do not possess the basic knowledge necessary to accurately assess a consumer’s needs or to properly evaluate different companies’ policies.

There is virtually no state regulation of fee-only advisers who charge for providing advice about life insurance industry products. Such individuals can cause harm to consumers in multiple ways: improperly assessing needs and evaluating policies and recommending policy terminations or other actions (beneficiary or ownership changes, inappropriate policy loans, etc.) that lead to policies being mismanaged. To my knowledge, the only state that actually requires licensing for fee-only advisers is New Hampshire. A cursory review of public records, however, reveals shocking omissions in New Hampshire’s enforcement of such rules. One of the state’s former insurance commissioners, who for years has operated a prominent website providing and charging for advice on life insurance, has never been licensed.

Agent continuing education (CE) requirements are problematic. Outdated courses are still deemed acceptable, similar courses can be submitted virtually indefinitely to fulfill bi-annual CE requirements, and many courses are so devoid of meaningful information that they are vacuous. While the potential merits of CE are undeniable, only serious testing and recordings provide the means of monitoring the true effectiveness of instruction and learning.

Another area for improved regulation concerns the insurer-agent relationship. This is not to suggest draconian involvement by the government, rather to recognize the legitimate public interests in properly structuring such relationships—just as is done in relationships between pilots and airlines, construction workers and contractors, nurses and hospitals. The contracts between insurers and agents show unequal bargaining power. Insurers have not only exercised their power unfairly but have—possibly illegally—prohibited certain agent conduct, while requiring other, on matters clearly outside the boundaries of the contract. Attorneys specializing in franchise law have stated that the typical agent’s contract is the most one-sided arrangement they have ever seen.

Over the past 20 years, I have written many articles and submitted extensive documentation of sales and managerial fraud in the life insurance marketplace, yet no one with any marketplace authority or power has ever taken any effective action. Nonetheless, my commitment to reform the life insurance industry and marketplace remains. In fact, while federal regulatory action and any other private assistance would be greatly appreciated, all that is needed for the transformation of the age-old, dysfunctional life insurance industry is the dissemination—the genuine and effective mass market dissemination—of the type of life insurance policy disclosure information that is available on my web site, BreadwinnersInsurance.com. [The full version of this letter is available on the site.]

Life-Annuity Insurers: Outlook for 2016

U.S. life-annuity insurers will enter 2016 in relatively good financial condition but facing exponential changes from rapid advances in technology, rising customer expectations and growing competition. These market shifts will require insurers to reinvent their strategies, services and processes, while coping with nagging financial, economic and regulatory uncertainty. Fortunately, after years of bolstering their balance sheets, life-annuity firms are in a strong position to invest in the innovations and technologies needed to fuel future growth.

Growing customer expectations

Digital technology will continue to transform the life-annuity industry in the coming year. From anytime, any-device digital delivery to customized services, today’s diverse insurance customers will demand flexible solutions that go beyond one-size-fits-all product offerings. To take advantage of these trends, insurers will need to adopt a customer-centric approach that relies on deeper relationships, more personalized advice and more rigorous information. At the same time, life-annuity insurers must integrate emerging distribution technologies to reach customers through multiple channels, all without disrupting traditional distribution.

Millennials and mass-affluent consumers, in particular, are seeking the latest digital tools, such as on-demand insurance apps and robo-advisers for automated, algorithm-based financial advice. Meanwhile, insurers are establishing omni-channel platforms to reach and service customers more effectively and exploring the use of wearables and health monitors for usage-based life insurance. Advanced analytics, such as predictive models, combined with cloud and on-demand technologies, will provide insurers with the instruments to re-engineer front and back offices.

To fast-track digital transformation, insurers are turning to partnerships and acquisitions. For example, in 2015, Northwestern Mutual purchased online planner LearnVest to provide more customized support to customers. Other insurance firms, such as Transamerica and Mass Mutual, have set up venture capital firms to invest in digital service providers.

But digital innovation also carries greater risks. Digital technologies make insurers more vulnerable to financial fraud, data theft and political activism. Privacy breaches are becoming a bigger concern as insurers gain wider access to sensitive financial and health data. Even the use of social media is exposing firms to risks from reputational damage.

