BOLI Carriers Prepare for COVID-19 Impact

Purchases of bank-owned life insurance were strong in 2019 as bankers capitalized on its attractive yields relative to other investments available to banks.

What 2020 holds remains to be seen, given trends in the market and broader economy. Total BOLI purchases likely could be lower this year, as carriers are generally not willing to accept large premiums from a single policyholder. However, BOLI activity in the $10 million and under purchase size may be similar to 2019 levels. At the close of the first quarter, it is too early to know the full impact of COVID-19, but we have a few observations based on discussions with several major BOLI carriers:

  1. The carriers have not priced in any risk premium for potentially higher mortality rates and do not expect to do so. In addition, the carriers do not expect to tighten the requirements to obtain guaranteed issue underwriting. In a guaranteed issue BOLI case, the insureds answer several questions, but no physicals are required. Guaranteed issue underwriting can be obtained with as few as 10 insureds.
  2. It is virtually impossible for carriers to find fixed income investments that produce yields that approximate the yield on the existing portfolio, given that short-term interest rates have dropped to near zero and the 10-year Treasury declined from 2.49% on April 1, 2019 to 62 basis points a year later.
  3. While carriers continue to accept new BOLI premium, some are reluctant to take a large premium from any one customer to avoid diluting the portfolio for existing policyholders. Movements in the yield of the portfolio tend to lag the market because carriers’ portfolios are very large (often $50 billion to $200 billion) and generally have a duration of five to 10 years. For this reason, current crediting rates for several carriers remain above 3%.
  4. Several carriers indicated that they started reducing credit exposure and increasing asset diversification several years ago. While they did not anticipate a pandemic, the market had been good for so long and they thought it would be wise to start reducing the risk in the portfolio ahead of a potential downturn. In addition, credit spreads had also narrowed, so there was less reward for additional risk.
  5. Carriers primarily invest in fixed-income investments; a decline in the stock market has minimal impact on most carrier investment portfolios.

BOLI Growth In 2019
BOLI purchases totaled $4.3 billion in 2019, an increase of 147% over the 2018 total, according to IBIS Associates, an independent market research firm. The total represents the third-highest amount of BOLI purchases in the past dozen years.

It’s even more impressive when considering that most banks continued to have strong loan demand and less liquidity than in most previous years. At year-end 2019, BOLI cash surrender value (CSV) held on the balance sheets of U.S. banks totaled $178 billion, according to the December 2019 NFP-Michael White report.

Robust BOLI activity has been driven by attractive tax-equivalent yields, strong credit quality and leverage ($1 invested in BOLI typically returns $3 to $4 of tax-free death benefits). Banks can use BOLI as a way to retain key employees by providing life insurance benefits or informally funding nonqualified benefit plans; BOLI earnings can also be used to offset and recover health care and 401(k) or other retirement plan expenses.

According to the IBIS report, 77% of 2019 BOLI purchases were for general account, 22% for variable separate account and just 1% was for hybrid separate account. In general account policies, the general assets of the insurance company issuing the policies support the CSV. In variable separate and hybrid separate products, the CSVs are legally segregated from the general assets of the carrier, which provides enhanced credit protection in the event of carrier insolvency. The credit risk and price risk of the underlying assets remain with the policyholder in a variable policy, whereas the carrier retains those risks in a general account or hybrid policy.

Purchases of variable separate accounts dominated the market in 2006-07; since that time, general account BOLI has typically led the way. This is due to the simplicity of general account products relative to variable separate products as well as the increased product options, generally higher yields, and the high comfort level bankers have with the creditworthiness of mainstream BOLI carriers.

According to the IBIS data, 2019 general account BOLI purchases were at their highest level in the last 16 years. According to the NFP-Michael White report, 3,346 banks — representing 64.6% of all US banks — now hold BOLI assets. This is an increase from the 64.1% of banks that held BOLI at the end of 2018. Seventy-one percent of banks with over $100 million in assets hold BOLI; 77.3% of banks with over $300 million in assets do.

One Way to Compensate and Keep Your Bank’s Top Talent

compensation-6-11-19.pngBank-owned life insurance (BOLI) continues to be an attractive investment alternative for banks, given the number of banks that hold policies and high retention rates across the industries. An increasing percentage of banks hold BOLI, many of them using the policies as an important part of their compensation and retention strategies for key personnel.

