These issues keep coming up again, and again.  Are annuities safe?  Should you lock up all your money in one single annuity? As Dennis Beaver, columnist for the Hanford Sentinel, and a Bakersfield, California attorney told his readers in a recent column “determining if an annuity is right for you requires a careful financial analysis conducted by a fee only financial planner who acts as your fiduciary….”.  Edward Stone is quoted extensively in Beaver’s recent article, offering up the Executive Life Insurance Company of New York liquidation as an example of why you can’t count on guaranty associations to pick up the pieces if your insurance company fails. “While there are State Guarantee Associations which offer some protection. Coverage amounts vary from state to state and range from $100,000 to $500,000 per individual per lifetime. This means that if the doctor put his $800,000 IRA into an annuity, and that company bit the dust, he could face significant disruptions and reductions in his benefit payments.”

It just can’t hurt to say it again.  No company is too big to fail, and contrary to the assertions of some sales people out there, nothing is risk free and annuities are no exception.

Defined benefit plan sponsors have been quietly working to reduce corporate liabilities by moving retirees out of defined benefit plans and into group annuity contracts.  This practice, known to retirees as “pension stripping” takes away the uniform protections intended by Congress under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and dumps the retirees into the state insurance systems.  Ironically, healthy defined benefit plans are those most likely to be subjected to pension stripping.  Purchasing a group annuity comes at a significant cost to the plan sponsor but has the benefit of permanently removing the liability from the corporation’s books.  In the past few years the industry has seen pension de-risking transfers by Verizon and General Motors that affected over 150,000 retirees. The Verizon transaction was unique in that it did not involve a termination of the defined benefit plan – 41,000 management employees were selectively removed from the defined benefit plan and placed into a group annuity contract with Prudential.

Unions approaching the collective bargaining table should keep the many issues surrounding pension de-risking in mind.  De-risking transfers where defined benefits are replaced with a group annuity contract may create new risks for retirees that need to be addressed at the bargaining table.  A group annuity contract is governed by state law and all of the protections offered under ERISA including financial disclosures, fiduciary standards, uniform protection from creditors and bankruptcy trustees and uniform coverage offered by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) no longer exist post transfer.

Legislation is pending in New York that would help replace protections to retirees who are negatively impacted by pension stripping transactions and is expected to be introduced during the next legislative session in Connecticut and a number of other states.  New York’s Senate Bill is S 6150 and was sponsored by Senator Tony Avella of Queens. The bill is currently before the Insurance Committee.  A companion bill was introduced in the New York Assembly by Assemblyman Peter Abbate of Brooklyn. Thus far, the proposed legislation in New York and Connecticut which would bring more uniformity, transparency and accountability into this murky arena have been met with significant opposition from the life insurance industry.

As Special Counsel to ProtectSeniors.org, Edward Stone is assisting the organization in their grass roots campaign advocating for the enactment of state legislation to protect retirees who have been moved out of their ERISA protected defined benefit plans and into group annuity groups.

Edward Stone Law can assist your organization in understanding the risks and benefits involved in pension de-risking transfers.  For more information, email us at eddie@edwardstonelaw.com or call (203) 504-8425.

In this radio interview on Long Island’s original labor radio show, Labor Lines, Vic Fusco discusses concerns over pension de-risking, or pension stripping as retirees refer to it, with  New York State Senator Tony Avella and Eddie Stone.   Pension stripping is the latest tool used by corporations to remove pension liabilities from their balance sheet.  The corporation purchases an annuity contract from an insurance company to replace a retiree’s pension.  This has the result of robbing retirees of their protections under ERISA and the safety net offered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.   Listen to the radio show here.

New York State Senator Tony Avella will introduce legislation in the upcoming session designed to protect retirees whose pensions are sold off without advance notice.  Once known as “pension de-risking” retirees refer to this method of transferring the financial risk of pensions from corporations to retirees as “pension stripping”.  The method of pension stripping that seems to be the corporate favorite converts a pension into a group annuity contract causing retirees to lose the uniform protections intended by Congress under ERISA including the  annual coverage provided by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.  The proposed legislation is designed to replace the protections for earned benefits that were intended under ERISA with reasonably equivalent  protection at the state level.

