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Financial Institution Letters
Office of the Comptroller of the Currency
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
Office of Thrift Supervision

Interagency Statement on the Purchase and Risk Management of Life Insurance

Risk Management of BOLI

Risk assessment and risk management are vital components of an effective BOLI program. In addition to conducting a risk assessment as part of a thorough pre-purchase analysis, monitoring BOLI risks on an ongoing basis is important, especially for an institution whose aggregate BOLI holdings represent a capital concentration. Management of an institution should review the performance of the institution's insurance assets with its board of directors at least annually. More frequent reviews are appropriate if there are significant anticipated changes to the BOLI program such as additional purchases, a decline in the financial condition of the insurance carrier(s), anticipated policy surrenders, or changes in tax laws or interpretations that could have an impact on the performance of BOLI. This risk management review should include, but not necessarily be limited to:

  • Comprehensive assessment of the specific risks discussed in this section.8
  • Identification of which employees are, or will be, insured (e.g., vice presidents and above, employees of a certain grade level). For example, an institution that acquires another institution that owns BOLI may acquire insurance on individuals that it would not insure under its own standards. While the acquiring institution need not correct such exceptions, it is important to know that such exceptions exist.
  • Assessment of death benefit amounts relative to employee salaries. Such information helps management to assess the reputation and insurable interest risks associated with disproportionately large death benefits.
  • Calculation of the percentage of insured persons still employed by the institution. Larger institutions often find that their policies insure more former employees than current employees. This information can help the institution assess reputation risk.
  • Evaluation of the material changes to BOLI risk management policies.
  • Assessment of the effects of policy exchanges. Exchanges typically are costly and it is a sound practice to review the costs and benefits of such actions.
  • Analysis of mortality performance and impact on income. Material gains from death benefits can create reputation risks.
  • Evaluation of material findings from internal and external audits and independent risk management reviews.
  • Identification of the reason for, and tax implications of, any policy surrenders. In some cases, institutions have surrendered BOLI policies and incurred tax liabilities and penalties. Formal assessment of the costs and benefits of a surrender is a useful component of sound corporate governance.
  • Peer analysis of BOLI holdings. To address reputation risk, an institution should compare its BOLI holdings relative to capital to the holdings of its peers to assess whether it is an outlier.

Liquidity Risk

Liquidity risk is the risk to earnings and capital arising from an institution's inability to meet its obligations when they come due without incurring unacceptable losses. Before purchasing permanent insurance, management should recognize the illiquid nature of the product and ensure that the institution has the long-term financial flexibility to hold the asset in accordance with its expected use. The inability to hold the life insurance until the death(s) of the insured(s) when the death benefits will be collected may compromise the success of the BOLI plan. An institution generally does not receive any cash flow from the insurance until the death benefit is paid. Depending upon the age of the insured population, it is possible that an institution that insures a small number of employees may not recognize any cash flow from the insurance for many years. The illiquid nature of insurance assets, combined with the difficulty of projecting liquidity needs far into the future, is a major reason an institution should keep its BOLI holdings below the agencies' concentration guidelines. Examiners will consider an institution's BOLI holdings when assessing liquidity and assigning the liquidity component rating.

The purchase of BOLI may negatively affect an institution's liquidity position, both because BOLI is one of the least liquid assets on an institution's balance sheet, and because institutions normally fund BOLI purchases through the sale of liquid assets (e.g., marketable securities). To access the CSV of BOLI, the institution must either surrender or borrow against the policy. In accordance with the policy contract and federal tax laws, the surrender of a policy may subject an institution to surrender charges, tax liabilities for previously untaxed increases in the CSV, and tax penalties. Borrowing against the CSV is disadvantageous in most cases due to limitations on the ability to deduct interest on the borrowing and other possible adverse tax consequences.

