Wall Street Securitizing Life Insurance Policies. Seriously.

by: Tom Lindmark

Those lovable Wall Street ghouls have cooked up a new asset class to securitize — life insurance policies. I am not kidding you, they’re going into the business of buying life insurance policies from sick people, pooling them and then selling the securities to investors.

The NYT has the story:

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.

If you find that last paragraph confusing, the reason it could upset the insurance companies’ apple cart is that many policyholders let their policies lapse as they get older. For a variety of good reasons they quit paying the premiums. If the policies are bundled into a security, the new owners of the policy will continue to pay the premiums religiously and thus alter the actuarial assumptions of the insurance companies.

This business has been around for some time but it’s always been on the fringes. There are some good arguments in favor of it but at the same time, it’s always seemed just a bit tawdry. Then again, a bunch of guys who flooded the world with fraudulent mortgages probably aren’t too bothered about that.

I guess the contra argument would be that while smaller outfits have been doing this for some time with no apparent ill effects, that’s not a valid argument that there won’t be unforeseen consequences if it’s done on a massive scale. I’m not in the no financial innovation camp but this time I wonder if the benefit is really worth a roll of the dice.

One thing’s for sure. Nothing has changed on Wall Street. Securitization is the Holy Grail and come hell or highwater banks are going to keep on bundling whatever they can find.