Recently AIG, GE Capital and Prudential Financial disclosed that they are among the nonbank firms soon to be deemed systemically important financial institutions (SIFI), according to reports in the New York Times and The Economist.  This designation will come with higher capital requirements for these entities and may give consumers the false impression that SIFI’s are backed by some form of government guarantee. If New York’s bungling of the Executive Life Insurance Company of New York (ELNY) rehabilitation and subsquent liquidation is any indication of how insolvency proceedings for SIFI’s would work, it is probably time for the federal government to get involved.  ELNY was almost 100 times smaller than Prudential (the smallest of the big 3)  and its failure painfully highlighted the inadequacies of state regulation of the business of insurance and pushed the voluntary  guaranty associations to the brink.  It’s time to revisit McCarran -Ferguson before it is too late.

An updated schedule detailing the benefit cuts for Executive Life Insurance Company of New York (ELNY) annuitants is available on the new GABC website.  This updated schedule indicates that most shortfall payees will see additional cuts of approximately 3-4%.  If you are an ELNY annuitant whose benefits are being cut, we can perform an analysis of your settlement documents to determine if you have any options for recovery. Please contact us at eddie@edwardstonelaw.com or (203) 504-8425.

 

The corporate desire to shed pension obligations went into over-drive in 2012 with pension de-risking transactions by Ford, General Motors and Verizon.  The pension de-risking trend allowed these corporations to eliminate their obligations to their retirees by billions of dollars.  In his column published in the Hanford Sentinel on August 21, 2013 columnist Dennis Beaver answers his reader’s questions about pension de-risking and passes along Eddie Stone’s advice:   “For your readers who are covered by a pension and looking forward to a comfortable retirement, I have a warning. Employers across this country have made promises to their employees which will not be honored. Simply stated, pension liabilities dramatically exceed their assets….This is a time when all present employees and retirees need to be aware of what is happening with their pension…”

ABC6/Philadelphia’s Nydia Han’s piece entitled “Cautionary Tale About Annuities” aired in the Philadelphia area last night.  Han’s piece emphasized the risks associated with annuities and cautioned consumers about “putting all their eggs in one basket”.  One Executive Life (ELNY) annuitant was featured in this segment, whose benefits will be cut by 54% sometime in the next month under the liquidation plan approved by New York last year.  The Executive Life (ELNY) failure is particularly disturbing because the company’s assets had been managed by the State of New York for more than 21 years.

In an excellent article in Life HealthPro on July 25, 2013 entitled “Another blight on the bruised annuity industry’s reputation – When will the industry clearly explain itself to the public?” life insurance news editor Michael Stanley analogizes the annuity industry’s recent attempts to renege on the generous income and death benefits they promised to the restaurant that hawks free appetizers to bring in more customers and then fails to deliver.  Unfortunately for the Executive Life (ELNY) victims who face looming benefit reductions, there is a great deal more to be lost than some fried calamari.  Insurers lurk in the shadows, in D.C. and the state legislatures across the country, spending lavishly to protect themselves from real regulation by hiding behind McCarran Ferguson, gutting the federal insurance oversight office and fighting the “too big to fail” designations so that they don’t have to expain things like wholly owned captive insurance companies and affiliated transactions.  Michael Stanley is right when he says “Americans love repentence, we laud a good public apology”.  Instead of Executive Life of New York (ELNY) standing out as a black mark on the insurance industry, it could have been one of those shining moments where the life insurance industry came togther and did the right thing for those who matter – the policyholders.

Edward Stone is quoted in this article by Gail Liberman and Alan Lavine that appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch on May 17, 2103.  ”  The article points out that benefit payouts on annuities are guaranteed by state insurance guaranty associations where the coverage limits vary by state from a low of $100,000 to a high of $500,000 and that settling a claim when an insurance company fails can take many years.  Edward Stone suggests choosing your annuity extra carefully and “cross out insurance companies that have significant exposure to wholly owned captive insurance companies”.