A BOLI product qualifying as a modified endowment contract (MEC) for tax purposes has particular liquidity disadvantages. If an institution surrenders a MEC, it will incur a tax liability on the increase in the policy's CSV from earnings on the policy since its inception and may incur an additional tax penalty for early surrender.

In order to avoid such additional tax penalties, an institution may opt to purchase a non-MEC contract. A non-MEC contract permits the policy owner to surrender the policy without incurring the additional tax penalty that, under certain circumstances, applies to MECs. Moreover, depending on the terms of the insurance contract, an institution generally may withdraw up to the basis (that is, the original amount invested) without creating a taxable event. However, a non-MEC policy increases in complexity if it is in the form of a separate account covered by a stable value protection (SVP) contract. An SVP contract protects the policy owner from declines in the value of the assets in the separate account arising from changes in interest rates, thereby mitigating price risk and earnings volatility. An SVP contract is most often used in connection with fixed-income investments. Institutions should recognize that SVP providers often place restrictions on the amount that may be withdrawn from the separate account, thereby reducing the liquidity of the BOLI asset. An institution considering the purchase of a non-MEC for its potential liquidity advantages compared to a MEC also should be aware of contractual provisions, such as 1035 Exchange fees and "crawl-out" restrictions,9 which may limit such advantages.

Transaction/Operational Risk

As it applies to BOLI, transaction/operational risk is the risk to earnings and capital arising from problems caused by the institution's failure to fully understand or to properly implement a transaction. Transaction/operational risk arises due to the variety and complexity of life insurance products, as well as tax and accounting treatments. To help mitigate this risk, management should have a thorough understanding of how the insurance product works and the variables that dictate the product's performance. The variables most likely to affect product performance are the policy's interest-crediting rate, mortality cost, and other expense charges.

Transaction/operational risk is also a function of the type and design features of a life insurance contract. With a general account product, there are only two parties to the contract: the policy owner and the insurance carrier. With a separate account product, the insurance carrier has a separate contract with an investment manager. There could also be an SVP provider with whom the carrier has a separate contract.

Transaction/operational risk may also arise as a result of the variety of negotiable features associated with a separate account product. These include the investment options; the terms, conditions, and cost of SVP; and mortality options. Deferred acquisition costs (DAC) represent the insurance carrier's up-front costs associated with issuing an insurance policy, including taxes and commissions and fees paid to agents for selling the policy. The carrier charges the policyholder for these costs and capitalizes the DAC, including the prepayment of taxes in accordance with federal tax law. As the carrier recovers the DAC in accordance with applicable tax law, it credits the amount to the separate account policyholder. Once it has been credited to the institution, the DAC is essentially a receivable from the carrier and, therefore, represents a general account credit exposure.

Separate account policies have additional transaction risks that can result from accounting requirements. Several institutions have had to restate their earnings because of contractual provisions in their policies that were ambiguous with respect to the amount of the CSV available upon surrender of the policy. Because BOLI must be carried at the amount that could be realized under the insurance contract as of the balance sheet date, if any contractual provision related to costs, charges, or reserves creates uncertainty regarding the realization of a policy's full CSV, the agencies will require an institution to record the BOLI net of those amounts. As part of an effective pre-purchase analysis, an institution should thoroughly review and understand how the accounting rules will apply to the BOLI policy it is considering purchasing.

Tax and Insurable Interest Implications

Before the purchase of BOLI and periodically thereafter, management should also explicitly consider the financial impact (e.g., tax provisions and penalties) of surrendering a policy. Recent adverse press coverage of COLI should serve as a reminder to institutions that the current tax law framework, as it applies to BOLI, is always subject to legislative changes. A tax change that makes future BOLI cash flows subject to income tax, while perhaps deemed unlikely by many institutions, would have a negative impact on the economics of the BOLI holdings. An institution should recognize that earnings from BOLI could make it subject to the alternative minimum tax.