Competitive pressures are building

As digital technology becomes more pervasive, insurers will face greater competition from new digital start-ups. Although much of the recent innovation in financial services has occurred in the banking and payments sector, insurance is now squarely in the cross-hairs of new digital providers. One example is PolicyGenius, which is offering digital platforms to help consumers shop for insurance. With the recent launch of Google Compare, the rise of InsuranceTech will gain momentum in 2016.

But competition will also come from existing insurers leveraging new digital solutions and business models. For example, John Hancock recently launched Protection UL with Vitality, which rewards life-insurance policyholders for health-related activities monitored through personalized devices. In 2016, more insurance stalwarts will jump on the digital bandwagon through new product development, acquisitions and alliances. At the same time, changing insurance attitudes and practices among Millennials will spread to other age groups. Insurance firms reluctant to embrace innovations for fear of cannibalizing their own market space may be overtaken by more nimble firms able to capitalize on a shifting insurance landscape.

Uncertain economic and regulatory conditions

Life-annuity insurers are operating in a tenuous economic and financial environment with sizable downside risk. In 2016, global economic weakness will continue to be a worry, particularly as emerging market growth decelerates, financial volatility escalates and the U.S. economy muddles through a presidential election year. Regulatory and monetary tinkering will further complicate macro conditions.

The political landscape is likely to remain gridlocked at the federal and state levels as the election cycle concludes. Tax policies are unlikely to change in 2016, but insurers should prepare for new post-election regulatory headwinds in 2017. Insurers should also stay on top of the Department of Labor’s evaluation of fiduciary responsibility rules, which will remain a disruptive force in 2016.

Regulations originally designed for other industries and jurisdictions are being extended into the U.S. insurance market. International regulators are moving ahead with further development of Solvency II and IFRS. The NAIC and state insurance departments are adjusting risk-based capital charges and will react to the first year of ORSA implementation.

Mixed impact on life-annuity insurers

Premiums will grow moderately in 2016. Individual life premium growth will be particularly sluggish, as consumers remain focused on retirement savings. Faced with equity market volatility, consumers will continue to invest in fixed and indexed annuities and avoid variable annuities.

To cope with torpid market conditions, insurers will focus on growing premium and investment income, managing risks and controlling costs. Companies will continue to identify opportunities to improve return on equity through active balance sheet and back-book management. Among the strategies are investments in organic and inorganic growth, seeking reinsurance and capital market capacity and returning excess capital to shareholders. M&A activity will likely accelerate in 2016 as Asian insurers and private equity firms continue their interest in U.S. insurance companies.

Margin compression will dictate sustained emphasis on cost management through centralized control, technology upgrades and better integration of business units. With mission-critical information becoming more accessible, data-driven business decisions are moving to the C-suite. At the same time, regulatory demands and business imperatives are elevating risk management responsibility to the C-suite and board.

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STAYING IN FRONT OF CHANGE: PRIORITIES FOR 2016

In 2016, life-annuity insurers will need to take decisive measures to cope with market upheavals – or risk the consequences. By staying in front of change, insurers can strengthen customer relationships, build market share and gain competitive advantage. Tapping their strong capital positions, insurers will invest in new technologies, systems and people that will allow them to capture their future.

Specifically, leading insurers will focus on the following pathway to change:

1. Pick up the pace of business transformation and innovation

Time to reboot

The life and annuity industry has never been considered highly innovative or nimble. But the convergence of technological, regulatory and customer trends is creating a perfect storm, with the power to upend the industry. EY’s 2015 Retail Life and Annuity Survey of senior executives identified the need to embrace new market realities in 2016, highlighting innovation as a top strategic priority. To cope, industry leaders must act now to rethink their business approach:

Priorities for 2016

Create a company-wide culture of innovation. To foster transformation, insurers will need to break away from their conservative leanings, and create a culture that encourages new thinking. Such a culture should allow for greater experimentation, and even short-term failures, to achieve long-term success. Senior leaders through to middle-managers should champion change and avoid the danger of the status quo.

Drive innovation through cross-functional teams. In 2016, life and annuity insurers will need to cut across organizational silos to drive innovation. Establishing cross-functional teams of sales, underwriting and policy administration can lead to new ideas
that enrich the customer and distributor experience. Similarly, a cross-functional team of actuarial, finance and risk management can help build consensus around new analytical and risk approaches.

