Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C., a boutique Chicago-based law firm that offers representation nationwide to investors, has been fighting brokerage firms and investment firms for decades over variable annuities and insurance products. Variable annuities, equity-indexed annuities, whole life insurance, variable life insurance, whatever they are called, and the names can get really complicated, these insurance products are designed to do two things. First, they are designed to move money from your pocket to the insurance company. Second, they are designed to pay handsome commissions to the salesmen who solicit clients to invest or purchase these annuity and insurance products.
Recently, FINRA, which is the regulatory body responsible for policing the brokerage/investment markets, fined O.N. Equity Sales Company, out of Cincinnati, Ohio, for failing to supervise and surveil the sale and switching of annuities and insurance policies by their clients. FINRA penalized ON Equity $275,000 and ordered the firm to pay restitution to aggrieved investors in the amount of $1,001,146.86. FINRA’s investigation found that O.N. Equity (ONESCO) failed to establish, maintain, and enforce a supervisory system reasonably designed to supervise the sale of variable annuities. Because of ONESCO’s failures, the firm failed to detect and deter sales practice abuses by Richard Wesselt. In a parallel action, Wesselt consented to a permanent bar from the securities industry as a result of his misconduct. According to the FINRA action, he violated FINRA Rule 2111 (suitability), in connection with the recommendation to 78 investors to purchase variable annuities, that were inconsistent with the customers’ investment profiles, risk tolerance, liquidity needs, and time horizon. Using what he called his “Infinite Banking” strategy, he pursued investors to liquidate their retirement accounts, including 401(k)s or IRAs, and use the proceeds to buy variable annuities, and then liquidate the variable annuities to build cash value in whole life insurance policies. Wesselt was ONESCO’s highest producer in 2016 – big surprise given his proclivity to sell high commission products like variable annuities and life insurance policies.
If a financial advisor ever recommends the liquidation of mutual funds or other securities in an IRA or 401(k) account in order to buy a variable annuity, stop what you are doing and start looking for a new financial advisor. The main attraction to variable annuities has always been that the money grows tax-deferred like an IRA. By investing IRA funds in a variable annuity, that benefit is irrelevant. Instead, what you are doing is agreeing to pay your broker a huge 5%+ up front commission and the insurance company 3%-4% of your money per year in various fees and charges. Variable annuities also charge huge surrender fees for money withdrawn in the first several years, although some offer a 10% withdrawal without penalty. Lastly, the mutual fund options for variable annuity sub-accounts are greatly reduced versus what an investor can invest in through a traditional IRA. Variable annuities are rarely suitable for any investor. Unless you check the following boxes, variable annuities are not for you: 1) you maximize your tax-deferred retirement savings every year, i.e., you are contributing the max amount to your 401Ks and IRAs; 2) You actually need life insurance; and 3) you are young enough that you don’t need the money invested in the annuity for at least ten years. Few people check these boxes, and yet according to reports, there is almost $2 trillion dollars locked away in these products, with more than $35 billion in sales in 2020.