In a motion to convert the Wisconsin Master Trust from a preneed trust to a liquidating trust, the Receiver outlined to the court why the trust cannot keep its promises to consumers and comply with Wisconsin’s preneed law. Section 445.125 restricts preneed funeral trusts to depository accounts, and CD returns won’t even pay the Master Trust’s operating expenses (even after the Receiver has dramatically reduced those expenses). The WMT must diversify its investments just to meet its existing obligations, and to do so the Receiver proposes to transform the trust and take it out from underneath Section 445.125. This could mean that the Association may never regain control of the WMT, and that would deprive Wisconsin’s smaller operators a realistic alternative to insurance funding. Legislation is needed to replace Section 445.125 with the Prudent Investor Rule, but the Association faces a hostile cemetery industry and critical independents. It was only two years ago that the Association relied upon WMT fees to fund the fight to defeat cemetery legislation. With the cemetery industry seeking to re-introduce its legislation, the WFDA faces a situation of playing the spoiler role again while needing to explore all possible avenues to legislation that would preserve their ability to regain control of the WMT.
Once again, I have spoken too quickly.
After lamenting to the Memorial Business Journal that the NPS plea bargains will deprive consumers and the industry the opportunity to hear how Doug and his crew perpetrated so many frauds, the sole remaining NPS defendant may grant my wish. As the Funeral Service Insider reports that Herr Wulf, even at the risk of life in prison, vows to fight the charges.
I was only following orders!
While the following statement will garner argument from the plaintiffs in the NPS civil trial scheduled next year, Missouri’s infamous Section 436.031 authorized a preneed seller to designate the preneed trust’s investment advisor, and the trustee was relieved of all liabilities for investment decisions. Herr Wulf will take the stand and declare 1) he had a different fiduciary standard than that of the preneed trustee, and 2) that his investment decisions satisfied the requirements of the Prudent Man Rule. When the prickly questions regarding the definition of the fund manager’s client are raised, and whether that includes the consumer and/or the funeral home, Herr Wulf will declare that NPS (Doug) was his sole client and that he was following orders. Unlike the original Nuremberg Trials, this tribunal can call the source for those orders to testify. The world may yet get the opportunity to see Doug squirm and sweat.
(Excerpts from the Memorial Business Journal and the Funeral Service Insider are reprinted with the understanding I will promote that readers should subscribe to each. Please refer to my blog when you do so.)
I stand corrected.
A representative of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association advises that their request for proposal for a new investment advisor for the master trust has resulted in the selection of a firm that will not only assume a true fiduciary relationship to funeral directors and consumers, but that will also guide the Association towards a target date investment strategy. Such an investment strategy would represent a true demarcation from the approach I was so critical of in a March post about the Michigan RFP.
Too often, the fiduciary's approach to preneed investment has been to offer three investment options to the funeral director. The fiduciary may even allow the funeral director to choose an asset allocation among the investment options. Little regard is given to the experience and sophistication the funeral director possesses with regard to financial and investment considerations. While Michigan law imposes a separate investment standard on non-guaranteed contracts, that is not the case in most states. Consequently, the two types of contracts are typically pooled in the same trust, and invested similarly. This presents a problem for the funeral directors that either take chances with the market or are ultra conservative. Another flawed investment approach is to allow income reporting to be the exclusive consideration.
Corporate fiduciaries have struggled with the delegation of investment responsibilities of the preneed trust. The uniform trust code contemplates the delegation of the investment responsibilities, and may even require such when the fiduciary lacks the expertise to properly invest the trust. But, it is virtually impossible to transfer the liability of that delegation. Applicable statutes contemplate notice and consent of the trust beneficiaries. The investment risk lies with the consumer who has purchased a non-guaranteed contract. With guaranteed contracts, the investment risk is assumed primarily by the funeral director. However, that risk is shifted to the consumer if the contract is 're-written' when the purchaser's survivors select a different arrangement at the time of need. The investment risk is also transferred when the funeral home goes out of business and the preneed contracts are not assumed by a successor entity.
Depending upon the factors incorporated by the investment strategy, the target date plan can provide a better model for the death care industry.
Here is proof that readership of newspapers is going down.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called a few weeks back about a Wisconsin legislative bill that sought investment freedom for cemetery trust funds. With the legislative battle that was waged a year ago in Wisconsin, we had expected the bill might represent a renewed effort to allow common ownership of funeral homes and cemeteries. But instead, five Wisconsin legislators are sponsoring a proposal that would allow Wisconsin cemeteries to bypass fiduciary institutions and allow their trust funds to be administered by broker-dealers. The lead sponsor commented to the newspaper reporter that “It’s really not a big deal. Cemeteries are already investing with these folks.” The sponsor indicated that he introduced the bill at the request of a stockbroker who had been investing a cemetery’s funds for years without knowing he had been doing so illegally.
