MONEY Warren Buffett

Why Warren Buffett Just Bought Duracell

Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

All signs indicate that Buffett has once again found another wonderful business at a fair price.

The last few months have been a busy for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and today we learned its buying spree continued.

It was announced this morning Berkshire has come to an agreement with Procter & Gamble PROCTER & GAMBLE COMPANY PG 0.33% to buy battery manufacturer Duracell in exchange for the $4.7 billion worth of Procter & Gamble shares Berkshire held.

The details

At the end of June, Berkshire held roughly 53 million shares of Procter & Gamble worth nearly $4.2 billion, and since then P&G has seen its stock rise by almost 15%, explaining the $4.7 billion price tag.

When P&G released its earnings for the first quarter of fiscal 2015, it also announced that it would be exiting the Duracell business, preferably through the creation of a stand-alone company. At the time of the announcement, P&G’s CEO A.G. Lafley said:

We greatly appreciate the contributions of our Duracell employees. Since we acquired the business in 2005 as part of Gillette, Duracell has strengthened its position as the global market leader in the battery category. It’s a business with attractive operating profit margins and a history of strong cash generation. I’m confident the business and its employees will continue to thrive as its own company.

Then, P&G noted the reason behind the move was “consistent with its plans to focus and strengthen its brand and category portfolio,” and that “its goals in the process of exiting this business are to maximize value to P&G’s shareholders and minimize earnings per share dilution.”

Today, P&G noted that the $4.7 billion price tag for Duracell would represent an adjusted earnings before interest taxes and depreciation, or EBITDA, of seven-times fiscal year 2014’s.

The rationale

So, why would Buffett make such a move?

First, as highlighted by many news outlets like Bloomberg, similar to Berkshire’s previous deals in acquiring an energy subsidiary from Phillips 66 earlier this year, by exchanging P&G stock for the entirety of Duracell, Berkshire will be able to abstain from paying any capital gains taxes as if the P&G shares had been sold for cash.

Considering that the P&G stake stood on Berkshire’s books at a cost basis of just $336 million at the beginning of this year, the tax savings alone are a compelling value proposition for Berkshire Hathaway and its shareholders.

Also, knowing at heart Buffett’s always been a proponent of buying businesses at an appropriate price, the fact that the market traded at an 11.5-times EBITDA multiple in January of this year, according to the Stern School of Business at NYU, and the consumer electronics industry traded at nine-times EBITDA, then the $4.7 billion price tag seems more than reasonable.

In last year’s letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Buffett wrote that “more than 50 years ago, Charlie [Munger] told me that it was far better to buy a wonderful business at a fair price than to buy a fair business at a wonderful price.”

So, the consideration of the deal must extend beyond just the financial aspects of it. And Buffett’s words regarding the deal are quite telling.

In today’s announcement Buffett said:

I have always been impressed by Duracell, as a consumer and as a long-term investor in P&G and Gillette. Duracell is a leading global brand with top quality products, and it will fit well within Berkshire Hathaway.

It is of note that Buffett mentioned the Duracell brand first. One of my favorite Buffett quotes is:

“Buy commodities, sell brands” has long been a formula for business success. It has produced enormous and sustained profits for Coca-Cola since 1886 and Wrigley since 1891. On a smaller scale, we have enjoyed good fortune with this approach at See’s Candy since we purchased it 40 years ago.

And how is this applicable to Duracell?

Consider for a moment in its ranking of the Best Global Brands in 2014, Interbrand estimated that the brand value of Duracell stood at $4.9 billion, ahead of MasterCard ($4.8 billion) and narrowly trailing both Chevrolet and Ralph Lauren.

Said differently, Buffett paid less for Duracell — the company — than what one company estimated its brand value alone is worth.

Also, it isn’t just the Duracell brand that is compelling, but its business, too. P&G noted in its annual report that Duracell maintains over 25% of the global battery market share. And Interbrand noted in its report on the company:

Duracell continues to respond to consumer demands through innovation and new product launches. New technologies in rechargeable batteries, longer lasting energy storage times (Duralock) and synergies with wireless iPhone charging (PowerMat) demonstrate responsiveness to a changing marketplace. Duracell is working to further increase its presence by forging retailer-specific partnerships and nudging competitors out of view in the process.

Clearly, the company isn’t afraid of innovation, and it is responding to changing demands and desires of consumers.

The charge to the bottom line

We don’t know the details of how Duracell will fit in the massive empire that Berkshire Hathaway has become. But there is one thing we do know — to the delight of Berkshire’s shareholders — all signs indicate that Buffett has once again found another wonderful business at a fair price.

MONEY 401(k)s

The Big Flaws in Your 401(k), and How to Fix Them

Falling Short book cover

Badly designed 401(k) plans are a key reason Americans are headed towards a retirement crisis, a new book explains. Here are three moves that can help.

Every week seems to bring a new study with more scary data about the Americans’ looming retirement crisis—and it’s all too easy to tune out. Don’t. As a sobering new book, Falling Short, explains, the crisis is real and getting worse. And if you want to preserve your chances of a comfortable retirement, it’s time to take action.

One of the most critical problems is the flawed 401(k) plan, which is failing workers just as they need more help than ever. “The dream of the 401(k) has not matched the reality,” says co-author Charles Ellis. “It’s turned out to be a bad idea to ask people to become investing experts—most aren’t, and they don’t want to be.”

When it comes to money management, Ellis has plenty of perspective on what works and what doesn’t. Now 77, he wrote the investing classic Winning the Loser’s Game and founded the well-known financial consulting firm Greenwich Associates. His co-authors are Alicia Munnell, a prominent retirement expert who heads the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, and Andrew Eschtruth, the center’s associate director.

What’s wrong with the 401(k)? For basic behavioral reasons, workers consistently fail to take full advantage of their plans. Most enroll, or are auto-enrolled, at a low initial savings rate, often just 3% of pay— and they stay at that level, since few plans automatically increase workers’ contributions. Many employees borrow money from their plans, or simply cash out when they change jobs, which further erodes their retirement security. Even if investors are up to the task of money management, their 401(k)s may hamper their efforts. Many plans have limited investing menus, few index funds, and all too often saddle workers with high costs.

When you add it up, investor mismanagement, along with 401(k) design and implementation flaws, have cost Americans a big chunk of their retirement savings, according to a recent Center for Retirement Research study. Among working households headed by a 55- to 64-year-old, the median retirement savings—both 401(k)s and IRAs—is just $100,000. By contrast, if 401(k)s worked well, the median amount would have been $373,000, or $273,000 more. As things stand now, half of Americans are at risk of not being able to maintain their standard of living in retirement, according to the center’s research.

Can the 401(k) be fixed? Yes, the authors say, if employers adopt reforms such as auto enrollment, a higher automatic contribution rate, and the use of low-cost index funds. But even those changes won’t end the retirement crisis—after all, only half of private sector workers have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Moreover, Americans face other economic challenges, including funding Social Security, increased longevity, and rising health care costs.

To address these problems, authors discuss possible policy changes, such as automatic IRAs for small businesses and proposals for a new national retirement plan. Still, major reforms are unlikely to happen soon. Meanwhile, there’s a lot you can do now to improve your odds of a comfortable retirement. The authors highlight these three moves to get you started:

Aim to save 14%: The best way to ensure that you actually save is to make the process automatic. That’s why few people consistently put away money without help from a company retirement plan. If you save 14% of your income each year, starting at age 35, you can expect to retire comfortably at age 67, the authors’ research shows. Start saving at age 25, and put away 12%, and you may be able to retire at 65. If you get a 401(k) matching contribution, that can help your reach your goal.

Choose low-cost index funds. One of the smartest ways to pump up your savings is to lower your investment fees—after all, each dollar you pay in costs reduces your return. Opt for index funds and ETFs, which typically charge just 0.2% or less. By contrast, actively managed stock funds often cost 1.4% or more, and odds are, they will lag their benchmarks.

Adjust your goals to match reality. You 401(k) account isn’t something you can set and forget. Make sure you’re saving enough, and that your investments still match your risk tolerance and goals—a lot can change in your life over two or more decades. The good news is that you can find plenty of free online calculators, both inside and outside your plan, to help you stay on course.

If you’re behind in your savings, consider working a few years longer if you can. By delaying retirement, you give yourself the opportunity to save more, and your portfolio has more time to grow. Just as important, each year that you defer your Social Security claim between the ages of 62 and 70 will boost the size of your benefit by 8% a year. “You get 76% more at age 70 than you will at age 62,” says Ellis. If working till 70 isn’t your idea of an dream retirement, then you have plenty of incentive to save even more now.

More on 401(k)s:
Why Millennials are flocking to 401(k)s in record numbers
Why your 401(k) may only return 4%
This Nobel economist nails what’s really wrong with your 401(k)

MONEY stocks

Stocks Go Up. Stocks Go Down. Deal With It.

The best tool for addressing anxiety about the stock market is information. Unfortunately, that isn't always enough.

Like some of our investment advisory clients, I fear the market sometimes. The way I combat that fear is with information. Markets go up, markets go down. Here’s what’s normal. Here’s where we are.

Last month, in conversation with one of my more nervous clients — when I had finished my list of market facts and cycles, when I had emailed my short and long-term charts — she replied, “And I’m supposed to be content with that?”

Essentially, yes. That’s the answer most financial professionals would have, if they’re honest.

I suppose you may find it strange, but that’s the kind of challenge I’m up for. It’s a challenge to try to keep clients calm when markets are anything but calm.

In 2008, many of my friends who are financial advisers were deeply affected by the trauma that clients experienced as markets worldwide experienced the worst decline since the Great Depression. They remain affected by it. Trauma is not too big of a word.

Today, I don’t fear the downturn. I speak.

In a downturn, people’s attention is most focused on sliding markets. They may hear what you have to say, but they may not listen to your various messages: Markets are risky. They go up and down. If you don’t take market risk, you limit your potential for capturing the gains when they do come. If you do take market risk, you’ve got to be able to see that downturns are a part of the deal. Shall I get out my trusty charts now and show you just how common it is for markets to fluctuate?

Probably I’d bore you if I did. What you probably want to know is what’s a good strategy for dealing with a volatile market.

You could move some money out of equities, of course. Or we could layer into the portfolio some exchange-traded funds that continuously move out of the most volatile stocks and into the less volatile ones. Both these moves will limit returns, but will also make the trends less upsetting.

But even if we lessen the throbbing uncertainty, we cannot eliminate it.

No one has overcome market cycles yet, no matter what they promise. Cue the charts.

And here’s the flip side: For all the confidence the clients might have in us, we can’t tell them when the markets will tumble. We can’t tell them when to run for the hills. Because no one can.

I feel I have gone down this road to every end I can find, looking for the analytics, the portfolio theory, the guru, the portfolio construction expertise, the economic underpinning, the macro-down and the bottom-up way of selecting exactly what would be the best globally diversified portfolio. I’ve made my own deal with risk and return. But none of that work changes the simple fact markets do go down periodically. Personally, I am content with that.

But for that client, this is not a comfortable fact.

It’s humbling, really, to have a discussion in which you cannot provide something which is very much wanted.

But it’s a smart discussion to have.

The client told me that when the market goes up again, I have permission to say, “I told you so.”

The market is up nearly 10% since we had that conversation, so I might. But when times are good in the markets, it’s the same as when times are bad: Clients don’t listen.

———-

Harriet J. Brackey, CFP, is the co-chief investment officer of KR Financial Services, a South Florida registered investment advisory firm that manages more than $330 million. She does financial planning for clients and manages their portfolios. Before going into the financial services industry, she was an award-winning journalist who covered Wall Street. Her background includes stints at Business Week, USA Today, The Miami Herald and Nightly Business Report.

MONEY retirement planning

This Simple Strategy Can Help You Build a Successful Retirement Plan

Fox and hedgehog
Bob Elsdale—Getty Images

Should you be smart as a fox or wise as a hedgehog in your retirement planning?

No, it’s not a trick question. Nor a trivial one. Indeed, knowing whether you act more like a fox or a hedgehog can help you improve your approach to retirement planning, making for a more enjoyable pre- and post-career life.

The fox vs. hedgehog debate goes back to a statement attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Alluding to that line, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay in 1953 titled, “The Fox and The Hedgehog.”

The idea behind the fox-hedgehog comparison is that you can divide people into two groups: hedgehogs, who see the world through the prism of a defining principle or idea, and foxes, who focus more on their experiences and the particulars of a given situation. You could say that hedgehogs are more likely to see the big picture, while foxes get into the weeds.

So what does this have to do with retirement planning?

