Monday, September 7, 2009

"Death pools", coming to life again

The NY Times reports on efforts to buy and securitize life insurance policies, that would be sold to investors by people with terminal illnesses: Wall Street Pursues Profit in Bundles of Life Insurance . The idea is simple enough:

"Defenders of life settlements argue that creating a market to allow the ill or elderly to sell their policies for cash is a public service. Insurance companies, they note, offer only a “cash surrender value,” typically at a small fraction of the death benefit, when a policyholder wants to cash out, even after paying large premiums for many years.
Enter life settlement companies. Depending on various factors, they will pay 20 to 200 percent more than the surrender value an insurer would pay. "
"Mr. Terrell was the co-head of Bear Stearns’s longevity and mortality desk — which traded unrated portfolios of life settlements — and later worked at Goldman Sachs’s Institutional Life Companies, a venture that was introducing a trading platform for life settlements. He thinks securitized life policies have big potential, explaining that investors who want to spread their risks are constantly looking for new investments that do not move in tandem with their other investments.
“It’s an interesting asset class because it’s less correlated to the rest of the market than other asset classes,” Mr. Terrell said. "

But life insurance is the kind of product that has always had at least a tinge of repugnance, which is why many states have "insurable interest" laws saying that someone can only purchase insurance on your life if they have a reason to want you to be alive. "As discussed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in a 1911 Supreme Court case: “A contract of insurance upon a life in which the insured has no interest is a pure wager that gives the insured a sinister counter interest in having the life come to an end” "

That's from my paper Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets , where I went on to say"The insurance industry lobbies against Stranger (or Investor) Owned Life Insurance (SOLI) and “viatical settlements,” which are third party markets and funds that purchase life insurance policies from elderly or terminally ill patients who wish to realize the cash value of their policies while still alive. The arguments against such funds often focus on the repugnance of having life insurance held by an entity that profits from deaths (in contrast to insurance companies, which make money when their customers continue living). Of course, sellers of annuities also profit from untimely deaths."(p41)

Some of the quotations from the NY Times story make me wonder whether the securitizers have fully mastered the potential repugnance issue of this kind of investment, and whether that might ultimately affect its success. See if any of these lines strike you as courting a reaction of repugnance.

"Goldman Sachs has developed a tradable index of life settlements, enabling investors to bet on whether people will live longer than expected or die sooner than planned....Spokesmen for Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs declined to comment. "
"In addition to fraud, there is another potential risk for investors: that some people could live far longer than expected.
It is not just a hypothetical risk. That is what happened in the 1980s, when new treatments prolonged the life of AIDS patients. Investors who bought their policies on the expectation that the most victims would die within two years ended up losing money.
It happened again last fall when companies that calculate life expectancy determined that people were living longer. "
"The solution? A bond made up of life settlements would ideally have policies from people with a range of diseases — leukemia, lung cancer, heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s. That is because if too many people with leukemia are in the securitization portfolio, and a cure is developed, the value of the bond would plummet. "
"But even with a math whiz calculating every possibility, some risks may not be apparent until after the fact. How can a computer accurately predict what would happen if health reform passed, for example, and better care for a large number of Americans meant that people generally started living longer? Or if a magic-bullet cure for all types of cancer was developed? If the computer models were wrong, investors could lose a lot of money."

No comments: