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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Life Insurance : ULIPs vs Traditional Products

Until end of August this year, the bulk of the life insurance products sold by insurance companies was ULIPs (Unit Linked Insurance Plans). Almost 70% of the new business premium earned by the life insurance companies was through ULIPs. The entire life insurance distribution machinery touted ULIPs as the ideal investment cum insurance product. While ULIPs were the flavour of the reason, there was a slightly unfortunate reason for them being pushed so much by the distributors- and that was because ULIPs had very high commissions for the person who was selling it, sometimes as high as 70% of the first year premium. Policy administration charges were high, surrender penalty was exorbitant and mis-selling was rampant. And finally, the cookie crumbled- first SEBI came down heavily saying it had a right to regulate ULIPs because they were essentially mutual funds masquerading as Insurance, and then IRDA cracked the whip laying down stringent criteria for the ULIPs. Commission were reduced,  charges were minimized, and overall transparency was improved. In an ideal world, ULIPs became a great product for the consumer. But we do not live in an ideal world.  While the ULIPs of today are far more aligned to customer interests, we find that there is no zeal and fervour to sell them on the part of the distributors. The very agents who were pushing ULIPs down the throat of unsuspecting customers do not consider ULIPS as the flavour of the season anymore. They have now fallen back upon the traditional products where IRDA has not laid down any guidelines for commission level.
Thus we find that traditional products sales have suddenly taken off. This is primarily because these products now allow the insurance agents and distributors to earn their fat commissions, and not because suddenly traditional products are better for customers than ULIPs. On the contrary, today, a ULIP is a great savings and insurance product.

If we look at the data coming out, we see that 50% of Reliance Life’s product sales are now traditional products, whereas a year ago, only 15% was through traditional products. Birla SunLife now generates 30% of their premium through ULIPS as compared to only 8% through ULIPs a year earlier. In the case of ING Vysya Life insurance, only 10% of their sale is through ULIPs now. All the insurers narrate the same story about how they are trying to reduce their reliance on ULIPs . But the real reason for the decreased importance of ULIPs is because the insurer can not pay enough commissions on ULIPs to keep the distributors happy due to the IRDA guidelines. And thus, they are resorting to selling traditional products. So next time, your friendly neighborhood agent espouses the virtues of a traditional life insurance product, do know that the real reason for the promotion is something completely different!

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