A significant industry trend driving interest in BOLI is their use by banks in compensation strategies to attract and retain the best talent. Bank management and boards of directors are reevaluating their existing compensation plans and strategically implementing new ones in order to retain key executives given increasing competition for scarce talent.

BOLI assets reached $171.16 billion at the end of 2018, growing 2 percent year-over-year, according to the Equias Alliance/Michael White Bank-Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) Holdings Report. Sixty-four percent of banks reported holding BOLI assets; about 71 percent of banks with more than $100 million in assets owned BOLI. Most BOLI purchased is by banks that hold existing policies; of those banks, more than half have purchased BOLI as an add-on for a current group of executives. In 2018, about 86 percent of new premiums were invested in general account products, compared to hybrid and separate account products, according to IBIS Associates.

Although the pace of BOLI purchases slowed last year compared to 2017, purchases exceeded $1.7 billion and were steady throughout 2018. The reasons for slower BOLI purchases were due to continued strong loan demand that reduced bank liquidity and the reduction in the tax-equivalent yield on BOLI following the federal corporate tax cut.

Credited interest rates and net yields, the crediting rate minus the cost of insurance charges, on new BOLI purchases are expected be similar to 2018 figures. The interest rates that carriers can obtain on investment-grade securities held for between five and 10 years has remained relatively flat, given the modest increases in this portion of the yield curve. Corporate bonds usually comprise the largest holding in the portfolio, but it can also include commercial mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, private placements, government and municipal bonds, a small percentage of non-investment grade bonds and other holdings.

BOLI plans fund many of the most common retention plans, which can include supplemental executive retirement plans, deferred compensation plans, split-dollar plans and survivor income plans. Additionally, some banks are using deferred compensation plans to create flexibility in designing plans to retain young “up and coming” officers. Unlike a supplemental executive plan, which provides a specific benefit at a specific date or age, a deferred compensation plan allows the bank to make contributions to the executive’s account using a fixed dollar amount, fixed percentage of salary or bonus or a variable amount based on performance. A deferred compensation plan also permits voluntary deferrals of compensation, which could be valuable to executives who would prefer to defer more compensation but are limited in the 401(k) plans.

BOLI financing helps offset and recover some or all of the expenses for the employer. For example, a bank provides an officer with supplemental retirement benefits of $50,000 per year for 15 years, for a total cost of $750,000. The bank could purchase a BOLI policy on the officer with a net death benefit of $1 million to $2 million that would allow it to recover the cost of the paid benefits, as well as a return on its premium.

We expect that community banks will continue to implement these types of nonqualified benefit plans in 2019, using BOLI to help attract and retain key personnel.

Enticing Compensation Strategies In An Active M&A Market


compensation-1-8-18.pngA recent Deloitte study indicates community bank merger and acquisition activity has been on the rise in 2018, though not necessarily at levels predicted by most experts.

A key benefit of a merger or acquisition is the resulting increase in talent for the surviving bank. Conversely, one of the greatest risks to consolidation is the loss of key employees; particularly talented loan officers. To mitigate this risk, many community banks ensure that director and employee benefit offerings are at or above the market.

The plans offered by the acquiring bank should not be perceived as non-competitive by the acquired talent they wish to retain.

Executive and director benefit plans are also part of the cost of consolidation. The latest report by community bank advisory group Vining Sparks highlighted several “hidden” costs of a merger or acquisition, including executive salary continuation plans (SCPs), director retirement agreements, stock options and employment contracts.

Acquiring banks need to understand the change-in-control stipulations outlined in such benefit plan agreements. These may include stay bonuses designed to retain critical staff through the closing of the consolidation, severance pay arrangements and accelerated accrual and payout requirements for certain nonqualified plans.

While retaining local talent after an acquisition is crucial to the acquiring bank, it should also be a consideration for banks who do not want to be acquired. The 2016 Bank Director M&A Survey found that 85 percent of banks sold because of shareholder liquidity, CEO/management succession, or board succession issues. One year later, Bank Director asked banks why they think they might sell in the future, 67 percent noted the same succession issues. Although many banks recognize succession issues as a driver, nearly 20 percent more of the banks who actually sold noted this as the main motivator.

