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Luxury Cruises and Super Bowl Rings: Inside the Glam Kickbacks of the Annuities Industry

Bruno Vincent/Getty

"Enjoy a sunset from your private balcony, relax in the superbly appointed spa, or walk barefoot along the coast at dawn,” reads the overwrought copy. But this getaway to the Ritz-Carlton in lovely Aruba isn’t intended for ordinary travelers. This is an ad for a sales conference for the insurance company Athene, intended for its “Leaders of Olympus,” financial advisers who make over $3.5 million in annual sales of its products.

Thinly veiled vacations like this are just some of the perks for financial advisers uncovered in a six-month investigation by Senator Elizabeth Warren. Agents who market complex financial products like annuities get lucrative kickbacks from the insurance companies who issue them, including golf junkets, theater and sports tickets, and jewelry made to look like Super Bowl rings. This practice, detailed as “common in the industry” by the insurers themselves, is largely hidden from customers.

Warren released her findings today, amid a larger fight over the Labor Department’s proposed “fiduciary rule,” which would force investment advisers to operate in their clients’ best interests. Without that rule, advisers could continue to accrue major rewards for selling financial products that their clients may not want or need.

The investigation began back in April, when Warren sent letters to 15 insurance companies, seeking information about whether they gave non-cash gifts to sales agents who promote their products, particularly annuities. With these products, consumers give an insurer an up-front sum to invest. In return, they get a fixed monthly income stream for life. Annuities are notorious for their byzantine rules, confusing variations, and high fees. The industry sold $235 billion in annuities just in 2014, too often to unsuitable customers, like those already near the end of life who will never collect back their principal, let alone anything extra.

The insurance companies Warren contacted, which represent 71 percent of all annuity sales in 2014, were surprisingly candid. Thirteen of the 15 companies admitted to either direct kickbacks to financial advisers, or indirect kickbacks funneled through third-party marketing organizations (the report did not indicate which two insurers didn’t make such payments).

The perks, including all-expense-paid junkets to resorts in the Bahamas, Mexico, South Africa, and the fifth-century Dromoland Castle in western Ireland, motivate investment advisers to pitch insurers’ products, regardless of whether they make sense for their clients. The securities industry’s self-regulatory agency, FINRA, banned non-cash compensation for sales of stocks and bonds. But it did not ban such kickbacks for annuities.

Often the sponsored trips—acknowledged by nine of the 15 insurers—are framed as “annual sales meetings” or “educational” conferences. But the descriptions make it clear that the meetings aren’t intended to teach the intricacies of annuities, but as a bonus for top performers, who are usually identified by hitting a sales target. At Athene’s “Leaders of Olympus” event, for example, the ten highest sellers got two extra days in Aruba, business class airline upgrades, and a catamaran cruise. The top 15 sellers of American Equity products—known as the “Chairman’s Club”—got an extra four-day spa vacation in the Northern California city of Calistoga this year. American Equity’s 2014 trip to Disney World paid for the advisers’ children to tag along, an atypical arrangement for a business trip.

One provider, Reliance, dispensed with the pretense of sales meetings altogether, instead giving away “travel credits” for airfare, hotels, and rental cars in exchange for sales, like a frequent-flyer program for annuities. Great American Insurance similarly offered “Partner Points” that investment advisers can redeem for vacations or even high-end electronics. 

In addition to direct non-cash benefits, insurers also hire third-party “sales marketing” or “field marketing” organizations, which provide administrative support for investment advisers who are unaffiliated with annuity providers. The insurance companies pay the marketing organizations, and the marketers summarily provide kickbacks to the advisers.

One insurance company that responded to Warren—the report does not identify insurer responses by name, though it does include insurer names when verified by other evidence—called the marketing organizations “glorified travel agencies.” Their rewards were often far more lucrative, including a “30-day around the world trip for two”; junkets in Bora Bora, Turks and Caicos, and Tuscany; Tag Heuer and Movado watches; and jewelry made to look like Super Bowl rings, with the name of the annuity company in place of the New England Patriots, last year’s NFL champion.

While these perks are occasionally disclosed to annuities customers, usually it’s wrapped in vague, difficult-to-decipher legalese, and buried deep in company prospectuses. Allianz obliquely mentions the non-cash compensation on page 70; for Lincoln Financial it’s on page 135. Prudential’s disclosure hilariously gives a range for non-cash awards to financial advisers between $25 and $9,079,316.06, which is somewhat less than helpful. 

Though six different regulations, both from FINRA and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, govern non-cash payments to investment advisers, none of them bar the luxury vacations masquerading as “sales meetings,” the third-party marketing organizations, or the distribution of kickbacks for annuity sales. And we know these kinds of awards drive sales: mortgage brokers during the housing bubble received “yield spread premiums” for selling loans with higher interest rates. The resultant seeding of unaffordable loans across the country was a key driver of the financial crisis.

Making advisers fiduciaries, as the Labor Department has proposed, would force them to avoid steering customers toward dodgy financial products just so they can meet their sales goals and earn vacations. And any conflicts of interest would have to be prominently and clearly disclosed.

Under pressure from Wall Street and a shocking number of House Democrats, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez indicated earlier this month that he planned to make changes to the fiduciary rule, though he didn’t specify them. Warren’s report seeks to clarify the debate. “Kickbacks may benefit the agent and the company, but they do so at the expense of their customers,” the report concludes. “And loopholes in the law make these kickbacks perfectly legal.”