Well, if you’re a fox, you’re always looking for some type of edge or way to exploit circumstances to your advantage. You track the ups and downs of the stock market with an eye toward getting in before a big upswing or out before a crash. You listen to investment pundits, hoping to score tips on stocks or sectors that are supposedly poised to outperform the market. Chances are you’ve been glancing at what the Dow and the S&P 500 have been doing as you’ve been reading this column.

In your continuing efforts to gain an edge, you’re also constantly on the lookout for exciting new investment opportunities—smart beta ETFs, the Bitcoin Trust, whatever—and revolutionary techniques that can enhance your reitrement-planning efforts. You probably believe that finding the best investments is the single most important thing to do to build a sizeable nest egg, when diligent saving actually trumps savvy investing.

If you’re a hedgehog, on the other hand, you’re probably more apt to believe that successful retirement planning comes down to following a few simple principles: saving regularly (preferably by putting your savings on autopilot), making the most of tax-advantaged accounts whenever you can and, to the extent possible these days, not pulling the trigger on retirement until you feel you have a large enough nest egg to give you a good margin of safety on withdrawals (as opposed to relying on some investing black-magic that’s supposed to help you squeeze more out of your assets).

As for new products and cutting-edge strategies, the hedgehog views them with more than a little skepticism and is more likely to see them as a gimmick or distraction than a can’t-miss opportunity. As a hedgehog, you believe it’s unlikely that the Next Big Thing can significantly improve on time-honored strategies like looking for ways to save a bit more, reining in investment costs and building a basic stocks-bonds portfolio that you rebalance periodically. So you’re more likely to pass on the latest fad, knowing that in the financial world, fads come along pretty frequently, and often leave disappointment in their wake.

Full disclosure: I’m primarily in the hedgehog camp. Thirty years of writing about retirement planning and investing has convinced me that true innovation is pretty rare, and that “sophisticated” strategies is often another way of saying “expensive” strategies. I believe that if you get the Big Things right—you save regularly, invest sensibly, set reasonable expectations and monitor your progress—you don’t have to resort to fancy techniques that too often have the potential to blow up on you.

That said, while we may live in a digital world, we humans are not digital. We’re analog. No one is solely a fox or a hedgehog. We may be more one than the other, but we have elements of both. And I think that whether you consider yourself mostly a fox or a hedgehog, you can learn from the other.

If you’re primarily a fox, for example, you might occasionally want to pull back and take a big-picture look at your retirement planning. You want to be sure that have a sound basic strategy in place and that you’re not undermining it by chasing every new product or approach that comes along. To help you improve your focus, you’ll probably want to cultivate some of the hedgehog’s skepticism.

Conversely, if you’re a hedgehog, you want to be careful that you don’t let your wariness about The New New Thing completely shut you off to the possibility of innovative approaches that may improve your planning and your retirement prospects. Truly transformative products, services and strategies may be rare, but they do come along.

ETFs have helped many investors lower investment expenses and their tax bills. New tools that can help you decide when to claim Social Security—which you can find in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox—really do have the potential for dramatically improving many people’s standard of living in retirement. You don’t want your “hedgehoggish” tendency to view the world from 30,000 feet make you overlook something at ground level that that may prove helpful to your planning. To prevent that from happening, try to think like the fox sometimes.

So the next time you’re contemplating your retirement planning, be sure to think like a hedgehog and make sure you’ve got a good overall retirement plan in place. Then make like a fox and see whether there’s anything worthwhile new or interesting that might help you improve your plan, even if incrementally.

Doing this will help you see from both fox’s perspective and the hedgehog’s. And you’ll reap the benefits of thinking, shall we say, like a hedgefox.

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MONEY Markets

Here’s How Anyone Can Beat Professional Investors

141110_INV_PassiveInvesting
Herbert Gehr—Getty Images/Time & Life Picture With cheap index funds, you can diversify without paying a premium.

Statistically speaking, financial experts still can't match the "wisdom of the crowd."

Another day, another piece of evidence that active fund managers are no better at investing than lab rats.

This time, researchers at Bank of America found that more than 4 out of 5 managers have failed to beat the Russell 1000 index of large-company stocks so far this year. In fact, there’s been only one year in the last decade (2007) when a majority of active managers beat the market.