Though it may be a challenge to find young local talent to establish an effective succession plan, banks can attract and retain the future leaders of their institution. Traditional bank deferred compensation plans, such as SERPs or SCPs usually interest the older generation. More creative plans, such as short-term deferrals and synthetic equity, can attract the younger generations.

When properly designed, short-term deferral plans can interest a young potential executive while simultaneously providing the bank with a hook to retain their services. Typically, a bank would identify a handful of potential candidates for the succession group and offer them a bonus that is deferred for a few years, and then pay out in cash. The bank continues to do so in subsequent years, building an account balance of 3-4 years of bonuses. If the employee leaves, they forfeit the bonuses. This strategy provides the employee with more immediate cash incentive, rather than waiting until retirement like traditional plans. It also gives the bank a few years to vet candidates of the successor pool. 

Synthetic Equity, such as Phantom Stock and Stock Appreciation Rights plans, is another approach banks utilize to align the interests of the executive with the success of the bank. Often, younger executives are not shareholders, but these plans are designed to make them feel and act like it. Simply stated, fake shares are awarded to each executive in the plan. These fake shares perform exactly like actual bank stock, giving the executive a stake in the success of the bank, while not diluting any actual ownership or voting rights of current shareholders.

Looking beyond 2018, short-term deferral and synthetic equity plans will certainly be among the more prevalent compensation plan designs in community banks, as the market continues to trend toward performance-based programs that more readily accommodate regulatory guidance. Plans are likely to include claw-back provisions and more deferrals of incentive pay that allow banks to take back all or a portion of incentive earned by an executive if the bank suffered losses, or was subjected to undue risk, as a result of the executive’s actions.

Bank owned life insurance (BOLI) continues to serve as the primary strategy used by community banks for recovering the costs of executive and director compensation plans. Rising employee benefits costs and competitive market pressures continue to challenge banks to explore unique and innovative ways to maintain profitability and growth while not abandoning their fundamentals.

BOLI helps a bank achieve this in two ways: tax-deferred growth of cash value (recorded as annual non-interest income) and non-taxable insurance proceeds paid to the bank at the time of death of the insured officer or director. These features of BOLI create an earning asset for the bank in addition to providing an effective means of informally funding executive or director compensation plans.

BOLI Market to Remain Steady in 2018


BOLI-12-6-17.pngAs 2017 comes to a close, bank-owned life insurance (BOLI) continues to be an attractive investment alternative for banks, based on the increasing percentage of banks holding BOLI assets and the high retention rate of existing BOLI plans. Through the first half of 2017, BOLI carriers reported receiving almost $1.4 billion in new BOLI premiums, according to the market research firm IBIS Associates. Assuming an annualized production level of $2.8 billion, this is only slightly behind the actual full-year new premium results of $3.2 billion received in 2016.

In 2016, 91 percent of new premiums were invested in general account products, and through mid-year 2017, the results were very similar, with 84 percent of new BOLI premiums going to that product type. Cash surrender value of BOLI policies held by banks stood at $164.5 billion as of June 30, 2017, reflecting a 3.5 percent increase from $159 billion as of June 30, 2016, according to the Equias Alliance/Michael White Bank-Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) Holdings Report™. Further, the percentage of banks holding BOLI assets increased in that time period, from 61.3 percent to 62.8 percent. With that in mind, what can we expect of the BOLI market in 2018, given today’s economic and legislative landscape?

Impact of the Economy on BOLI in 2018
Overall, the economy generated some very positive results in 2017. Unemployment declined to just over 4 percent, the stock market hit several new highs, and wage growth increased, albeit slightly. However, banks and other financial institutions continue to operate in a low interest rate environment with no significant market change expected in 2018, based on a November 2017 informal survey that Equias conducted of major BOLI carriers.

