Life insurance on employees accounts for an estimated one- third of all sales of cash- value life insurance. The amounts companies hold can exceed the size of their pension plans. Yet companies and insurers are required to report almost nothing on it, making it impossible for employees, regulators, and lawmakers to determine just how much money companies have stashed away in the insurance.
Insurance regulators, who often accommodate the wishes of the industry, help keep the practice a mystery. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners says it has no data about the scope of the sales, and, though banks report their total holdings to regulators, other companies aren't required to.
Even bank regulators, including the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Office of Thrift Supervision, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., have little data. Banks are required to disclose the total cash surrender value of their policies in quarterly bank filings. This is the amount of money they have stuffed into the contracts, plus interest. But they don't have to disclose anything else, including how much the investments are contributing to earnings. In 2007, the IRS began requiring companies to report the number of employees they purchase insurance on, and the total amount. But companies don't have to provide any figures for insurance they held prior to these new disclosure rules.
The insurance industry won't talk about it, either. The American Council of Life Insurers, which has lobbied strongly to oppose restrictions on COLI, says it doesn't have any data on the product. The National Association of Life Underwriters, despite devoting one- third of its annual conference on life insurance to COLI, says it doesn't know how much companies are buying.
The Life Insurance Marketing and Research Association says it doesn't ask companies how much of the insurance they have, and A. B. Best Co., which sells a report on COLI on its Web site, says it doesn't know how much employers buy or what percentage of life insurance sales it accounts for. Some insurance consultants used to provide figures to the public, but they stopped. CAST Management Consultants in Los Angeles reported in the early 2000s that sales of new corporate- owned life had risen 60 percent. But it has kept mum since.
Insurance companies that sell COLI don't even mention the products in their SEC fi lings. Hartford Life, a major COLI provider, used to. In 2001, it had janitors insurance with a face value of $4.3 billion in force among its clients, according to its annual report. COLI in all its forms brought the company $37 million of its $1 billion of net income that year. But Hartford stopped providing such disclosures. The insurers also stopped mentioning in filings that they owned policies on their own employees. Hartford took out an undisclosed amount of insurance on about eight hundred of its own managers in 2002, but current filings don't mention it.
Prudential Insurance Co. of America had four groups of policies on workers' lives, valued at $813 million, in the early 2000s. MetLife Inc., a big seller of corporate- owned life insurance, bought policies on "several thousand" of its own employees in 1993, 1998, and 2001. (There's sometimes a bit more disclosure when insurers buy life insurance on their own employees; if they buy the policies from a subsidiary, they have to disclose the purchases as related- party transactions.)
The SEC requires that companies report increases in the amount of life insurance they have — but only if the increases are "material." Materiality isn't defined. "So some large companies with COLI don't need to report it at all," says a former government tax official.
Further, when companies report the holdings, they commonly report all their life insurance in aggregate. This includes "key man" policies taken out on top executives, and split-dollar policies, which are used to funnel lavish retirement benefits to top executives.
For investors, another challenge is knowing how much life insurance might be contributing to a company's bottom line. Companies commonly aggregate the insurance-related income with other items in the "other income" section of their filings.
Clark/Bardes, the COLI consultant, is also vague. A footnote in the income section of its 2000 filing says the "other income" category "includes $1 million in life insurance proceeds." The company received the $1 million when an employee died in a plane crash.
Excerpted from Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder And Profit From The Nest Eggs Of American Workers by Ellen E. Schultz by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright Ellen E. Schultz, 2011.