“It’s an incredibly competitive environment, with so many active managers looking for the next great investment, and it’s just not there,” says Alexander Dyck, a finance professor at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who has co-authored an international comparison of active and passive strategies.

Dyck’s research found that in the United States, passive strategies work better than active management. That is, mutual funds that simply mimic an index actually return more money, post-fees, than funds managed by professionals making hands-on choices about what stocks, bonds, and other assets to hold.

That finding is a big deal because people who invest in active funds—say, in their 401(k)s or other retirement accounts—typically pay much higher fees than those who invest in passive funds. Thanks to active management, stock fund investors on average end up paying more than five times as much in expenses than they would with index funds; that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars, as the chart below shows.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 4.54.47 PM (2)
Source: https://personal.vanguard.com/us/insights/investingtruths/investing-truth-about-cost

When active funds do beat their benchmarks, that can make up for high fees (though evidence suggests even that scenario is rare). But with most returns so uninspiring, there doesn’t seem to be much remaining justification for active management, at least for the average investor. Better to stick with cheap index funds.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Dyck’s research, for example, found that active managers can still beat their benchmarks when they invest overseas—particularly in emerging markets like China, where investing in companies hand-picked by a professional tends to be a better bet than investing in a basket of stocks representing every company out there.

“In countries with significant governance risks, a plain old index gives you exposure to everything, including the good, the bad, and the ugly,” says Dyck.

But even though active investing outside of the U.S. seems to work for institutional investors who generally pay lower fees, Dyck says, it doesn’t mean it’ll be worth it for you. As a retail investor, you’ll almost always pay more than the professionals.

MONEY fix my mix

Get Free Help with Your Investing Challenges

Pile of money
B.A.E. Inc.—Alamy

MONEY is looking for people who are willing to share the details of their portfolio in exchange for a free workup with a financial planner.

Has the volatile market caused you to flee stocks for the security of cash and bonds?

Are you close to 100% in stocks but thinking now it might be time to dial back?

Would you like to rework your investments to generate more income from dividends and bonds?

If so, we’d like to help.

For an upcoming issue, MONEY is looking for people who’d be willing to share their portfolio and financial situation in the magazine, in exchange for having a top-shelf financial planner examine their investments from top to bottom and come up with a full and personalized financial plan.

You must be comfortable sharing details of your personal and financial life (including your real names) and being photographed for the story.

If interested, please fill out the form below. Please tell us a little about your investment challenges, and also include a few details about your family’s finances, including income, approximate savings, and debts. All of this information will be kept confidential until we talk and you agree to appear in the story.

Everybody has an investment challenge, so let’s hear yours!

MONEY financial advisers

What Is a Fiduciary, and Why Should You Care?

Your investments are at stake, explains Ritholtz Wealth Management CEO Josh Brown (a.k.a. The Reformed Broker).

MONEY investing strategy

5 Mental Habits That Make Investors Rich

141106_INV_DreamInvestor
PeopleImages.com—Getty Images

Don't take yourself so seriously.

If I could build a dream investor from scratch, his name would be Paul.

Paul is an optimistic a-political sociopathic history buff with lots of hobbies who takes others’ opinions more seriously than his own.

Let me tell you why he is going to kick your butt at investing.

The sociopath

Psychologist Essi Vidling once interviewed a serial killer. Vidling showed the killer pictures of different facial expressions, and asked him to describe what the people were feeling. The murderer got most right, except pictures of people making fearful faces. “I don’t know what that expression is called, but it’s what people look like right before I stab them,” he said.

Paul couldn’t harm a fly. But a key trait of sociopaths is the ability to remain calm when others are terrified, so much that they don’t even understand why other people get scared. It’s also a necessity to becoming a good investor. In her book Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E Thomas writes:

The thing with sociopaths is that we are largely unaffected by fear … I am also blessed with a complete lack of sentiment … My lack of empathy means I don’t get caught up in other people’s panic.

Paul is like this, too. He doesn’t understand why people investing for 10 years get fearful when stocks have a bad 10 days. Recessions don’t bother him. Pullbacks entertain him. He thought the flash crash was kind of funny. He doesn’t care when his companies miss earnings by a penny. He’s immune to that stuff, which is a big advantage over most investors.

The a-political investor

Paul has political beliefs — who doesn’t?