To understand the impact of continued low interest rates on BOLI carriers offering fixed-income products, it is important to understand the carriers’ investment philosophies and portfolio compositions. The investment objective of most carriers is to build a diversified portfolio of securities with a long-term orientation that optimizes yield within a defined set of risk parameters. The portfolio strategy often targets investment-grade securities. Corporate bonds are usually the largest holding in the portfolio, along with commercial mortgages and mortgage backed securities, private placements, government and municipal bonds, a small percentage of junk bonds, and other holdings. Some of the carriers in our informal survey stressed they will be allocating more of the portfolio to higher quality bonds in 2018 to guard against any potential downturn in the economy in 2019 or 2020.

Continued low market interest rates will somewhat affect the credited interest rates offered by carriers on both new BOLI sales as well as existing BOLI policies. Credited interest rates and net yields (defined as the credited interest rate less the cost of insurance charges) on new BOLI purchases are currently expected to remain stable in 2018. As a result, new BOLI purchases are, once again, expected to be in the $3 billion to $3.5 billion range in 2018. We also anticipate that approximately 80 to 90 percent of new premiums will be directed to general accounts with higher interest rates.

For existing general account and hybrid separate account BOLI policies, credited interest rates are likely to remain level or decrease slightly, unless market interest rates begin to rise at a faster clip than we have seen in recent years.

Impact of Federal Legislation on BOLI in 2018
One of the key proposals under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, passed recently by both houses of Congress, is to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent. If this were to occur, the taxable equivalent yields on BOLI policies would be slightly lower. For instance, if the net yield on a new BOLI policy was 3.5 percent, then the taxable equivalent yield on that policy would be 5.38 percent at the current federal tax rate of 35 percent, due to the favorable tax treatment that life insurance policies receive.

With the lower federal corporate tax rate under the proposed legislation, the tax equivalent yield for a 3.5 percent net yield BOLI policy would be reduced to a still attractive 4.38 percent. If the corporate tax rate ends up at 25 percent, as some predict, the tax equivalent yield would be 4.67 percent.

Looking ahead to 2018, the continuation of low interest rates and a possible reduction in the corporate tax rate may have some minor impact on BOLI sales and existing BOLI policies, but neither should result in any material impact on the BOLI market.

The Three Critical Areas of Succession Planning


succession-9-4-17.pngLeaving is an inevitable part of life. Everybody ages and, whether by choice or by circumstance, we won’t forever be doing what we are doing today. This law is true for your bank as much as it is for yourself. It is essential to take steps now to prevent the inevitable transitions that are in the future. As individuals, we are constantly questioning whether we are prepared for the next stage of life. “Have I saved enough for retirement?” “Is my estate in order?” As directors, we need to be making similar plans for our bank’s future.

Succession planning can be broken down into three areas: management succession, board succession and ownership succession.

Management Succession
When succession planning is first addressed by a bank, typically management succession is what comes to mind. This naturally includes the chief executive officer’s position, but should also include other vital roles in the bank such as chief financial officer, chief operating officer and your bank’s senior lending officers.

Some banks are challenged when trying to start a formal succession plan: “Who should you include and how should you start?” Banks should start with the most predictable event possible, the eventual retirement of current executives. Not all current executives will necessarily know the exact date they plan to retire, but an age range of 65 to 67 is a good start. As far as whom to include in the plan, it is important to remember that it is not necessary to name a successor now. Identifying a small pool of potential successors is often sufficient. But what banks need to remember is that part of a successful succession plan is ensuring that the people in your plan are still at the bank when you need them. Many banks are incorporating executive benefit/BOLI plans that have golden handcuffs in order to retain all potential successors in the succession plan.

Knowing what you should plan for is always beneficial, but when designing a formal succession plan, banks need to address other contingencies besides the eventual retirement of the current management team. Death, disability and other unexpected events may create a critical situation for those banks that don’t have an emergency succession plan in addition to their long-term succession plan. Depending on the readiness of those involved, the person who takes over running the bank in case of an emergency may very well not be the same person who is the identified successor in the long-term plan.