Death care operators should take note that the duties of the “fund manager” differ as between a broker-dealer and a registered investment advisor (RIA). As explained in the SEC’s 2011 “Study on Investment Advisers and Broker-Dealers”, while the RIA has a fiduciary duty to know his client, the broker-dealer does not have such a relationship unless the circumstances dictate otherwise. The broker-dealer is only required to make recommendations consistent with the customer’s interests. Ask any RIA if the difference is important. But, the Wisconsin cemetery bill underscores the duty that is missing from both RIAs and broker-dealers: the duty to comply with the laws applicable to the client’s trust fund.
The OCC made this duty known to federally chartered preneed trustees more than 10 years ago. But, a broker-dealer has no duty to stay up on Wisconsin’s Chapter 157. It makes you wonder whether the sponsors of Assembly Bill 79 were staying up with the troubles of the Wisconsin Master Trust.
But then again, that trust did have a fiduciary.
If you haven’t noticed, there has been some turnover among the associations’ preneed fund managers. With the threat of additional litigation in Wisconsin, this trend could continue. But not all of the turnover has been as publicized as what we have seen in Illinois and Wisconsin. After 20 years at the helm, Merrill Lynch recently gave notice to the Michigan Funeral Directors Association of its resignation. There are no search protocols for preneed fund managers, and so Michigan borrowed from the retirement fund community by publishing a request for proposal (RFP). While the MFDA should be commended in their effort to bring transparency to their program’s asset management, they missed (or ignored) an opportunity to shift more investment responsibilities to the financial industry. Instead of using FINRA Rule 2111 (“know your client”) to their advantage, the MFDA structured the RFP to perpetuate (and extend) the funeral director’s controlling role in investment decisions.
Hidden investment charges have been ‘part of business’ in the death care industry for decades, and this author has contemplated whether ERISA’s fee disclosure requirements could ever be incorporated into preneed trusts by the Federal Trade Commission. The Michigan RFP focused on the same ERISA fee disclosure requirements, which could lead one to assume that association’s leaders did not want to make the same mistake again. The Michigan RFP also raised another ERISA concept worthy of the preneed industry’s consideration: the 401K approach to investment by individual contract. We too have wondered why larger programs have not looked at data from individual contracts and the sponsoring funeral homes to build an investment options matrix.
But, the Michigan RFP can be faulted for cutting off the diligence requirements of FINRA Rule 2111. To insulate the Association from solicitations, the RFP provided summary information about the program and required all inquiries to go through an ERISA consultant. Prospective fund managers were required to submit investment strategies on limited facts and without direct communications to the Association. It is understandable that the Association would want to narrow the field before initiating an exchange of confidential information with prospective managers, but the screening of candidates should have preceded the request for investment strategies. Subsequent to the screening, the MFDA should then have provided detailed information pursuant to a confidentiality agreement. Under FINRA 2111, this sequence would have expanded the fund manager’s diligence responsibilities regarding investment strategy recommendations. The nature of the questions posed by the candidates would also have helped the MFDA in its assessment of the candidates. Instead, the RFP narrowed the fund manager’s diligence to an old investment strategy with a history of mixed results and challenges.
Within the context of ERISA retirement funds, RFPs may take a formula approach to finding a replacement fund manager. But the preneed industry is fragmented by 50 different state laws, and by program issues such as whether non-guaranteed contracts are sold, the association’s role as a seller versus an agent, investment restrictions, and trusting percentages. Injecting preneed asset management with a dose of ERISA could help to discourage hidden fees and improve the quality of fund managers, but the industry also needs an alternative to the strategy of offering funeral directors three investment options to choose from.
Both the Memorial Business Journal and the Funeral Service Insider commented last week on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s February 7th article regarding the former executive director of the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association. Several issues were raised that should be included in future industry debate, and in particular, I would agree with Mr. Isard’s questions whether association executives are qualified to manage a master trust. But the following comments beg an immediate response:
“The whole situation with [the] Wisconsin Preneed Trust went off the rails when the goal shifted from trusting funds to investing funds.”
“The assumption that these trust funds are in the investment business is a mistake. We’re not. We’re in the trust business. From my view, that is a presumption of a preservation of principle. With a trust, you have an obligation to be prudent.”