Institutions should also recognize that their actions, subsequent to purchase, could jeopardize the tax-advantaged status of their insurance holdings. The risk that a life insurance policy could be characterized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as an actively managed investment is particularly relevant to separate account policies. Many larger institutions prefer separate account products because of perceived lower credit risk and greater transparency (that is, explicit disclosure of costs). Assets held by the insurance company on behalf of the policy owners in the separate account are intended to be beyond the reach of the insurance company's general creditors in the event of insolvency; however, the protected status of separate account assets is generally untested in the courts. While the separate account structure helps to mitigate an institution's credit exposure to the insurance carrier, the institution can have no "control" over investment decisions (e.g., timing of investments or credit selection) in the underlying account. Generally, allocating separate account holdings across various divisions of an insurance company's portfolio does not raise concerns about "control," but other actions that a policy owner takes may be construed as investment control and could jeopardize the tax-advantaged status.

To benefit from the favorable tax treatment of insurance, a BOLI policy must be a valid insurance contract under applicable state law and must qualify under applicable federal law. Institutions must have an insurable interest in the covered employee, as set forth in applicable state laws. Furthermore, the favorable tax-equivalent yields of BOLI result only when an institution generates taxable income. Institutions that have no federal income tax liability receive only the nominal interest-crediting rate as a yield. In such an environment, BOLI loses much of its yield advantage relative to other investment alternatives.

Some institutions seem to have drawn comfort from assurances from insurance carriers that the carrier would waive lack of insurable interest as a defense against paying a claim. While the carrier may indeed make a payment, such payment may not necessarily go to the institution. Such assurances may not be sufficient to satisfy the IRS requirements for a valid insurance contract, nor do they eliminate potential claims from the estate of the insured that might seek to claim insurance proceeds on the basis that the institution lacked an insurable interest.

For example, some institutions have established out-of-state trusts to hold their BOLI assets. While such trusts may have legitimate uses, such as to gain access to an insurance carrier's product, in some cases the purpose is to avoid unfavorable insurable interest laws in the institution's home state and to domicile the policy in a state with more lenient requirements. In some cases, institutions have not made employees aware that they have taken out insurance on their lives.

A recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling demonstrates the potential danger of this approach. A Texas employer used a Georgia trust to hold life insurance policies on its employees in Texas, and the trust agreement provided that the insurable interest law of Georgia should apply. In a lawsuit brought by the estate of a deceased employee, the court ignored this provision because the insured employee was not a party to the trust agreement. It then found that the insurable interest law of Texas applied and under that state's law, the employer did not have an insurable interest in the employee. The result was that the employer was not entitled to the insurance death benefits.10 The outcome in this case suggests that institutions that have used, or are considering using, an out-of-state trust to take advantage of more favorable insurable interest laws in another state should assess whether they could be vulnerable to a similar legal challenge.

Institutions should have appropriate legal review to help ensure compliance with applicable tax laws and state insurable interest requirements. Institutions that insure employees for excessive amounts may be engaging in impermissible speculation or unsafe and unsound banking practices. The agencies may require institutions to surrender such policies.

Reputation Risk

Reputation risk is the risk to earnings and capital arising from negative publicity regarding an institution’s business practices. While this risk arises from virtually all bank products and services, reputation risk is particularly prevalent in BOLI because of the potential perception issues associated with an institution’s owning or benefiting from life insurance on employees.

A well-managed institution will take steps to reduce the reputation risk that may arise as a result of its BOLI purchases, including maintaining appropriate documentation evidencing informed consent by the employee, prior to purchasing insurance. Some institutions assert that they make employees aware via employee handbooks, manuals, or newsletters of the possibility that the institution may acquire life insurance on them. Although such disclosure may satisfy state insurance requirements, any approach that does not require formal employee consent may significantly increase an institution’s reputation risk.