Board Succession
One of the most challenging aspects of succession planning is board succession. Many banks have mandatory retirement ages typically ranging from age 70 to 75. If your bank does not currently have a mandatory retirement age, you can use nonqualified benefit plans to provide a benefit to those who you may require to retire at a specific age. This can facilitate their retirement from the board in a respectful and dignified way. You may also consider grandfathering the existing board members from a new policy you wish to implement. If that step is taken, the bank still needs to recruit young directors in preparation for the succession of the aging board. In the current regulatory environment, the role of the director is much more involved than in previous years. Often, the most successful banks have diversity on their boards, including various ages and backgrounds, to bring different perspectives regarding the strategic direction of the bank. One concept that seems to be successful for many of our clients is creating an advisory board made up of younger, successful, local business men and women to assist the bank in spreading its marketing footprint. They also typically provide great insight into the needs of the younger generation of bank customers. And many of them bring potentially profitable customers to the bank. As directors reach the mandatory retirement age, the board may recruit full-time directors from the advisory board, which makes for a much smoother transition.

Ownership Succession
Though many owners do not share their ownership succession plan with the rest of the board or key members of management, it is helpful to know how to plan for the succession of the bank. Utilizing nonqualified benefit plans for key management is beneficial in keeping the management team in place during the ownership succession of the bank.
Open communication is a key factor when considering all forms of succession planning. The more people are aware of the planning that banks are doing, the more comfortable both employees and customers will be during any portion of a transition of succession.

Compensation Planning In Today’s Talent Market



How do banks attract young employees and retain key executives? David Fritz Jr. and Patrick Marget of Executive Benefits Network explain that bank compensation plans should appeal to multiple generations and outline how Bank-Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) can offset compensation costs.

  • Challenges in Attracting & Retaining Employees
  • Focusing on Long-Term Incentives
  • BOLI’s Role in Compensation Planning

General Account BOLI Sales Dominate Market in 2016


BOLI-5-15-17.pngIn 2016, bank-owned life insurance (BOLI) sales fell $804 million from 2015 to $3.244 billion, but the percentage of banks with BOLI policies increased to 62.2 percent, up from 60.5 percent the year before.

These are some of the findings from two separate reports on the BOLI market. The key reasons for the decline was in the purchase of both Hybrid Separate Account (HSA) and Variable Separate Account (VSA) products, where banks hold a portion of the investment risk. General Account (GA) products, where the cash surrender values (CSVs) are supported by the insurance company, dominated the BOLI market in 2016 with sales amounting to $2.948 billion or 90.9 percent of the total BOLI purchases that occurred last year, according to market research firm IBIS Associates. HSA sales amounted to only $149.3 million in 2016 with VSA sales trailing slightly behind at $147.2 million. VSA purchases declined by $347 million between 2015 and 2016 due to the lack of any large case sales. Larger banks tend to be the main purchasers of VSA products.

New Premium & Case Sales
The percentage of BOLI premiums invested in GA products has grown from 31.5 percent in 2012 to 90.9 percent in 2016. In contrast, HSA purchases have decreased in recent years. This is due to more GA product options, higher yields, and the high comfort level bankers have with the general credit-worthiness of GA carriers. VSA purchases have been somewhat erratic during the past few years and are still well below the volumes recorded earlier this decade. This is due to the lower current yields, the reduced number of carriers offering these products, and the increased complexity of the product when compared to GA or HSA products.

New Premium (In Millions)

  2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 5 Year Average
General Account $1,391 $1,896 $2,480 $3,050 $2,948 $2,353
Hybrid Separate Account $884 $1,009 $698 $494 $149 $647
Variable Separate Account $2,138 $274 $36 $504 $147 $620
Total $4,413 $3,179 $3,214 $4,048 $3,244 $3,620

Source: IBIS Associates

During the past five years, the number of individual BOLI sales has been relatively steady. The range during this period has been narrow with a low of 1,017 in 2015 and a high of 1,235 in 2013. The numbers below reflect the new BOLI cases that carriers have reported on their books.