Share information openly. Overcoming departmental silos will not be easy. Executives should ensure that information-sharing occurs at the right time and that teams are working from the same set of high-quality data. To avoid time-consuming reconciliations, managers will want to address data discrepancies across business units. Using skilled program managers to track progress against timelines and budgets can help.

2. Reinvent products and services for the new digital consumer

Addressing ever-rising customer expectations

In 2016, life insurance and annuity products will need to come to grips with tectonic shifts in consumer expectations and behaviors. Driven by their experiences in other industries, customers will demand greater digital access, better information and quicker service. Failure to respond will make it difficult for insurers to acquire and retain customers. Fast-moving insurers are redefining their customer relationships and products and services to cope with these new market dynamics.

Priorities for 2016

Offer anytime, anywhere, any-device access. Banks now provide customers with unprecedented 24/7 access and self-service on multiple devices, from PCs to smartphones. In 2016, life insurance customers will expect a similar anytime, any-device experience from insurers from point of sale and throughout the relationship.

Provide greater transparency to customers. In today’s digital world, customers expect clearer product information and pricing transparency. To respond, insurers should reduce the complexity and definitional rigidity of current life insurance products, while providing a more streamlined and transparent issuance process.

Deliver more flexible solutions. Insurers will need to emphasize product flexibility to cost-conscious customers and offer hybrid products that combine income protection, such as long-term care and disability insurance, with life and retirement coverage. For high-net-worth customers, insurers should stress the tax advantages of life insurance and annuities and develop features to compete with alternative investment products.

Build continuing engagement with customers. The life and annuity industry has long suffered from “low engagement” with customers following the initial sale. More customer engagement will minimize the risk of customer indifference and potential disintermediation. Developing an integrated, personalized digital experience that leverages the latest mobile and video technology will be a key to success.

Move toward a service orientation. To differentiate themselves, insurers will want to shift from a product placement to a trusted adviser approach. With established personal relationships in place, and access to more flexible products and services, new sales will occur more naturally in response to customer needs.

3. Adjust distribution strategies for technological and regulatory shifts

The rise of omni-channel distribution

Technological and regulatory changes are prompting life and annuity insurers to think beyond traditional distributors. For example, robo-advisers, growing in popularity in the wealth industry, could offer insurers a way to reach the underserved mass-affluent market. Yet, unlike property and casualty carriers, life and annuity insurers have made little progress in selling through digital channels. Looking ahead to 2016, life and annuity insurers may find themselves losing market share if they fail to adapt to an omni-channel world.

Priorities for 2016

Prepare for new fiduciary standards. In 2016, the Department of Labor’s proposed fiduciary rule could upend existing distribution models. The rule strengthens consumer protection, constrains distributors and alters compensation for advisers providing retirement advice. Similar changes in the UK widened the gap in personal financial guidance between wealthy and mid-market customers – a potential impact in the U.S. The ability to recommend specific products may become more difficult, creating a ripple effect on retirement sales and advice.

Adapt services for new distribution models. Insurance firms, particularly those focusing on retirement services, will find themselves under pressure to transform their distribution platforms. In 2016, insurers should consider developing products for an “adviser-less” distribution model that delivers financial and product information directly to consumers through digital platforms. Insurers will need to adjust compensation systems to meet new fiduciary requirements, while maintaining existing distributor relationships.

Explore the use of robo-advisers. Robo-advisers represent a new self-service channel aimed particularly at younger, tech- focused consumers. In 2016, insurers will need to consider the best way to incorporate robo-advisers into their current distribution platforms-through internal development, partnership or acquisition. To help make that decision, insurers should ask themselves: Would the robo-adviser be a new distribution channel, a supporting tool for current distributors or some combination of the two approaches? Insurers will need to evaluate the costs and potential impact of integrating systems to improve sales and service. And with regulations in flux, firms will want to give compliance and suitability careful attention.

4. Reengineer processes to drive efficiency and market growth

Building operational agility

Changing customer expectations are opening up new opportunities for life-annuity insurers to grow their business through innovative products, solutions and go-to-market strategies that focus on the customer experience. However, existing process silos and legacy systems can restrict operational flexibility, so insurers may need to focus on reengineering processes and systems in the year ahead.

Priorities for 2016

Determine if your systems are ready for rapid market change. Today’s assembly line approach to policy quoting, issuance and administration can slow application turnaround and detract from the customer and distributor experience. Once a policy is issued, legacy administrative systems can limit the ability of customers and distributors to access current account information, especially policy values, and to self-service their accounts. This problem can be exacerbated as customers purchase additional products from the insurer, particularly if those purchases are on different platforms.