Some institutions have begun to purchase separate account, non-MEC product designs in order to address the liquidity concerns with MEC policies. One consequence of this product design choice, however, is that it has become increasingly common for institutions to insure a very large segment of their employee base, including non-officers. Because non-MEC designs have a higher ratio of death benefit to premium dollar invested, some institutions have, therefore, taken out very high death benefit policies on employees, including lower-level employees, further adding to reputation risk and highlighting the importance of obtaining explicit consent.

Credit Risk

Credit risk is the potential impact on earnings and capital arising from an obligor's failure to meet the terms of any contract with the institution or otherwise perform as agreed. All life insurance policyholders are exposed to credit risk. The credit quality of the insurance company and duration of the contract are key variables. With insurance, credit risk arises from the insurance carrier's contractual obligation to pay death benefits upon the death of the insured, and if applicable, from the carrier's obligation to pay the CSV (less any applicable surrender charges) upon the surrender of the policy.

Most BOLI products have very long-term (30- to 40-year) expected time frames for full collection of cash proceeds, i.e., the death benefit. For general account policies, the CSV is an unsecured, long-term, and nonamortizing obligation of the insurance carrier. Institutions record and carry this claim against the insurance company as an asset.

Before purchasing BOLI, an institution should conduct an independent financial analysis of the insurance company and continue to monitor its condition on an ongoing basis. The institution's credit risk management function should participate in the review and approval of insurance carriers. As with lending, the depth and frequency of credit analysis (both initially and on an ongoing basis) should be a function of the relative size and complexity of the transaction and the size of outstanding exposures. Among other things, an institution should consider its legal lending limit, concentration guidelines (generally defined as the aggregate of direct, indirect, and contingent obligations and exposures that exceed 25 percent of the institution's capital), and any applicable state restrictions on BOLI holdings when assessing its broader credit risk exposure to insurance carriers. To measure credit exposures comprehensively, an institution should aggregate its exposures to individual insurance carriers, and the insurance industry as a whole, attributable to both BOLI policies and other credit relationships (e.g., loans and derivatives exposures).

There are product design features of a BOLI policy that can reduce credit risk. As noted earlier, an institution can purchase separate account products, where the institution assumes the credit risk of the assets held in the separate account, rather than the direct credit risk of the carrier as would be the case in a general account policy. With separate account policies, the insurance carrier owns the assets, but maintains the assets beyond the reach of general creditors in the event of the insurer's insolvency. However, even with a separate account policy, the policy owner incurs some general account credit risk exposure to the insurance carrier associated with the carrier's mortality and DAC reserves. Amounts equal to the mortality and DAC reserves are owed to the policyholder and represent general account obligations of the insurance carrier. In addition, the difference, if any, between the CSV and the minimum guaranteed death benefit would be paid out of the insurance carrier's general account.

A separate account policy may have an SVP contract issued by the insurance carrier or by a third party that is intended to protect the policyholder from most declines in fair value of separate account assets. In general, the provider of an SVP contract agrees to pay any shortfall between the fair value of the separate account assets when the policy owner surrenders the policy and the cost basis of the separate account to the policy owner. Under most arrangements, the insurance carrier is not responsible for making a payment under the SVP contract if a third-party protection provider fails to make a required payment to it. The SVP contract thus represents an additional source of credit risk for a separate account product. The policyholder's exposure under an SVP contract is to both the protection provider, which must make any required payment to the insurance carrier, and the carrier, which must remit the payment received from the protection provider to the institution. Because of this exposure, an institution should also evaluate the repayment capacity of the SVP provider.

State insurance regulation governing reserve requirements for insurance carriers, state guaranty funds, and reinsurance arrangements help to reduce direct credit risks from general account exposures. Further, an institution can use a 1035 Exchange to exit a deteriorating credit exposure, although most policies impose fees for the exchange. While credit risk for existing general and separate account policies may be low currently, the extremely long-term nature of a BOLI policy underscores the fact that credit risk remains an important risk associated with life insurance products. Strong current credit ratings offer no guarantee of strong credit ratings 20, 30, or 40 years into the future.