New Case Sales

  2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 5 Year Average
General Account 709 897 901 909 1,017 887
Hybrid Separate Account 350 329 272 104 68 225
Variable Separate Account 62 9 2 4 9 17
Total 1,121 1,235 1,175 1,017 1,094 1,128

Source: IBIS Associates

Holdings by U.S. Banks
The CSV of BOLI policies held by banks stood at $161.8 billion as of December 31, 2016, reflecting a 3.6 percent increase from $156.2 billion as of December 31, 2015, according to the Equias Alliance/Michael White Bank-Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) Holdings Report™. The report revealed that:

  • Of the 5,913 banks in the survey, 3,680 or 62.2 percent reported holding BOLI assets as of December 31, 2016, and total BOLI CSV increased by $5.62 billion (3.6 percent) from $156.18 billion as of December 31, 2015, to $161.80 billion as of December 31, 2016.
  • With a balance of $72.46 billion (44.8 percent of all BOLI CSV) as of December 31, 2016, VSA BOLI continues to lead when measured by dollar amount. At the same time, only 464 or 7.9 percent of all banks hold VSA assets.
  • Nearly thirteen hundred (1,261) or 21.3 percent of all banks reported holding HSA assets as of December 31, 2016. These banks held $17.40 billion in HSA assets, representing 10.8 percent of total BOLI assets.
  • The type of BOLI assets most widely held by banks as of December 31, 2016 was GA policies. Of the 3,680 banks reporting BOLI assets, 3,537 (96.1 percent) of them held $71.94 billion in general account life insurance assets, representing 44.4 percent of total BOLI assets as of December 31, 2016.

BOLI Growth Continues
BOLI remains appealing to banks for several reasons:

  • It provides attractive tax-equivalent yields compared to alternative investments of a similar risk and duration;
  • The bank receives book value accounting so that changes in the market values of the underlying investment portfolio do not flow through to the bank.
  • The bank receives the life insurance proceeds tax-free upon the death of an insured employee; and
  • The bank can use the earnings to help offset and recover employee benefit costs, including non-qualified plans used to attract and retain key employees.

BOLI currently offers a net yield ranging from approximately 2.50 percent to 3.75 percent. For a bank in the 38 percent tax bracket, this translates into a tax equivalent yield of 4.03 percent to 6.05 percent. Thus, BOLI remains an attractive investment alternative for banks.

Rates Are Lower for Longer: How Do I Find Yield for My Bank?


BOLI-11-2-16.pngAs U.S. Treasury bond yields worsen, the banking industry finds itself in a familiar position. Bank portfolio managers would like better yield, but regulations restrict banks from going down the credit stack or out the curve to reach for yield. Net interest margins are at all-time lows and regulations compel us to manage regulatory risk first—price, rate and repayment risks are now secondary. Banking as we know it has changed, and not necessarily for the better. But there is a silver lining.

In December 2015, the Federal Reserve raised the funds rate 25 basis points. Immediately, foreign purchasers starving for yield drove prices to new highs, resulting in yields that were lower than before the Fed increased the rate. In early 2016, several countries moved to negative rates. Should the Fed raise rates again soon, more foreign deposits will find Treasury bonds even more compelling again.

Long term, given that the U.S. national debt stands at $19.5 trillion, the U.S. Treasury can’t afford rates to be appreciably higher. The recession of 2007, the war on terror and expansion of social programs has greatly limited options. Most economists agree that the treasury debt market will remain in the lower-for-longer phase for quite some time. Ouch. So, what to do?

Lending is the first most obvious answer but regulations remain confounding. Many bankers feel as if they are only able to grow by stealing market share. Multiple banks chasing the same high quality loans exacerbate spread compression. Agency debt and mortgage-backed securities have yields basically stuck in the 1.70 percent to 1.75 percent range. Municipals remain relatively attractive, but the laborious process, small sizes, ongoing care and price sensitivity make them less compelling.

The judicious use of Bank Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) could be a winning answer. Hear me out—with crediting rates (yield) at nearly 4 percent the concept has merit. Most money center banks and many super regionals maintain BOLI holdings at maximum allowable percentages. Yields are compelling, counterparty risk is stable and price risk is minimal. Interestingly, large banks are more likely than small banks to use the maximum allowable BOLI. Community bankers sometimes forget this break is available to all banks regardless of asset size.

BOLI has a positive effect upon your efficiency ratio as it provides additional tax-free dollars for employee benefits. Since efficiency ratio equals expenses divided by revenue, every additional dollar of revenue results in an ever-larger denominator, hence the ratio shows an immediate positive impact. BOLI is purchased at par and is always held at par eliminating price risk. Given the current cheapness of the asset, BOLI can be surrendered within a year (net of taxes and penalties) and still provide a higher return than mortgage-backed securities.