Those comments suggest that trusting funds and investing funds are somehow mutually exclusive. While the comments may reflect the views of much of the death care industry, they also reflect a failure to understand the fiduciary’s duties. When entrusted with the money of another, the fiduciary has a duty to invest those funds consistent with the purposes of the trust and the interests of the trust beneficiaries. The fiduciary’s investment duties are governed by other laws, and a majority of our states have adopted the Prudent Investor Act. Wikipedia provides the following explanation of that Act:
In enacting the Uniform Prudent Investor Act, states should have repealed legal list statutes, which specified permissible investments types. (However, guardianship and conservatorship accounts generally remain limited by specific state law.) In those states which adopted part or all of the Uniform Prudent Investor Act, investments must be chosen based on their suitability for each account's beneficiaries or, as appropriate, the customer. Although specific criteria for determining "suitability" does not exist, it is generally acknowledged, that the following items should be considered as they pertain to account beneficiaries:
• financial situation;
• current investment portfolio;
• need for income;
• tax status and bracket;
• investment objective; and
• risk tolerance.
The majority of preneed trusts involve a single seller/provider and guaranteed preneed contracts. Under such circumstances, the funeral home operator has assumed the investment risk when the preneed contract is performed as written. Fiduciaries (and fund managers) have viewed the operator as the account beneficiary for purposes of the Prudent Investor Act. But depending upon state law, and whether the contract is ‘re-written’ at the time of death, the preneed purchaser may bear the investment risk. Accordingly, the fiduciary and fund manager should not completely ignore the preneed purchaser as the account beneficiary for purposes of the Prudent Investor Act.
Neither fiduciaries nor fund managers want to bring the preneed purchaser into the Prudent Investor equation for obvious reasons. But are suitability of investments for two that dissimilar? We would suggest not if the objective is to have investment performance track the prearrangement’s purchase price increases. As we noted in a March 2010 post about the IFDA master trust, the purchaser of a non-guaranteed contract was unhappy because the return on her non-guaranteed contract (1.7%) did not keep pace with the price increases of her planned funeral (4.2%).
Determining who to include as an account beneficiary in the Prudent Investor equation only gets more complicated when the preneed trust is an association master trust with dozens, or hundreds, of funeral home operators. If the master trust includes a healthy percentage of non-guaranteed contracts, the number of account beneficiaries could swell to the thousands. If the association is not the preneed seller (as is the case in Missouri, but not Illinois), what interest does the association have in the trust so as to justify being considered an account beneficiary? There are arguments in support of the association being such a beneficiary, but can those interests ever outweigh the funeral operator and the non-guaranteed contract purchaser?
One could argue that the Wisconsin Master Trust was never fully on the rails. The Association determined early on that a depository account could not keep up with rising funeral costs. Rather than seek legislation that would clarify the trust’s investment authority, the Association leadership sought regulatory permission to allow the master trust to embark on the path of investment diversification. The program derailed only after the executive director enmeshed his personal objectives with those of the association and then conspired with the fund managers to treat the association as the master trust’s primary account beneficiary.
We previously discussed how the funeral home or cemetery assumes most of a preneed trust’s investment risk when selling a guaranteed preneed contract, and therefore should be afforded a role in the trust’s investment decisions (Fund Managers: Is Your O&E Coverage Current?). But in that same post, we were careful to point out that there are no absolutes. More funeral homes are switching to non-guaranteed preneed. And, a certain percentage of guaranteed preneed contracts are also re-written at death when the family switches funeral homes or revises the prearranged funeral (or burial) arrangement. Yet, preneed fiduciaries seem to ignore these facts when relying upon uniform trust code provisions for their authority to exchange investment powers for a hold harmless agreement.
Death care fiduciaries first need to determine whether there are any conflicts between the applicable state death care law and the broader uniform trust code. Fiduciaries in states such as Missouri and Kansas are bound by statutes which require the trustee to retain investment oversight. Such conflicts will be reconciled in favor of the more specific death care law.
If the death care law is silent on investment delegation, the applicable uniform trust code may not necessarily authorize the trustee’s exculpation from investment oversight. Some states’ trust code conditions the fiduciary’s investment exculpation upon 1) the appropriateness of the trustee’s selection of the investment advisor, and 2) upon the notice given to trust beneficiaries. Illinois’ Trusts and Trustees Act is a good example of such a requirement. But too frequently, the fiduciary views the funeral home, or cemetery, as the sole beneficiary of the death care trust for purposes of both requirements.
Assuming notice could be given to each and every preneed contract purchaser, a court would likely evaluate the sufficiency of that notice from the perspective of the elderly preneed contract beneficiary. Would the average preneed purchaser understand the implications of the investment delegation? Or, could that purchaser effectively monitor the investment decisions made pursuant to the delegation? The fiduciary’s reliance on the uniform trust code for authority for exculpation under such circumstances should be deemed unreasonable. The validity of the exculpation may also hinge on the investment advisor’s assumption of applicable death care compliance requirements. If the agency agreement does not properly incorporate a death care law’s investment restrictions (or standard), the fiduciary has not exercised ‘reasonable care, skill and caution’ in establishing the scope and terms of the delegation. Yet, I hesitate to fault the fiduciary for trying. The strategy for seeking the exculpation is often in response to the unreasonable expectations of both the industry and its regulators.
