Why I don’t design custom universal life insurance plans anymore

Back when I lived in New York state, there were only a handful of life insurance carriers available. Most of those insurance companies sold indexed universal life insurance. 

Nearly all of them implicitly promised 8% returns. In fact, I can remember a conversation I had with one of the companies I worked with where all the marketing folks really pushed the 8% return thing very hard. 

To get an 8% return on an indexed UL product, the insurance company has to set aside enough money to pay for the index call options. This is called an “options budget”. The options budget is what determines what cap rates and participation rates an insurance company can afford. 

This, in turn, determines the realistic return potential over the long-term. 

A budget of, say 4.36% means the insurance company can afford a cap rate of 9.20%. So, getting an 8% return is possible within the bounds of what is most likely to happen if the budget is sustainable. 

Today’s options budgets for index life insurance are 3.57%. Since every life insurer shops the same handful of investment banks for their index options, everyone is essentially paying the same rate for options contracts. 

At this budget, the insurer can afford a 6.8% cap rate. 

This is the maximum rate the insurer will pay, based on the upward movement of the underlying stock index. 

Of course, fees, commissions, and so on will be deducted from any earnings. 

The reality is… the long-term return of indexed UL is most probably not going to waver too far away from the options budget. 

Meaning, a 3% options budget should result in a long-term return around 3%. If lucky, maybe 4%. 


It has come to my attention (from people waaaaaaaaaaaay smarter than me who help design and price these things for insurers) that with some of these Indexed Universal Life products, the contract charges equal 120% of the annual premium. 

And… those charges assume the product is “max funded” (in insurance-speak, we call is “solve for cash value”). Basically, the policy is designed to produce high cash surrender value… except that in this case, the fees and charges might prevent that even under optimal scenarios.

Let’s think about that for a microsecond. 

If the policy charges and fees are more than the annual premium, how are policyholders making money on their cash value? 

The spreadsheet on the illustration will show you whatever the agent wants to show you. 

Which is fine. I’m not against agents doing that, and I’m sure there are plenty of honest agents out there. 

But, there are also plenty of dishonest insurance agents out there. I've written about them in another post and how they cleverly avoid detection in the marketplace. Many of these agents tout the returns of IUL over the past decade as proof that indexed universal life insurance is a good investment. 

A few tricks they employ:

  1. They publish gross crediting rates on cash values, and hide the net rate credit to the policy. This tactic is so widespread that you can automatically assume the publish rates are inflated gross rates unless the agent goes out of his way to make it explicit and clear that the published rate is net of all fees and insurance charges. Net rates are always lower than gross rates, since they are net of fees (which tend to be quite high in indexed ULs—a 6-7% gross crediting rate may translate into a 4-5% net crediting rate.
  2. They emphasize the strong crediting rates achieved during the longest-running bull market in U.S. history, which produced outsized returns for all equity products. The past decade is not normal.
  3. They ignore or minimize the fees and charges inside the UL policy, which may or may not be substantial.
  4. They play up the fact that gross crediting rates have exceeded the original projected rate of return early on in the policy, and downplay or ignore the trend of rising expenses and falling cap and participation rates, which is now putting significant downward pressure on crediting rates.
  5. They never discuss the fact that indexed UL performance is entirely driven by the insurance company’s options budget, the cost of index options that power the contract, and a projected 30-50% profit on those options contracts into perpetuity, and that options budgets are tight while options costs are rising across the industry for all insurers. This trend is unlikely to reverse for the foreseeable future. In fact, as demand increases for indexed UL, structured notes, and defined outcome mutual funds and ETFs, index option prices will continue to climb.

If I were a consumer, I would avoid agents touting gross crediting rates and emphasizing the returns of the past decade. It is a sign of intellectual dishonesty.

Me personally?

I stick with dividend paying whole life insurance, even though I am assured these products won’t blow up like every other universal life policy. 

With that said, it’s entirely possible that it is a good idea for you. And… if you know for a fact this is the type of policy you need, then you should buy it. 

It all comes down to why you’re buying the life insurance in the first place. 

If you are planning for the worst-case scenarios, whole life insurance makes the most sense. It has a structural advantage over all other types of life insurance for this purpose. It is designed specifically to withstand the harshest economic environments. And, if issued and managed by a “true blue” mutual company, should last for your entire life. 

If, on the other hand, you do not value the guarantees of whole life insurance, think the rate of return is “too low” compared to the secksy spreadsheets of indexed ULs, or the idea of waiting 5-7 years for the policy to break even seems boring to you, then don’t buy whole life insurance. 

Whole life is strictly for those who want or need a super strong safety net with the potential for competitive long-term returns on cash value and death benefit over the very long-term.

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David Lewis

This post brought to you by David Lewis, The Rogue Agent. David has been a life insurance agent, and worked with some of the oldest and most respected mutual life insurance companies in the U.S., since 2004. To learn more about him and his business, go here.