Interest Rate Risk

Interest rate risk is the risk to earnings and capital arising from movements in interest rates. Due to the interest rate risk inherent in general account products, it is particularly important that management fully understand how these products expose the policyholder to interest rate risk before purchasing the policy. The interest rate risk associated with these products is primarily a function of the maturities of the assets in the carrier’s investment portfolio, which often range from 4 to 8 years. When purchasing a general account policy, an institution chooses one of a number of interest-crediting options (that is, the method by which the carrier will increase the policy’s CSV). Using the “portfolio” crediting rate, the institution will earn a return based upon the existing yield of the carrier’s portfolio each year. Using the “new money” crediting rate, the institution earns a return based upon yields available in the market at the time it purchases the policy.

Separate account products may also expose the institution to interest rate risk, depending on the types of assets held in the separate account. For example, if the separate account assets consist solely of U.S. Treasury securities, the institution is exposed to interest rate risk in the same way as holding U.S. Treasury securities directly in its investment portfolio. However, because the institution cannot control the separate account assets, it is more difficult for the institution to control this risk. Accordingly, before purchasing a separate account product, an institution’s management should thoroughly review and understand the instruments governing the investment policy and management of the separate account. Management should understand the risk inherent within the separate account and ensure that the risk is appropriate for the institution. The institution also should establish monitoring and reporting systems that will enable management to monitor and respond to interest rate fluctuations and their effect on separate account assets.

Compliance/Legal Risk

Compliance/legal risk is the risk to earnings and capital arising from violations of, or nonconformance with, laws, rulings, regulations, prescribed practices, or ethical standards. Failure to comply with applicable laws, rulings, regulations, and prescribed practices could compromise the success of a BOLI program and result in fines or penalties imposed by regulatory authorities or loss of tax benefits. Among the legal and regulatory considerations that an institution should evaluate are compliance with state insurable interest laws; the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA); Federal Reserve Regulations O and W (12 CFR 215 and 223, respectively); the Interagency Guidelines Establishing Standards for Safety and Soundness; the requirements set forth under the Legal Authority section of this document; and federal tax regulations applicable to BOLI.

Tax benefits are critical to the success of most BOLI plans. Accordingly, an institution owning separate account BOLI must implement internal policies and procedures to ensure that it does not take any action that might be interpreted as exercising "control" over separate account assets. This is especially important for privately placed policies in which the institution is the only policyholder associated with the separate account assets.

When purchasing BOLI, institutions should be aware that the splitting of commissions between a vendor and the institution's own subsidiary or affiliate insurance agency presents compliance risk. The laws of most states prohibit the payment of inducements or rebates to a person as an incentive for that person to purchase insurance. These laws may also apply to the person receiving the payment. When an insurance vendor splits its commission with an institution's insurance agency that was not otherwise involved in the transaction, such a payment may constitute a prohibited inducement or rebate. Accordingly, an institution should assure itself that this practice is permissible under applicable state law and in compliance with Federal Reserve Regulation W before participating in any such arrangement. Moreover, payments to an affiliate that did not perform services for the institution could also raise other regulatory and supervisory issues.

Due to the significance of the compliance risk, institutions should seek the advice of counsel on these legal and regulatory issues.

Price Risk

Price risk is the risk to earnings and capital arising from changes in the value of portfolios of financial instruments. Accounting rules permit owners of insurance contracts to account for general account products using an approach that is essentially based on cost plus accrued earnings. However, for separate account products without SVP, the accounting would largely be based on the fair value of the assets held in the account because this value is the amount that could be realized from the separate account if the policy is surrendered. (See Accounting Considerations above.) Typically, the policyholder of separate account products assumes all price risk associated with the investments within the separate account. Usually, the insurance carrier will provide neither a minimum CSV nor a guaranteed interest-crediting rate for separate account products. Absent an SVP contract, the amount of price risk generally depends upon the type of assets held in the separate account.