But he knows that millions of equally smart people have opposite beliefs they are just as sure in. Since markets reflect the combined beliefs of millions of people, Paul knows that there is no reason to expect markets to converge on his personal beliefs, even if he is dead sure it is the truth. So he never lets his politics guide his investment decisions.

Paul knows that political moralizing is one of the most dangerous poisons your brain can come across, causing countless smart people to make dumb decisions. Even when he is bothered by political events, Paul repeats to himself in the mirror: “The market doesn’t care what I think. The market doesn’t care what I think.”

The history buff

Paul loves history. He loves it for a specific reason: It teaches him that anything is possible at any time, no matter how farfetched it sounds. “One damned thing after another,” a historian once described his field.

Paul knows that some people read history for clues on what might happen next, but history’s biggest lesson is that nobody has any idea, ever.

When people say oil prices can only go up, or have to fall, Paul knows history isn’t on their side — either could occur. He knows that when people say China owns the next century, or that America’s best days are behind it, history says either could be wrong.

History makes Paul humble, and prevents him from taking forecasts too seriously.

The hobbyist

Paul likes golf. He enjoys cooking. He reads on the beach. He has a day job that takes up most of his time.

Paul loves investing, but he doesn’t have time to worry about whether Apple is going to miss earnings, or if fourth-quarter GDP will come in lower than expected. He’s too busy for that stuff.

And he likes it that way. He knows investing is mostly a waiting game, and he has plenty of hobbies to keep him busy while he waits. His ignorance of trivial stuff has saved him thousands of dollars and countless time.

The open-minded thinker

Paul knows he’s just one of seven billion people in the world, and that his own life experiences are a tiny fraction of what’s to be learned out there.

He knows that everyone wants to think they are right, and that people will jump through hoops to defend their beliefs. He also knows this is dangerous, because it prevents people from learning. Paul knows that everyone has at least one firm, diehard belief that is totally wrong, and this scares him.

Paul is insanely curious about what other people think. He’s more interested in what other people think than he is in sharing his own views. He doesn’t take everyone seriously — he knows the world is full of idiots — but he knows the only way he can improve is if he questions what he knows and opens his mind to what others think.

The realistic optimist

Paul knows there’s a lot of bad stuff in this world. Crime. War. Hunger. Poverty. Injustice. Disease. Politicians.

All of these things bother Paul. But only to a point. Because he knows that despite the wrongs of the world, more people wake up every morning wanting to do good than try to do harm. And he knows that despite a constant barrage of problems, the good group will eventually win out in the long run. That’s why things tend to get better for almost everyone.

Paul doesn’t get caught up in doom loops, refusing to invest today because he’s worried about future budget deficits, or future inflation, or how his grandkids will pay for Social Security. Optimists get heckled as oblivious goofs from time to time, but Paul knows the odds are overwhelmingly in their favor of the long haul.

I’m trying to be more like Paul.

Related:

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel’s columns.

Related Links

MONEY retirement income

The Creepy Truth About Life Settlements

Actress Betty White presents the late producer Bob Stewart with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award during the 40th annual Daytime Emmy Awards in Beverly Hills, California June 16, 2013.
Danny Moloshok—Reuters Actress Betty White has pitched life settlements to seniors.

A new novel revolves around a murderous life settlements investor. That's fiction. But these products have very real risks for buyers and sellers.

Selling your life insurance policy is right up there with taking out a reverse mortgage when it comes to retirement income sources that most people would be better off not tapping. But folks do it anyway, while paying little attention to the costs and, as a new novel points out, the risks of a policy landing in the wrong hands.

Selling a life policy for a relatively large sum—known as a life settlement—has gotten easier over the last decade. Hedge funds, private equity funds, insurers and pension funds dominate the market, which totals around $35 billion, up from $2 billion in 2002. Individuals are investing in them too, through securities that represent a fraction of a bundle of life settlements, sometimes called death bonds.

How Life Settlements Work

Those most likely to be offered a life settlement, formerly known as a viatical, are individuals with a universal life insurance policy they no longer need or can’t afford—or who simply don’t want to pay the premiums. A term life policy that converts to a universal policy may also have value. Policyholders sell their insurance for more than they’d get by surrendering the policy to their insurer. If you have a death benefit of $1 million, you might have $100,000 cash surrender value but manage to get $250,000 from a third-party investor. The investor assumes future premium payments and collects $1 million at your death.