BOLI can be viewed as outsourcing a portion of your portfolio. Choose a provider that only uses insurance carriers that are A+ rated or better and that employ seasoned, capable portfolio managers. In the event of an untimely loss of an insured employee, the insurance payments help the family and assist the institution to pay for costs related to replacement.

Recently, I met with the president of an $8 billion asset bank who commented, “I really thought I didn’t want to discuss my BOLI holdings. Then I realized it’s a $100 million asset on my books and I’d better get interested in how to optimize it!” We are currently completing a review of his policy holdings.

In the current market, the BOLI asset is extraordinarily cheap. It is a high yielding, low risk asset with a superb degree of price stability. Does it solve every answer? No. Will BOLI always be this cheap? No. But given recent advancements by insurance carriers and asset managers, it is a financial tool that really demands a hard look.

The Bank-Owned Life (BOLI) Insurance Market is Changing: Here’s How


BOLI-10-24-16.pngBank-owned life insurance (BOLI) has undergone a number of changes since it was first introduced in the early 1980s. The number of carriers offering BOLI was a handful in the 1980s, increased to 20 or so in the 1990s and 2000s, and since has decreased to 8 to 10 active carriers as a number of insurers have exited the market or are currently sitting on the sidelines due to the low rate environment.

As competition for attractive investments has increased due to low yields, many carriers have moderately increased duration. Interestingly, several carriers have reduced purchases of below investment grade securities as the yield spread available for them has decreased to the point where the investment return does not justify the increased risk.

On the sales front, in the first six months of this year, there was a 10 percent increase in the number of banks purchasing BOLI compared to a similar period in 2015. Despite the increase in BOLI purchases, there was a decline in the number of banks purchasing the hybrid separate account product as most banks opted for general account.

As the financial crisis passed and banks become more comfortable with the long-term credit quality of carriers, data shows that fewer banks selected hybrid account policies than in the past, which have a mix of variable and general account properties.

Some aspects of the market have, however, remained consistent over time: there have been steady annual increases in both the amount of BOLI assets held by banks and in the percentage of banks holding BOLI assets.

The focus of this article is to look more closely at the state of the market as of June 30, 2016, including changes that have occurred between June 30, 2015 and June 30, 2016 to help track market trends.

New Purchases of BOLI
IBIS Associates, an independent market research firm, publishes a report analyzing BOLI sales based on information obtained from insurers that market BOLI products. According to the IBIS Associates BOLI Report for the period January 1, 2016 to June 30, 2016:

  • During the first six months of 2016, 553 banks purchased BOLI. The 553 banks included institutions purchasing it for the first time as well as additional purchases by banks that already own BOLI. This was a 10 percent increase over the 502 banks that purchased BOLI during the same time period in 2015.
  • New BOLI premium from banks amounted to $1.78 billion as of June 30, 2016. During a similar six month period in 2015, the total was $2.10 billion or $320 million higher. The difference is attributable to one large variable separate account purchase in the first half of 2015 ($400 million).
  • General account purchases dominated the market during the first half of 2016. Of the $1.78 billion in new BOLI premium, $1.65 billion (92.8 percent) was invested in general accounts. Hybrid product purchases amounted to $75.8 million (4.3 percent) while variable separate account purchases (where the investment risk is held by the policyholders and investment gains flow directly to them rather than the insurance carrier) were only $51.4 million (2.9 percent).
  • During the period July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2014, 226 banks purchased a hybrid product while for the period July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2016, the number of banks with a hybrid product increased by just 42 banks.

The reasons cited by bankers for purchasing BOLI are that it provides competitive returns with superior credit quality. Current BOLI net yields are in the range of 3.00 percent to 3.75 percent which generates tax equivalent net yields of 4.85 percent to 6.05 percent for a bank in the 38 percent tax bracket. Income generated by BOLI can help offset the increasing costs of a bank’s benefit programs.