As witnessed in California, regulators often interpret archaic preneed laws so as to argue that a ‘preneed contract is the equivalent of a savings account’. Those statutes reflect the preneed transaction from a generation ago. By applying that law out of the current context, a fiction is used to establish a standard that all fiduciaries could fail. The regulator’s position seeks to make the fiduciary a guarantor of the purchaser’s deposits to trust. The reality is that every trust investment has risk, even our government’s bonds. This exposure is applicable regardless of whether the preneed contract is guaranteed or non-guaranteed.
On the other side of the table, the industry is coming to demand that the trust offset more than just the costs of performing the preneed contract. Lagging membership revenues are an issue for many state associations. The mortgage crisis hit many preneed trusts, and preneed sellers expect those losses to be recovered without additional risk. Greater trust returns are also needed to offset the cremation trend. Of course, the asset management required for higher returns comes at a greater cost to the trust.
The reality is that the industry will continue to be request better returns from the death care trust. As with other trusts, the circumstances may dictate that as expectations rise, a fiduciary may best discharge its duties by delegating the investment responsibilities to an investment advisor. As discussed in the linked law review article, the model uniform code should be used to support the delegation of investment duties. But, in contrast to the classic trust situation, the death care trust is a creature of statute, which has the consumer’s protection as its purpose. While the preneed seller may be allowed to step into the settlor’s shoes for purpose of authorizing the delegation, the seller cannot override the preneed statute by exculpating the fiduciary from investment liabilities. At a minimum, the fiduciary needs to stand ready to override investments that are unsuitable or clearly imprudent. The two largest preneed scandals involved investments which were clearly unsuitable for the death care trust. Despite what Merrill Lynch may argue, I doubt any corporate fiduciary would have found the key man insurance policy to have been suitable for investment for a preneed trust. And if R.S.Mo. Section 436.031 had been written differently, NPS’ Missouri fiduciaries would have sought more information about the insurance transactions they were directed to make.
Fiduciary Partners, the corporate fiduciary for the Wisconsin and Illinois master trusts, broke its silence this week with a statement to the Funeral Service Insider. The statement was made in response to criticisms previously reported by FSI, and reflects the receiver and fiduciary working together to get their “message” out and avoid the kind of litigation that has hamstrung the IFDA, its membership and the Illinois funeral industry.
FSI commentators used Fiduciary Partners’ link to the two states to drive home with funeral directors various preneed problems* including the management and investment of preneed funds, and the state of the guaranteed preneed contract and its impact on funeral pricing practices. While the issues need to be incorporated into a national dialog, Fiduciary Partners interpreted the FSI report as encouraging Illinois and Wisconsin funeral directors to assign blame to Fiduciary Partners. Consequently, Fiduciary Partners and the receiver felt compelled to respond.
As reported in a prior post, the WFDA leadership had muzzled Fiduciary Partners with a very strict confidentiality provision through an amendment to the master trust. Accordingly, the statement given to FSI has been made with the receiver’s approval, and could be taken as having the WFDA’s endorsement.
To neutralize litigation over the trustee’s role in administering investments, Fiduciary Partners and the receiver sought to clarify that the company had a very limited role that never included the management of investments. The message goes on to reinforce the need for Fiduciary Partners to continue to provide administrative functions related to individual contract accounting and performance payments. The statement also conveys a tacit acknowledgement of the WFDA’s secrecy, with Fiduciary Partner’s commitment to a new transparency.
It is inevitable that comparisons will be made between Wisconsin and Illinois, and to conclude that litigation may also be inevitable. However, one stark difference exists between the two situations: Illinois funeral directors faced a recalcitrant board that refused to acknowledge and correct its mistakes. That leaves the question whether Wisconsin funeral directors will bring litigation to recover damages. As one FSI commentator points out, damages will be difficult to measure when the association reported inflated numbers (through the guaranteed rate of return). And as the other commentator points out, member funeral directors need to take responsibility for hiring executives and fund managers that are competent and professional. It was their hire of an inexperienced executive that ultimately directed the use of trust funds to establish an insurance company.
The multi-million dollar question to be asked is what if Fiduciary Partners had responsibility for investment oversight? Would the trustee have been able to check Mr. Peterson’s actions? In our next post, we will look at the hold harmless provisions so popular in the preneed trust agreement.