Not a bad deal, assuming you’re comfortable with the fact that someone out there has a financial interest in your demise. You get a bigger payout for a policy you were going to give up anyway. Life policies with total face value in the tens of billions of dollars lapse every year, according to industry estimates. Many of those policies have value in the secondary market.

As part of their ad campaign, the life settlement industry has enlisted actress Betty White, who pitches these deals for “savvy senior citizens needing cash.” Heck, she’s more persuasive than Fred Thompson is about reverse mortgages. But don’t be easily swayed. Aging celebrities from Henry Winkler to Sally Field are pitching all sorts of elder products these days in what amounts to an encore career—not a genuine endorsement.

The Privacy Risk

Okay, so what are the downsides to life settlements? For policyholders seeking to raise money, the creepiest risk by far is that you sell your policy to Tony Soprano, who understands that the quicker you die, the greater his rate of return. This is the extreme case explored in a new novel by Ben Lieberman, The Carnage Account. The lead character is a Wall Street high roller who buys up life settlements and dispatches the people with the biggest policies. “Very few products on Wall Street have been immune to exploitation,” says Lieberman, noting the wave of subprime mortgages that blew up in the financial crisis. “The abuse can now hurt more than your property. Instead of losing your house you can lose your life.”

Of course, Lieberman is a novelist with an active imagination. Life settlements have been around since the AIDS crisis, and there has never been a known case of murder for quick payoff, says Darwin Bayston, CEO and president of the Life Insurance Settlement Association. There have been only three formal complaints of any kind about life settlements to national regulators in the last three years, he says.

Yet Lieberman, who has a long Wall Street background, finds the entry of cutthroat hedge fund managers more than a little unsettling. Policies with insurers or held by pension funds remain largely anonymous inside huge portfolios. Institutions base their settlement offers on average life expectancies, knowing some policies will pay early and some will pay late.

But in smaller and more actively managed pools investors may pick and choose life policies that promise a quicker payoff, based on things like depression and mental illness, or clues from medical staff as to the most “valuable” policies. Life settlement investors are also targeting an estimated $40 billion of death benefits that policyholders might sell to fund long-term care needs, spinning it as socially conscious investing. How else will these seniors pay for end-of-life care? “Instead of credit risk or prepayment risk we now evaluate longevity risk,” Lieberman says. “This began as a way to help terminally ill patients. Now it incorporates perfectly healthy people and presents a way to bet against human life.”

One former life settlements investor told me he has seen third-party portfolios of life policies fully disclosing the names of the insured parties, which is the basis for the success of Lieberman’s fictional Carnage Account. In his novel, a murderous hedge fund manager gets this information and speeds up the whole process. Again, that’s fiction. But even Bayston concedes that a determined life settlements investor could get the identities of the insured people whose long lives are bad for investment returns.

The Financial Risks

Now, let’s look at the non-fiction risks with life settlements. For sellers, they are considerable, and include giving up your policy too cheaply and paying dearly for the transaction, and possibly becoming ineligible to buy another policy. Always check the cash surrender value first. Do not be swayed by brokers putting on a hard sale. They stand to collect commissions of up to 30% of the settlement. If you are determined to quit paying premiums, rather than sell the policy consider letting the cash value fund future premiums until the cash is exhausted. That’s a much better deal for heirs if you pass away in the interim. You can sell the policy when the cash value has been depleted—and get more for it then.

For buyers, settlements are complex and illiquid, and they may not pay out for many years. Given these hidden risks, they generally do not make sense for individual investors. Wall Street, meanwhile, benefits from their huge fees and expected long-run annual returns of 12% or more. Perhaps more important, settlements offer returns with no correlation to the financial market, which can be attractive to sophisticated investors and institutions, such as pension funds.

The life settlements industry has leveled off since the financial crisis, in large part because policies are taking longer to pay, thanks to increasing longevity. That drives down returns. Underscoring this risk to investors: the Society of Actuaries recently published revised mortality rates showing that a 65-year-old can now expect to live two years longer than someone that age just 14 years ago. But investors have been edging back into the market the last couple years, drawn by more realistic return assumptions and an anticipated flood of life policies held by boomers who will need cash to pay for assisted living.

Only in a novel do life settlements investors manage longevity risk with a hit man. But there are good reasons to be careful nonetheless.

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