Ensure that your systems can stand up to new regulatory rigors. Policy issuance and administration are not the only areas affected by process silos and legacy systems. Regulatory changes and risk management imperatives are putting pressure on finance to improve the quality and speed of reporting, as well as the use of advanced analytics for predicting and stress testing trends. As companies expand into new geographic markets and lines of business, the complexity of reporting and analyzing data is multiplied. A review of your systems through a regulatory lens could be helpful.

Invest in next-generation processes and analytics. Recognizing the importance of operational excellence to future strategies, insurers will continue to invest in straight-through-processing in 2016 to speed application turnaround times. They will also use more advanced analytics to enable underwriters to minimize the amount of required medical data, slash decision- making time and improve accuracy. Data consolidation projects will remain a high priority for many IT departments.

Revamp IT systems built for simpler times. During 2016, insurers will need to improve and replace IT systems that have reached the end of their useful life and are no longer fit for purpose. Unlike past investment cycles in IT systems, when one generation of hardware replaced another, the emergence of cloud technologies and on-demand solutions create new flexible options that can be implemented more quickly.

Consider partnerships that will facilitate transformation. To support critical business data processes, life-annuity insurers should explore creating strategic alliances with outside specialists. Insurers have already worked on consolidating legacy information systems and integrating data from around the firm, which will facilitate their transition to cloud and on-demand platforms. However, management must clearly understand the auditing, control and business risks of taking that leap.

5. Bring in the right talent to lead innovation

A growing talent gap

Life and annuity insurers are finding that driving innovation will take fresh ideas and new talent. As they age, distribution teams are falling out of sync with emerging consumer demographics.

The result: Life insurance and annuity sales to younger generations are declining, a trend that will only build momentum over time. In 2016, insurers will want to meet this challenge head-on by developing initiatives to attract young, diverse workers.

Priorities for 2016

Take concrete actions to compete for talent. The talent shortage affects every layer of the organization, from gaps in senior executive roles to deficiencies in technical skills. At the same time, the industry’s image as staid and risk-averse often does not appeal to the brightest and most promising young people, who view fast-growing technology companies as their employers of choice. Insurers will need to compete fiercely for the talent required to build the next-generation insurance company.

Go beyond image-building to attract fresh blood. Executives recognize that simply burnishing the industry’s image will not be enough to draw in new talent, such as data scientists and digital experience designers. In 2016, insurers need to offer greater flexibility in work locations, find creative ways to motivate and reward employees and fine-tune talent management programs.

Make diversity a strategic imperative. Workforce diversity is more than a compliance exercise; it offers a powerful way to achieve key strategic objectives. An employee base that reflects the customer universe is better-equipped to respond to changing customer needs. Diverse teams make better decisions by avoiding groupthink. In 2016, life and annuity insurers will broaden their efforts to attract a workforce representing a mix of cultural, demographic and psychographic backgrounds.

6. Put cybersecurity high on the corporate agenda

Escalating cyber risks

Leveraging social media, the cloud and other digital technologies will expose life and annuity insurers to greater cyber risks in 2016. These risks can run the gamut from financial fraud and corporate terrorism to privacy breaches and reputational damage. To protect their businesses and their clients, insurers will need to take strong measures to keep their technical platforms air-tight.

Priorities for 2016

Make cybersecurity a priority. Inadequate cybersecurity can cause a serious financial, legal and reputational fallout. In today’s digital age, hacking often involves organized crime looking to steal data and trade secrets for financial gain. Cyber attacks can also be politically motivated to disrupt organizations. Whatever the motive, insurers will want to ensure that growing digital connections between their systems and outside parties are well-protected.

Take a broad view of the potential risks. Cybersecurity is not the only data-related risk for insurers to consider. Privacy issues surrounding consumer and distributor information are a mounting area of concern, especially as insurers use that data in product pricing, underwriting and target marketing. In addition, social media can make insurers vulnerable to reputational risks – in real time.

Safeguard customer data from misuse. Although consumers have grown accustomed to providing personal information to third parties, there is still uneasiness over usage, especially when it involves sensitive consumer medical and financial information. Insurance firms, particularly those with a global client base, need to stay abreast of emerging privacy regulations that could affect the use of digital technology and analytics. Crucially, insurers must invest in internal firewalls that protect personal data from misuse.