*Reprinted from the Funeral Service Insider – October 29, 2012
**Reprinted from the Funeral Service Insider – November 5, 2012
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In the days that followed the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association being placed into receivership, some of the WFDA’s sister associations were quick to point out they had ‘checks and balances’ that would protect consumers’ funds from the problems that tripped up the Wisconsin Funeral Trust. As we reported in our last post, a crucial ‘check and balance’ missing from the WFT was investment oversight. The fact that a trust has a corporate trustee does not necessarily mean that fiduciary has responsibility for monitoring the prudence of the investments. Corporate fiduciaries often look to uniform trust codes for the authority to delegate investment responsibilities. If a grantor wishes to use an outside asset manager, general trust laws will accommodate those wishes. The problem with preneed trusts (and cemetery endowment funds) is that there is more than one “grantor” to the preneed trust.
We have previously stated our support for allowing a relationship between preneed seller and a qualified fund manager. However, the fiduciary must provide a ‘check and balance’ to that relationship by maintaining responsibility for the investments. The ‘scandals’ from Missouri, Illinois, California and Wisconsin stem from a lack of investment oversight. Missouri’s regulators responded to NPS with a law that precluded any relationship between the advisor and the seller. Appropriately, the Missouri association obtained revisions to allow an agency relationship between its fund manager and the trustee. However, the Missouri law does not go far enough to require the disclosures we recommended in 2011. Funeral directors and consumers need to know that Missouri preneed fiduciaries ‘have their back’ when it comes to investment oversight.
Investment oversight is also a concern for cemetery regulators. Kansas’ cemetery regulators were dismayed to find that a corporate trustee had turned over the investment reigns to a Hutchinson cemetery operator. The operator hoped to cover declining revenues (and the failure to make trust deposits) with higher investment returns. For months, the operator attempted to hide the ball from the auditor, but eventually it was discovered that those investments had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The investment supervision issue is also a concern for Nebraska regulators. As they prep the death care industry for legislation in 2013, they raise this issue:
Seller’s Power to Direct Investments
A question has arisen regarding the seller’s ability to direct the trustee’s investment decisions. Specifically, should the seller be able to instruct the trustee to deposit or invest funds in securities that do not meet the trustee’s own investment guidelines?
If it is determined that the trustee should be free from the seller’s investment influence, section 12-1107 should be amended to reflect this fact.
In what may be a perfectly legal arrangement, Illinois funeral directors have handed off investment oversight to their new fund managers. The master trust instrument carefully outlines the code provisions which authorize the delegation of investment authorities. But the document goes that extra step of exculpating the trustee from responsibilities for investment oversight. Where is the check and balance in that structure? Are the industry’s expectations so high that a trustee will not accept the fund without a hold harmless? If the industry does not establish its own ‘checks and balances’ with regard to investment supervision, the authority to participate in the investment decisions could be taken away.
Not that close, even from the 30,000-foot view.
That’s our assessment of the Morningstar analysis of preneed and its impact on the death care industry. In “Dark Clouds for the Death-Care Industry”, a stock analyst attempted to explain the preneed transaction, and then provide an assessment of the impact of preneed on the profitability of the death care industry. Such attempts to generalize preneed are often misleading, particularly by an outsider looking in.
While the analyst raises a number of issues regarding preneed, only one can be described as generally accurate: there is a growing reliance on preneed sales. But then, operators in the smaller or rural communities may disagree because they do not face the competitive pressures that drive preneed sales. For the majority of the industry’s operators, competition has made preneed a necessity.
The article suggests that all preneed sales end up in trusts, and that the trust exposes the operator to investment risks. While this generalization has some merit, it completely ignores insurance funded preneed, and how those sales provide a background to assess the analyst’s preneed conclusions.
A majority of the states have preneed funeral laws that impose trusting requirements of 90% or more. The costs associated with a preneed program force larger operators in the 100% states to use insurance funding for the commission that will pay salesmen. The complaint currently heard from these operators is that the return on their insurance proceeds is not keeping pace with inflation.
The analyst states he would feel more comfortable if the industry turned to insurance companies for underwriting of the industry’s massive trust portfolios. Excuse me? The main problem with preneed trusts is that they are saddled with expenses, and are often ‘parked’ in fixed income investments. So, Wall Street’s solution to preneed would be to add a layer of expense through underwriting? Ignoring the state law issues, aren’t you suggesting to the operator that he should sacrifice the upside of his trust for the stability of a lower, more consistent return? How would that recommendation achieve the growth that you state is lacking for this industry?
The analyst also states that the industry must rely on preneed because of the lack of overall deaths in the marketplace. Perhaps the analyst meant to say there is too much competition for the current death rates in our communities. If so, then yes, preneed is becoming as important as heritage in maintaining (or growing) the operator’s market share. If the investment community believes preneed is bad for us, how would Wall Street propose funeral homes and cemeteries respond to competition in the market place?
