Source: CBFE Economics
The New York Times published a pretty creepy article on Saturday (September 5th). The article focuses on Wall Street's new plan to make money. What's so bad about Wall Street making money?
Well, their new plan is to buy life insurance plans from elderly and sick people for cash. The example that the New York Times gives is someone selling a million dollar policy for a $400,000 payout, but the payout amount would all depend on the seller's life expectancy. These "life settlements" would then be bundled together to form bonds that can be sold to investors. The investors would start paying for the person's policy from then on. When the person dies, the investors collect on the policy. Apparently, the faster the person dies, the more money the investors make. However, regardless of whether you die sooner or later, Wall Street firms will profit off of fees collected from creating the bonds and facilitating transactions. You could say that Wall Street is planning to "securitize" people's lives (or deaths, as it may be) into a kind of CDO. And we all know how great that whole CDO adventure played out for Wall Street, right? What could be dangerous about creating a similar class of financial products with sick people's life expectancy as the focus?
Apparently, these type of "life settlement" investments aren't new for banks. They already exist in a lot of portfolios. What's new is the plan to securitize these "life settlements" and market them as a big-time asset class of their own. Keep in mind, this isn't something banks are just talking about potentially doing. The Times states that Credit Suisse is "building a financial assembly line to buy large numbers of life insurance policies, package and resell them — just as Wall Street firms did with subprime securities." Estimates are putting the market for this class of investment product at $500 Billion, according to the article. I don't doubt it one bit. Considering how many people are losing their jobs or facing pay cuts and how high medical bills are these days, does anyone really doubt that there are a whole lot of elderly and sick people out there who would be eager to sell their life insurance policies for an immediate cash payout? Especially if they foresee a future inability to pay their premiums?
So what's the upside? Right now a lot of people just let their life insurance policies lapse. If they're lucky they'll still get a small payout but its usually not much compared to the premiums they've paid up to that point. Under this "life settlement" proposal, policy sellers get a bigger payout and eventually investors get their payout too. So insurance companies end up paying out on their policies more often than they do now. But, insurance companies could end up just raising rates and premiums to make up for the difference, which could end up leaving the average policyholder worse off. Wall Street profits. Insurance companies profit. The consumer pays up.
Still, its hard to really get that angry over a proposal like this. As I pointed out, these type of "life settlements" are already held in a lot of investment bank portfolios. And, who am I to say what kind of financial relationships elderly and sick people should or shouldn't engage in?
But there are so many disturbing ramifications that come out of this proposal that I can't help but be worried. The article mentions that investors lost out on these type of investments in the '80s when people with AIDS ended up living longer thanks to new medications. It also mentions that risk managers are planning on diversifying these bonds based on illness type. If one bond happens to represent too many people who all have one type of illness, then that bond could prove to be unprofitable if a cure for that illness is ever discovered. Am I the only one who finds it disturbing that it'll now be in the interest of some Wall Street investors for sick and old to people to die faster and for certain medications or medical procedures to be suppressed or kept inaccessible to the public if they're too successful at actually making people live longer? I mean, don't some of these major banks also have large stakes in pharmaceutical and healthcare companies? Couldn't that present a very serious and disturbing conflict of interest? The article doesn't address these questions.
Then there's this:
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. The index is similar to tradable stock market indices that allow investors to bet on the overall direction of the market without buying stocks.
So, not only will investors be making money when some people die but some investors will also be making money by simply placing bets on life expectancy in a kind of virtual market. Great. Thank God we bailed out these banks, otherwise they wouldn't have been able to come up with these great investment products that will surely work to make America more economically competitive with the rest of the globe.