Assess your exposure to data sovereignty risks. As insurers move toward cloud computing and on-demand solutions, issues surrounding data sovereignty are becoming more complex. In a hyperconnected world – where a U.S. insurer might partner with a Dutch firm using a data service in India – the concept of data residing in one jurisdiction is difficult to apply. To cope, insurers will want to set up processes to monitor changing data regulations around the world and their impact on their businesses.

This piece was written by Doug French and Mike Hughes. For the full white paper, click here.

Insurers Win Big With Social Media

Insurance agents have long understood the need to be social as a part of their sales process: the best agents have always been those who build strong relationships with and educate customers, keep in touch and ask for referrals. But new ways of communicating have resulted in new expectations buyers have, such as being able to Google an agent and check out his or her LinkedIn profile before deciding to proceed. This means that insurers need to rethink the sales process and the tools that they provide to their agents, so agents can take full advantage of the power of social media.

The profile information and status updates that more than one billion people share each day on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn offer agents incredible insights into what is happening in the lives of current and potential policyholders. These insights signal to agents what types of insurance are needed by the customer and generally allow the agent to build trust through personal connection and personalized service. As a result, agents can now be smarter about when they contact customers and prospects and more directed in their communications, saving agents time and improving business results. Researching prospects on social media and understanding what's happening in their lives ensures that every call will be warm. In the era of social media, the cold call is dead.

The insurance industry has been an early adopter of social technology. While regulated industries, including financial services and insurance, tend to be cautious because of compliance concerns, a study by International Data Corp. found that the insurance industry has actually blazed the trail with social media. Farmers, Nationwide, Thrivent Financial, Northwestern Mutual and other Fortune 500 insurance organizations have instituted forward-thinking initiatives on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter that have demonstrated social success that other industries are attempting to replicate.

But it's time for all insurers to move to the second wave with social. In the first wave, many companies rushed to get as many “likes” as possible on their Facebook pages. But research shows that these “likes” have failed to convert into lasting value and tangible return on investment. In the second wave of social, insurers are realizing that they need to focus on results achieved through true engagement and authentic relationships. Just as it has always been, since long before the digital age, developing long-standing relationships is key to building a successful business in the social era.

For insurers, moving on to the second wave means two main things:

First, insurers need to provide unique and relevant content that agents can use on their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn feeds. For an agent, sharing relevant content via social channels builds credibility and helps establish them as a trusted expert that their connections will turn to when they need insurance. Marketing departments already know the type of content that resonates with customers and are typically producing professional content used in other online and offline channels. For example, success stories about the value of insurance or financial planning tools are valuable pieces of content for agents to share socially.

Second, insurers must empower the field. As an example, Thrivent Financial, a Hearsay Social client, has hundreds of agents actively managing their own local Facebook pages. As financial experts, Thrivent Financial representatives share value with their close-knit communities by consistently posting relevant content, like IRA calculators and market analyses. In addition, Thrivent reps share personal updates and plan community events, building an authentic social presence while still appropriately representing brand.

Organizations that empower agents to create their own local social-media presences are many times more effective than when the same messages are shared from a corporate page. While having five million fans wins bragging rights for any brand marketer, from the consumer's perspective, it can be much more powerful to hear the story from a local representative that you know and trust.

A local insurance agent's Facebook page

Savvy chief marketing officers at insurers have done a great job of making a relatively abstract product tangible by creating some of the most interesting and memorable personas in the history of marketing — Mayhem the Allstate villain, Flo the Progressive Girl, Snoopy representing MetLife and the GEICO gecko. For an industry that sells a product you can't hear, see, smell, taste or touch, this is impressive. And the characters can drive social-media strategies, allowing a company to create a social-media asset for a character (e.g., the Facebook page for Mayhem). Getting consumers to “like” the page can provide yet another entry point into the News Feed, increasing engagement for the brand and driving sales. When your local MetLife agent posts a picture of a sleeping Snoopy with the text “TGIF,” how can you not click “like”?

While insurers are off to a great start with social marketing, there is so much more that they can do to leverage the power of social media into sales. By coordinating enterprise-wide social selling programs, insurance companies can empower agents to attract more prospects and build stronger relationships, leading the way by selling socially.