Wall Street concerns over preneed are driven in part by misconceptions about the operator’s costs, and his exposures to trust funding liabilities. The analyst fails to make a distinction between the cost to perform a preneed contact and the prices listed on a general price list. The amount paid out of a trust when a preneed contract may not equal the current at need prices, but the trust proceeds do generally exceed the costs of the services and merchandise. Depending on the age of the contract, and the state’s trusting requirements, the older contracts may not be very ‘profitable’, but there is a profit, just not as profitable as the comparable at-need service.
The analyst also expresses concern the operator’s liability to fund the trust when the investment markets decline as they did in 2009. What state law requires that? Operators are not required to make ‘capital injections’ into their preneed trusts for investment declines. Such conditions may affect their authority to make income withdrawals, but not to require additional contributions.
Wall Street would prefer the death care industry to return to the day where at-need revenues constitute the base of operations. Most death care operators would share that desire, but most know better. Contrary to the analyst’s conclusion, operators are finding that it is the at-need service that is exposed to downturns in discretionary spending. Tight times make it easier for the consumer to choose cremation. If the preneed contract is paid in full, the family isn’t forced to come out of pocket to pay for the traditional service.
In conclusion, I have to concede that the analyst is somewhat correct about preneed exposing the operator to investment risks. Preneed has become a business reality, requiring many operators to make a decision between insurance or trust. Should the operator take the lower, but safer, rate of return of the insurance policy, or keep the upside of the trust (and its risks)?
Large funeral operators in 100% trusting states don’t have much choice but to use insurance. For the funeral operator who wants growth and control over the direction of the preneed fund, then there is little choice but to assume the investment market risks that accompany the preneed trust. Cemeteries have no choice but to use the trust, and assume its investment risks. Cemetery preneed can be distinguished from that sold by funeral homes in that some merchandise (and services) is delivered prior to death, precluding the use of insurance.
A few months ago, a stock analyst issued a critique warning against investment in the industry’s public companies. A few weeks later, the critique got a second wind when chat pages and social media forums picked up on the critique’s conclusion, and circulated the article as proof that certain trends will ‘haunt’ all funeral homes and cemeteries for years to come. Several weeks later, the critique’s attempt to assess or explain the industry’s key issues continues to haunt me. If a professional who makes his living from investment assessments has difficulty grasping and explaining the intricacies of the death care industry, consider the difficulties our regulators and legislators may have understanding the business.
The critique identified “the” three issues impacting the industry’s revenues and profitability: cremation, preneed and longer life expectancies. This post will focus on cremation.
The analyst opens with the statement that ‘several unfavorable secular trends’ are hampering long-term growth and profitability in the death care industry. But, the critique concludes with sticking the “unfavorable secular trend” label solely on cremation. There is no doubt that cremation is turning the industry on its head, but is the “secular trend” label important? It is when you view the history of the business, and need to convey the depth of the cremation issue, and that it will continue to grow.
The American way of death was shaped by the Christian funeral and burial. Theology professor Thomas Long has written several insightful books and articles regarding the Christian funeral and the role of the body. Another excellent work is Paul Irion’s “The Funeral: Vestige or Value?” The growth of death care business can be traced to the fact funeral homes profited by establishing a good relationship with the local church. That fundamental relationship served the funeral home well for several generations. But as our society became more pluralistic and secular, the acceptance of cremation grew.
For theologians, cremation represents a challenge to long standing beliefs about the funeral ritual. But, the emerging message to clergy is one of education and adaptation. As a follow up to his seminal work on the funeral ritual, Paul Irion wrote a book simply titled “Cremation”. This blog has previously discussed this issue, and one form of adaptation by churches: the columbarium.
For the funeral director, a church’s shift to embrace cremation sends a mixed message. The families from these churches view the funeral as having value as a ritual, but a ritual that does not require the purchase of a casket. If the funeral home does not own a crematory, the director will have to compliment the church’s pastoral care, or risk losing the church’s business altogether.
Operators must also market to a public that has become more secular, and view the funeral home as providing a utilitarian service. As the analyst alluded to, once the body is disposed of, all other services are ‘auxiliary’ in nature. The secular public is more likely to purchase a cremation, and forego any type of memorial service.
While cremation has taken away casket sales and cut into the purchase of services, is the critique accurate in its warnings about the death care industry? Keep in mind that the analyst was assessing the industry for profitability and growth, and that growth is difficult for a mature industry to achieve. The death care business has all the characteristics of a mature industry: limited or declining markets, intense competition, and evolving consumer demands. Individual companies may be able to achieve growth, but the industry as a whole may not until the Baby Boomer generation ages another 10 years.
Some mature industries do wither and eventually die away. But in contrast to industries that produce a product with a definitive life cycle, death care is based on a service that will always be needed. Funeral homes may have been guilty of having allocated too much of their profit to the sale of a casket and too little to their services. But, they have the ability to adapt their pricing strategies. For the small operator who cannot afford a crematory, alkaline hydrolysis may provide a less expensive investment. And, there is the green burial alternative to explore.
