In a prior blog post, S2KM highlighted the historic significance of the ELNY liquidation as the dominant 2011 structured settlement industry development. This blog post offers a strategic perspective of the industry's status in 2011 focusing in part on the industry's three national associations and also providing a broader perspective for ELNY.
Strategic Overview - Primary Market
The National Structured Settlement Trade Association (NSSTA) celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2011. Among its 2011 accomplishments, NSSTA noticeably improved its marketing and educational programs while focusing substantial resources to help minimize problems related to the ELNY liquidation. NSSTA has attempted to balance the need to inform its members (not the public) about ELNY's status with the need to promote the strength of its life insurance markets and the state guaranty fund system.
Speaking at NSSTA's 2011 Annual Meeting, Thomas Ronce, Chairman of NOLHGA, described the current life and health guaranty system in the United States as experienced, well-financed and armed with a multitude of optional legal and financial tools. Applied to ELNY, this state guaranty system will substantially improve the recovery for many ELNY structured settlement recipients. The state guaranty system, however, will not make whole every ELNY structured settlement recipient. Unfortunately, even with guaranty fund payments and additional enhancements, many ELNY structured settlement recipients are expected to experience shortfalls.
NSSTA's 2011 Annual Meeting and Fall Educational Conference also showcased the current strength of the structured settlement market and its product providers.
- Jim Morris, President, Chairman and CEO of Pacific Life Insurance Company, accentuated the current financial strength of U.S. life insurance companies generally and explained why structured settlement annuities represent an excellent strategic product for life companies. Confirming Morris' assessment, three new product providers (Mutual of Omaha, National Indemnity and Hartford) entered (or re-entered) the structured settlement marketplace during 2011.
- William T. Robinson III, President of the American Bar Association (ABA) strongly endorsed structured settlements as "professional and dignified solutions" for injury victims based upon his first-hand experience as a litigation attorney. Robinson also suggested the ABA and NSSTA should identify shared interests and lobbying opportunities.
- American General Life President Mary Jane Fortin described AIG, a structured settlement product provider that received more than $180 billion of loans and investments from the United States government in 2008, as "a strong, stable and resilient company dedicated to keeping our promises". Fortin also dispelled several "myths" about AIG, summarized AIG's recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and expressed optimism about the future of life insurance industry and structured settlements.
Despite these positive assurances, however, primary market structured settlement annuity sales have continued to trend downward for the past three years, arguably because of the 2008 financial crisis and historically low interest rates which many experts predict will continue for the foreseeable future. What has been missing from NSSTA's leadership during 2011 has been a positive vision for NSSTA's own future and the future of structured settlements.
David Ringler, NSSTA's first President, spoke during the NSSTA 2011 Annual Meeting. Ringler stated the most important reason for creating NSSTA was "having a place where everyone and anyone can sit down with each other and discuss the issues and viewpoints regardless of beliefs." Sometime during the past 25 years, NSSTA lost sight of this original vision and now generally excludes industry voices and perspectives that challenge traditional structured settlement business models and practices.
As one result, two additional professional associations have formed with alternative structured settlement perspectives:
- The Society of Settlement Planners (SSP) - SSP espouses the claimant's right to select his or her own structured settlement adviser and funding company. SSP promotes structured settlement annuities as a core product for special needs settlement planning and favors greater utilization of IRC 468B Qualified Settlement Funds (QSFs).
- The National Association of Settlement Purchasers (NASP) - NASP promotes the right of structured settlement recipients, in compliance with federal and state laws, to sell their payment rights provided a state judge approves the sale in advance as being in the "best interest" of the transferor/payee taking into account the welfare and support of the payee's dependents.
To its credit, NSSTA expanded the scope of its educational programs in 2011 to discuss QSFs and to provide its members with more detailed information about structured settlement secondary market. The perspective for these NSSTA discussions, however, remains defensive and protective without any attempt to envision or discuss new business opportunities or product improvements.
