Pension freedom or trap for the unwary?

An interesting development is the pending right of annuitants to sell their future annuity payments for a cash lump sum, planned for introduction in 2017. The new option will only apply to holders of individual annuity policies with insurers, either from initial purchase of an annuity or because they are holders of individual annuities following a buy-out. The state pension is excluded, as are pensions from a defined-benefit occupational scheme (being covered by a grouped buy-in policy or longevity swap won't change this since these are assets of the pension scheme, not the individual).  There may also be some interesting twists and turns for schemes which have set up their own captive insurer.

This new option isn't the same thing as "surrendering the annuity", as with many other insurance policies, since the annuity will remain in force and annuity payments will continue to be paid to the buyer. The buyer may be a third party, with the insurer paying the annuity payments to the buyer as long as the annuitant lives. There are many aspects to this development, but I want to look at just one: whether the insurer paying the annuity should make the annuitant an offer and thus cancel the annuity.  Superficially the insurer should always make a bid that is less than the current best estimate of the value of future cashflows.  If the bid is beaten by another buyer, the insurer has lost nothing apart from the time and cost in making the offer.  If the insurer is successful, it can effectively cancel the risk under the annuity and seemingly make a profit by removing a balance-sheet liability at less than best-estimate cost.  What could go wrong?

As it happens, plenty.  Part of the problem lies in the fact that the mere act of putting the policy up for auction is potentially an informative event in itself.  Specifically, why has the annuitant chosen to do this?  Is it perhaps because the annuitant has information on his or her health which makes future annuity payments of very little value?  Consider the case of an annuitant with a reliable medical diagnosis of less than a year of life remaining.  The value to the annuitant of payments after the second year is therefore zero.  Any offer of a cash value for the payment stream greater than one year's payments is therefore a win for the annuitant.  However, if the insurer does not have this information it will assume a normal life expectancy and thus a corresponding reserve allowing for the expected value of payments in the second and subsequent years.  Any cash offer greater than one year's payments is therefore a loss for the insurer relative to doing nothing.

One proposed solution to this asymmetry of information would be to have the annuitant fill out a health questionnaire.  However, it is difficult to see how to handle the problem of non-disclosure.  In the case of non-disclosure for an assurance policy the procedure is well established: the claim is denied, the sum assured is not paid out and the premiums are returned to the policyholder.  Claim events in life insurance are relatively rare, so fraud is easier to spot and the overall cost burden of investigation is modest relative to the large savings in unpaid fraudulent claims.

In contrast it is harder to see how non-disclosure could be managed for a newly purchased annuity cashflow: it is hard to know if an early death was the result of an undisclosed condition, to say nothing of costly and time-consuming to prove it.  After all, every annuity will cease through death and annuitants are elderly, so there could be many potential investigations required.  There is also an element of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted: the cash lump sum has already been handed over, and may have been spent.  If not, the insurer faces the long, drawn-out process of trying to reclaim the lump sum during probate.  And if there were a elderly surviving spouse inheriting the annuitant's estate, reclaiming the lump sum could be a public-relations disaster.

The idea of selling the right to annuity payments no doubt sounds appealing to some annuitants.  After all, it is an additional option which they didn't have before and which doesn't need to be exercised; the annuitant has nothing to lose.  However, buyers of such cashflow rights will have to think very carefully indeed about the risks they are running.



(Sep 26, 2016)
I'm wondering if deferred lump-sum could get around this issue.

That is, I get into the following contract. For the next (say) 3 years, my annuity is reduced (possibly to 0). Then after 3 years, if I survive, I get a lump sum.

This way, if I have information that I'm just about to die, it's unclear that I'll benefit from the contract. And it's hard to think about instances where I know I'll survive for 3 years, but conditional on that I'll die quickly.

How would this work in practice? Suppose I get a £1000 a month pension from company X. I don't become sicker than expected or get to know more about my mortality. However, I know that company Y would give me a £1100 pension (maybe they have a different basis, have lower expenses, or a better capital position).
I could trade my annuity for a deferred lump-sum contract that pays 0 for three years and then some amount. Then, instead of giving company Y an upfront payment, I trade my deferred contract for their annuity.

I know that this is terribly complex and probably won't work in practice, but I can't think of any other way to get around the issue.
(Sep 26, 2016)
Thanks Stephen. Interesting post. I guess insurers could draw upon the following ideas in order to help mitigate the type of risk you describe:

1. A structured pay-out: Pay some percentage of the lump sum sale value immediately, with the balance to follow in say [2] years’ time – contingent upon proof of survivorship. This may not be to all seller’s tastes but those with no (undisclosed) serious health issues are less likely to object.

I think this is similar to Krisztian's initial point.

2. Underwriting point 1: My understanding is that web based (written) medical questionnaires are to be supplemented by telephone interviews which ought to help bridge the “knowledge asymmetry” gap without perhaps fully closing it.

3. Underwriting point 2: I also understand the means of gathering initial data is identical to the situation where one is looking to purchase (vs sell) an annuity (i.e. the CQRF). The dynamics are very different, of course, as those selling are (in theory) looking to present themselves as healthy as possible. My point here is that some argue that it's simpler to identify the big-ticket risks (i.e. prevailing illnesses and adverse health conditions) than for the other situation (healthy lifestyle, genetics).

More general points:

1. This post focuses on the anti-selection risk (paying too much) but insurers may be equally concerned about the future mis-selling risk (inadequate funds for the seller).

2. One theory is that those insurers buying back their own annuities ought to be the most attractive (vs competing offers) because this would also release regulatory capital. If another insurer buys the annuity income stream, such capital continues to slosh around the system.
(Sep 27, 2016)
Khurram, great comment.

Regarding your last point though, if a competing firm buys the annuity, they should be able to regard that as a hedge for their own longevity liabilities. So wouldn't the only capital sloshing around the system be the one held against counterparty risk?
(Sep 29, 2016)
Hi Krisztian,

If a firm buys the entitlement to the income stream stemming from one of its own annuities, it is faced with a profile of "equal and opposite" future cash-flows, enabling it to effectively extinguish the associated liability.

If buying back other annuities (in sufficient volume), I believe you are correct in assuming this might be considered as general protection against future mortality improvements but it by no means offers a perfect hedge because there is clear scope for a "lose / lose". For example, in very broad terms, the (existing) lives responsible for outgo could continue to live beyond expectations whilst the lives responsible for income (purchased through the secondary annuity market) die sooner than expected. This in turn would mean that the capital backing original annuity outgo obligations cannot be fully released.
Stephen Richards
(Nov 3, 2016)
The government subsequently abandoned its proposals for annuitants to sell the rights to their annuity income stream:

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Stephen Richards
Stephen Richards is the Managing Director of Longevitas