Status of Market
Based on a review of FDIC data, the September 2016 Equias Alliance/Michael White Bank-Owned Life Insurance Holdings Report, shows that as of June 30, 2016:

  • BOLI assets reached $159.0 billion reflecting a 3.8 percent increase from $153.1 billion as of June 30, 2015. Banks with between $1 billion and $10 billion in assets had the largest percentage increase in BOLI assets during this timeframe with 8.3 percent growth.
  • Of the 6,058 banks in the survey, 3,713 (61.3 percent) now report holding BOLI assets. This percentage has grown year after year. There is, however, a wide discrepancy in the percentage of banks holding BOLI by size category. For example, only 39.9 percent of banks with under $100 million in assets hold BOLI while 81.9 percent of banks with $1 billion to $10 billion in assets hold BOLI.

In summary, the positive trends in new purchases, growth in assets and usage of BOLI by banks continued in the first half of 2016.

Addressing Problems with SERPs in Benefit Plan Designs


SERPs-8-5-16.pngSupplemental Executive Retirement Plans (SERPs) are a valuable compensation tool that banks can use to attract and retain executive talent. SERPs are nonqualified deferred compensation arrangements that are non-elective, meaning the company is responsible for contributions to the plan. Unfortunately, improper design of these plans can result in significant expenses for banks without providing the intended retention value. As a result, SERPs have gained a lot of negative press (particularly during the economic downturn), but if used properly, they can be a powerful tool in compensation. Here’s what you need to know about executive retirement benefits and how banks can avoid the common issues that arise with SERPs.

SERPs have some lingering reputational issues, although this isn’t entirely fair. Many banks do their due diligence and pay close attention to the expenses they will incur as a result of their benefit plans, but this hasn’t always been the case. When SERPs rose in popularity, many banks entered into inappropriately designed plans without understanding their implications. A poorly designed SERP can accelerate vesting schedules in the event of early retirement or cause banks to pay benefits in excess of 100 percent of final salary. Problems also arise due to IRC Section 280G (which deals with golden parachutes) in the event of a change of control. Additionally, many of these SERPs were designed solely with the placement of Bank Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) in mind, ignoring the strategic purpose and future impact. Fast forwarding to 2016, we see a number of problems related to SERP plans. The primary concerns are the following:

  • Banks absorbing mortality risks for lifetime benefit plans.
  • Defined benefit structures whereby a SERP benefit is contingent upon a final pay calculation.
  • Not considering 280G excise tax concerns in the case of M&A activity.
  • Unreasonable benefit structures that are either too lucrative or conservative.
  • Equity-based SERP designs.

Many boards have been soured by a bad experience and vowed to never implement another SERP plan at their bank. From a strategic perspective, this is a mistake that will hinder the bank’s ability to retain and recruit the talent necessary to stay competitive.

The real problem isn’t SERPS—its poor design. A SERP isn’t the answer to all the retention or recruitment issues, but it is a tool that should be used to complement the other components of compensation. SERPS themselves are not the problem; poorly designed SERPs are. Let’s address a few key design considerations:

  • Know what your expense is going to be. The benefit should be fixed day one, plain and simple.
  • Understand the potential 280G impact, regardless of the probability of a change in control.
  • Know that financing tools exist to reduce plan expense and provide a lifetime benefit with a fixed cost through proven methodologies. Explore all financing options—BOLI is not the only tool available for bankers.
  • Understand the strategic purpose behind the benefit plan structure, and conduct peer compensation studies to ensure that the benefit and compensation are reasonable and competitive.
  • Make sure the bank is protected in the event of premature death, but don’t allow life insurance to drive the design of your plan.

If your plan does not incorporate some of these features, it’s time to take a hard look at your plan design. Although IRC 409A (which regulates the tax treatment for nonqualified deferred compensation plans) imposes limitations on plan design changes, there are a number of strategies to help reduce the general plan expense, mortality risk concerns, 280G exposure and other issues without violating IRC 409A. There are hedging vehicles in the market to generate efficiencies at the benefit expense level. Consult with a compensation professional to help you navigate these waters.

Many banks continue to use SERPs effectively. A bad experience should not deter you from exploring the plan’s positive benefits. That said, a SERP can be complex and should be designed objectively by compensation professionals. If you explore all financing tools to make sure the bank is getting the most efficient design, your bank will be in an excellent position to accomplish your goals.