By comparison, SSP's vision for the the future of structured settlements is defined and supported by its "Standards of Professional Conduct". SSP views structured settlements as a core product for personal injury settlement planning. SSP's vision agrees with and encompasses the business model Joseph DiGangi introduced to NSSTA in 2009 as "Settlement Consulting" which he characterized as "a wake up call for the industry." SSP's educational conferences continue to push structured settlement industry thinking beyond its historic boundaries and the inevitability of its path dependence.
In addition to SSP, three national legal associations are developing special needs business practices and models that expand the framework and opportunities for structured settlements:
- Academy of Special Needs Planners (ASNP)
- National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA)
- Special Needs Alliance (SNA).
Faced with the ELNY crisis, declining annuity sales and the continuing prospect of low interest rates, some primary market structured settlement stakeholders now recognize that business practices and models that made sense in the past may have survived despite the eclipse of their earlier justification. S2KM believes more primary market stakeholders should expand their strategic perspectives and re-think structured settlements in the context of the changing legal and financial landscape.
For example, here are four 2010 developments with important consequences for structured settlement stakeholders that have heretofore received inadequate primary market educational attention:
- Patient Protection and Affordability Care Act - how does health care reform impact injury victims and what opportunities does it create for structured settlements?
- Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act - how will the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) address structured settlement complaints?
- NAIC Suitability in Annuity Transactions Model Regulation - what does "suitability" mean for structured settlement annuities and how does "suitability" differ from the "best interest" standard applicable to trustees, investment advisers and structured settlement transfers?
- Spencer v. Hartford class action settlement - what are the lessons learned and resulting new best practices for structured settlements?
Strategic Overview - Secondary Market
The ELNY liquidation is also having a negative impact on the secondary structured settlement market. Some industry experts have estimated that as many as 1000 of ELNY structured settlement annuities (out of the 4168 total) have undergone transfers of some or all payment rights. Investors who have purchased ELNY annuity payment rights may not be eligible to receive contributions from state guaranty funds which historically protect "consumers". The NYLB's December 7, 2011 letters warned ELNY payees "if you have transferred any part of your right to receive ELNY SSA benefits to a third party, you may not be eligible to receive benefits from CABC related to the benefits you transferred."
Although the financial crisis of 2008 had a devastating short term impact on the structured settlement secondary market, the market has experienced robust sales in 2011 as institutional investors continue to be attracted to the relatively high rates of returns generated by restructured (post transfer) payment right obligations. More individual investors, including personal injury claimants and their attorneys, have also begun purchasing restructured payment rights although some industry experts caution against potential tax and securities law uncertainties.
The structured settlement secondary market changed dramatically in 2011 with the announced merger of J.G. Wentworth and Peachtree Settlement Funding. The merger combined the two largest purchasers of structured settlement payment rights with an estimated 80-85 percent of the market.
The merger highlights a remarkable turnaround for Wentworth whose shareholders control the majority of the combined companies. In 2009, Wentworth and two affiliated companies entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after the company "encountered liquidity problems amid a tightening credit market". Wentworth laid off 120 of its 200 employees and closed its office in Las Vegas. Its general corporate bonds were "almost worthless" and were trading, if at all, for pennies on the dollar. Less than six months later, Wentworth emerged from bankruptcy with an announcement that JLL Partners (Wentworth's owners) had invested an additional $100 million in the firm.
In a significant case (Symetra v. Rapid Settlements) highlighting controversial business practices which were opposed by NASP as well as structured settlement annuity providers, a Texas court issued injunctions during 2011 prohibiting Rapid Settlement's prior business practices of using arbitration to by-pass state structured settlement protection statutes and taking security interests to gain rights of first refusal for future transfers.
Check the structured settlement wiki for additional S2KM structured settlement reporting:
ADDENDUM (12/12/2011) - S2KM's report above omits at least one important 2011 strategic structured settlement development. NSSTA and its product provider members launched the first-ever industry metrics study during 2011. For more information about metrics, see S2KM's "Structured Settlement Metrics" series featured on the structured settlement wiki.