Next: Dark Clouds and Preneed
Many state preneed regulators share the point of view that the payments made toward a preneed contract belong to the consumer until the prearranged funeral is provided. This perspective was adopted by the California Attorney General in its Eighth Cause of Action brought against the California Funeral Directors Association and its Master Trust. The AG criticizes the CFDA for investment decisions that are fairly representative of those taken by the industry as a whole.
Early on, the CMT relied upon bond funds that specialized in zero coupon government bonds. The AG points out that U.S. Treasury Bonds and similar bond funds outperformed the CMT at less risk and with lower fees.
When the bond market crashed in 2001, the CMT experienced substantial investment losses and changed investment course. The CMT began diversifying, and purchasing mortgaged back securities, foreign bonds and notes, corporate asset-backed securities and other types of securities. The AG criticizes these investments by stating “these types of investments are not insured bank accounts, are not bonds that are legal investments for commercial bank (sections 1001 et seq. of the Financial Code lists certain legal investments for commercial banks), are not government bonds, and do not comply with the Uniform Prudent Investor Act (as discussed below).”
The AG goes on to argue that the investment policies of the CMT should be set by the risk and return objectives of the preneed contract beneficiaries, and faults the defendants for having set investment policies based on their own needs.
Other states’ preneed regulators (and cemetery regulators) share the California AG’s point of view. It is common to hear a regulator characterize the preneed trust as a depository account or to express the belief the industry would be better off if preneed funding were left to the insurance companies. These regulators need to take the blinders off.
The CMT, like so many preneed trusts, went into tax exempt investments after 1988 because of Revenue Rul. 87-127. The Internal Revenue Service pushed for an income reporting method that proved impractical and burdensome. To compound the situation, the IRS applied the ruling retroactively to certain states. California was one of those states. Prior to the ruling, funeral homes had no reason to require the consumer’s social security number when selling a preneed contract. Consequently, many California trustees could not comply with the ruling with regard to existing contracts.
The ruling required grantor statements to be sent to consumers, and the consumers complained. So, funeral homes instructed their preneed fiduciaries to go into anything that didn’t require a grantor statement. While the CMT went to zero coupon bonds, the IFDA went into the poorly conceived key man insurance. Other trusts went into annuities. Various approaches were taken because the IRS could not provide reporting guidance once it changed the rules.
In stating that the preneed funds must be invested pursuant to the contract beneficiary’s objectives, the California AG has ignored the fact that a majority of these preneed contracts are probably guaranteed. Under that arrangement, the funeral home has assumed the investment risk. From a practical approach, how would the investment advisor determine the objectives of the thousands of preneed beneficiaries? In a prior post, this blog reported about an Illinois contract beneficiary’s complaint about the IFDA Master Trust. In contrast to the losses suffered by the member funeral homes, the beneficiary experienced a modest return on her non-guaranteed contract. Her complaint was that the return was not enough to keep up with rising funeral costs.
The California AG argument that the CMT must comply with the Prudent Investor Rule in a way that does not expose trust principal to risk is the equivalent to handcuffing both of the investment advisor’s hands behind his back.
Of the investment complaints made by the California AG, the one which would seem to merit the most attention would be the relationship between the former investment advisor and a CFDA board member. That CFDA board member also served as a trustee for one of the advisor’s funds, for which he received compensation. That relationship warrants an inquiry whether the relationship was disclosed and the compensation appropriate and reasonable.
The AG’s argument that the investment advisor must be independent from the seller is one shared by Missouri regulators. The Missouri regulators are quick to point to the abuses committed by NPS and its investment management firm. (See our post titled “The Zeal for Independence”). Those abuses were so bad that the Missouri legislature passed a provision prohibiting a relationship between the seller and the fund manager. This author thought the provision went too far. (See our post titled “Regulating Out of Context”). With the passage of SB 325, the Missouri Funeral Directors Association has convinced the Missouri legislature that it did go too far.
Regardless of whether the fund manager is a fiduciary employee or an independent investment advisor, that fund manager should appropriately look to the preneed seller for input about investment objectives. For the larger trust, the fiduciary and fund manager should adopt a written investment policy that, among other factors, considers the trust’s mix of guaranteed and non-guaranteed contracts. If the fund manager is an independent investment advisor, the relationship should be documented with an agreement that discloses all forms of compensation. Consistent with the SEC efforts to reform mutual funds, the disclosure should address any 12b-1 fees. The agreement with the fiduciary should also disclose all relationships the investment advisor has with the preneed seller.
