Why LIC chief is more worried about the agents than policyholders

Vivek Kaul
Seth Godin, one of the leading marketing gurus of the world, talks about the rock n roll band The Rolling Stones in one of his blogs.
Keith Richards (guitarist and vocalist of The Rolling Stones) tells a great story about Charlie Watts, legendary drummer for the Stones. After a night of drinking, Mick (Jagger, the lead vocalist of The Rolling Stones) saw Charlie asleep and yelled, “Is that my drummer? Why don’t you get your arse down here?” Richards continues, “Charlie got dressed in a Savile Row suit, tie, shoes, shaved, came down, grabbed him and went boom! Don’t ever call me “your drummer” again. You’re my … singer. No drums, no Stones,” writes Godin.
As The Rolling Stones wouldn’t have survived without Charlie Watts and his drums, no insurance company can survive without the policyholders who go out there and buy there products. Then they pay premiums which keep these insurance companies going.
But the Life Insurance Corporation(LIC) of India clearly doesn’t seem to believe in this. In an interview to the Daily News and Analysis (DNA), D K Mehrotra, the Chairman of LIC, said that the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (Irda), the insurance regulator, should rethink its plan to reform the traditional products offered by insurance companies.
For the uninitiated insurance companies in India largely sell two kinds of insurance plans. These are the unit linked insurance plans(Ulips) and the other are the endowment plans. The endowment plans sold by insurance companies are typically referred to as traditional plans.
In an endowment policy the policy holder is insured for a certain amount. This amount is referred to as the sum assured. A portion of the premium paid by the policy holder goes towards this insurance cover. Another portion helps meet the administrative expenses of the insurer. And a third portion is invested by the insurance company on behalf of the policy holder. The investment is largely made in debt securities which are deemed to be safe. (For a more detailed discussion on endowment plans click here).
The interesting thing is that The Insurance Act 1938 allows insurance companies allows insurance companies to pay as high as 35% of the first year’s premium as commission to insurance agents. This means for every Rs 100 that is paid as premium in the first year as high as Rs 35 could go to the agent as a commission.
The insurance regulator, Irda, over the last few years has cracked the whip on the commissions that insurance companies can pay to their agents for selling Ulips. Ulips are essentially investment plans masquerading as insurance.
The fall in commission on Ulips has led to insurance companies and agents suddenly discovering ‘good’ attributes in endowment plans given that they continue to pay high commissions. In the days when commissions on Ulips were high LIC and its agents had taken to pushing Ulips in a big way.
As Mehrotra told The Economic Times in September 2011 “Earlier, we had Ulips and traditional products at a 60:40 ratio, which has now reversed.” This ratio has further fallen and the ratio of sales for LIC between traditional plans and Ulips is now 80:20.
Irda in its proposed reforms for traditional products plans to cut down on commissions on offer to insurance agents, as it had done in case of Ulips earlier. And if that happens sales of traditional plans which now get in the bulk of the premium for LIC will be impacted. “.If the existing ones(the products i.e.) have to be withdrawn, we will be at loss,” Mehrotra told DNA. As has been clearly seen in the case of Ulips, lower commissions have impacted sales big time. And that will happen with traditional plans as well once the monstrous commissions are cut.
This is something that Rajeev Kumar, chief and appointed actuary at Bharti Axa Life Insurance told www.moneycontrol.com sometime back. “if you cap charges and you apply the same logic as unit linked then these plans will have same fate as unit linked plans which means commissions will go down, if commissions will go down, distributors will not be interested and distributors are not interested, the market share of these products will go down,” he said.
The Committee for Investor Awareness and Protection had envisaged an era of totally commission free financial products in its reports a few years back. As the report of the committee had pointed out “All retail financial products should go no-load by April 2011. The pension product in the NPS is already no-load. Mutual funds have become no-load with effect from 1 August 2009. Insurance policies need to remove the bias towards selling the policy with the highest commission. Because there are almost three million small agents who will have to adjust to a new way of earning money, it is suggested that immediately the upfront commissions embedded in the premium paid be cut to no more than 15 per cent of the premium. This should fall to 7 per cent in 2010 and become nil by April 2011.”
While the commissions on almost every other financial product have fallen to 0%, the insurance companies continue to offer high commissions to their agents, at the cost of the policyholder who in the process gets lower returns.
But low commissions are not in the interest of the insurance companies neither is it in the interest of the government which needs LIC to buy the shares of public sector companies that it is trying to sell to bring down the burgeoning fiscal deficit. Other investors are not interested in buying shares being sold by the government.
When Mehrotra was asked by DNA in another interview if there was pressure from the government to buy shares “No, at least I have not experienced it. There is no pressure on me to buy any particular share,” he said. Being a government employee we couldn’t have expected him to say anything but this. A recent report in The Economic Timessays that the LIC lost over Rs 5,000 croreby buying public sector shares of ONGC, NMDC and NTPC.
Given this the last thing on the minds of Mehrotra and LIC is the policyholder who has bought the LIC policy. As Godin wrote in his blog “Who’s playing the drums in your shop?” In case of The Rolling Stones it was Charlie Watts. For LIC its clearly not the policyholder. 

The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 13, 2012 

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at
[email protected]