Because the institution does not control the separate account assets, it is more difficult for it to control the price risk of these assets than if they were directly owned. To address income statement volatility, an institution may purchase an SVP contract for its separate account policy. The SVP contract is designed to ensure that the amount that an institution could realize from its separate account policy, in most circumstances, remains at or above the cost basis of the separate account to the policyholder. Institutions should understand, however, that SVP contracts protect against declines in value attributable to changes in interest rates; they do not cover default risk. Moreover, one purpose of the SVP contract is to reduce volatility in an institution's reported earnings. To realize any economic benefit of the SVP contract, an institution would have to surrender the policy. Since policy surrender is nearly always an uneconomic decision, the SVP contract provides, in a practical sense, accounting benefits only.

Before purchasing a separate account life insurance product, management should thoroughly review and understand the instruments governing the investment policy and management of the separate account. Management should understand the risk inherent in the separate account and ensure that the risk is appropriate. If the institution does not purchase SVP, management should establish monitoring and reporting systems that will enable it to recognize and respond to price fluctuations in the fair value of separate account assets.

Under limited circumstances it is legally permissible for an institution to purchase an equity-linked variable life insurance policy if the policy is an effective economic hedge against the institution's equity-linked obligations under employee benefit plans.11 An effective economic hedge exists when changes in the economic value of the liability or other risk exposure being hedged are matched by counterbalancing changes in the value of the hedging instrument. Such a relationship would exist where the obligation under an institution's deferred compensation plan is based upon the value of a stock market index and the separate account contains a stock mutual fund that mirrors the performance of that index. Institutions need to be aware that this economic hedge may not qualify as a hedge for accounting purposes. Thus, the use of equity-linked variable life insurance policies to economically hedge equity-linked obligations may not have a neutral effect on an institution's reported earnings.

Unlike separate account holdings of debt securities, SVP contracts on separate account equity holdings are not common. The economic hedging criteria for equity-linked insurance products lessens the effect of price risk because changes in the amount of the institution's equity-linked liability are required to offset changes in the value of the separate account assets. If the insurance cannot be characterized as an effective economic hedge, the presence of equity securities in a separate account is impermissible, and the agencies will require institutions to reallocate the assets unless retention of the policy is permitted under federal law.12

In addition to the general considerations discussed previously, which are applicable to any separate account product, an institution should perform further analysis when purchasing a separate account product involving equity securities. At a minimum, the institution should:

  1. Compare the equity-linked liability being hedged (e.g., deferred compensation) and the equity securities in the separate account. Such an analysis considers the correlation between the liability and the equity securities, expected returns for the securities (including standard deviation of returns), and current and projected asset and liability balances.
  2. Determine a target range for the hedge effectiveness ratio (e.g., 95 to 105 percent) and establish a method for measuring hedge effectiveness on an ongoing basis. The institution should establish a process for altering the program if hedge effectiveness drops below acceptable levels. Consideration should be given to the potential costs of program changes.
  3. Establish a process for analyzing and reporting to management and the board the effect of the hedge on the institution's earnings and capital ratios. The analysis usually considers results both with and without the hedging transaction.

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8 All of the risks discussed in this section are applicable to permanent insurance. In contrast, because temporary insurance does not have a savings component or a CSV, it does not expose an institution to liquidity, interest rate, or price risk. These risks need not be evaluated in the comprehensive assessment of the risks of temporary insurance.

9 A crawl-out restriction limits the amount of CSV eligible for a 1035 Exchange or surrender over a period of time.

10 Mayo v. Hartford Life Insurance Company, 354 F.3d 400 (5th Cir. 2004).

11 Insured state banks and state savings associations may make such purchases only if permitted to do so under applicable state law.

12 Insured state banks and state savings associations may request the FDIC’s consent to retain the policies, but consent will not be granted if it is determined that retaining the policies presents a significant risk to the appropriate insurance fund.



Last Updated 12/06/2004 communications@fdic.gov