To the extent the preneed contract is guaranteed, the regulator needs to recognize the seller’s economic interest in the trust’s performance. But, fiduciaries and sellers need to consider the growing number of non-guaranteed contracts and the possibility that the guaranteed contract may be serviced by a different funeral home. While the seller may have the prevailing economic interest, not all of the trust may be considered his for investment purposes.
The Wall Street Journal has long been viewed as a leading source of business and investment news. But last weekend, the WSJ ran a short article on preneed, and demonstrated its lack of understanding of the transaction.
The article attempts to characterize preneed as an investment, and then explores issues such as cash surrender charges, cancellation penalties and the NPS failure. This is all very misleading because preneed is not an investment, or a security, but rather the purchase of funeral goods and services.
Those who are considering the purchase of preneed should not view the transaction as an investment. The Securities Exchange Commission determined decades ago that the transaction is a purchase of goods and services, not an investment. While the transaction may be entered as a ‘hedge against rising costs’, there are forms of preneed that do not provide such protections.
The WSJ article ends with advice that also misses the mark. An elder law attorney suggests that a simple trust, costing “a few hundred dollars”, could substitute for the preneed transaction. Unless the attorney is considering individual trustees who serve without compensation, the combined cost of the trust document and the initial corporate fiduciary fee could be several hundred dollars. The corporate fiduciary will then have a minimum annual fee that will be ‘a few hundred dollars’. With a corporate fiduciary, this rather simple plan could end up costing 'a few thousand dollars'.
The next time the WSJ reports on preneed, it should do its homework, and not use the transaction as weekend filler.
The ICCFA’s November Magazine included an article by Craig Martin that provides good advice for all death care trusts. Death care trusts are notoriously bad performers, and if operators are to improve investment performance they need to work more closely with their fiduciaries and portfolio managers. Mr. Martin offers 5 tips that are equally applicable to preneed trusts and endowment care trusts:
- Know your investment guidelines (and statutory limitations)
- Communicate with the investment manager on a regular basis
- Use a professional fund manager
- Include growth in the asset allocation
- Explore the availability of a master trust
Over the next year, Missouri will examine the various flaws of SB1. One of those flaws concerns the independent investment advisor and the ‘fix’ meant to preclude conflicts of interest.
Preneed trusts have a poor track record in terms of investment performance. Trustees often fail to appreciate the key factors that impact investment strategies for preneed. Those factors can vary substantially from trust to trust, making the fund manager’s job more difficult.
Consequently, it is not uncommon to see large trusts delegate investment authority to an independent fund manager. Missouri’s old preneed law took the practice an ill-advised step too far by relieving the trustee of liability for the advisor’s decisions. NPS exploited that provision by appointing investment advisors who handed the keys to the vault to Lincoln Memorial. Believing themselves to be exculpated from investment liabilities, the NPS fiduciaries became bystanders to the largest preneed fraud in history.
Section 436.445 of SB1 appropriately requires the fiduciary to remain responsible for the investment advisor’s actions. However, the statute goes too far in attempting to preclude any relationship between the advisor and the seller. The provision was lifted from Missouri’s Uniform Trust Code without adequate consideration of the relationships of the seller, fiduciary and fund manager.
In contrast to SB1, the Uniform Trust Code does not prohibit relations between the trustor/seller and the investment advisor (or any service provider to the trust). Missouri’s preneed industry would be better served if such relations were allowed if fully disclosed and subjected to a higher level of scrutiny.
During the long and tedious Chapter 436 hearings, some Missouri funeral directors joined consumer advocates in using the NPS failure as reason for recommending that legislators impose 100% trusting on the preneed transaction. Those funeral directors generally advocated the use of insurance or joint accounts as safer methods of preneed funding. During regulatory meetings, comments were also made about how the insurance policies or joint accounts were 'guaranteed'. The realities are that each of these forms of funding has its advantages and disadvantages, and that there are no absolute guarantees.
The AIG failure underscores that even the largest of insurers may be vulnerable to the current financial crisis. While most life insurers are safe, the only guarantees offered by insurance are the rates of return promised by the policy terms. As witnessed by the Texas insolvency proceedings for Lincoln Memorial life, the insurer's promises are only as good as the assets held in its reserve accounts. After that, the policyholder must look to guaranty funds for assistance. Consequently, funeral directors should periodically review the financial statements of the insurance companies they use for preneed funding.
With regard to keeping those preneed funds at the local bank, the funeral director is assuming risk (and liability?) when he exceeds the FDIC insurance coverage. By holding the consumer's payments in a joint capacity, the funeral director is also exposing the funds to the claims of the funeral home's creditors. Losing a lawsuit for damages that exceed the firm's casualty insurance put the consumers at risk.
In contrast, the funds placed in a preneed trust are not the assets of the bank or the funeral home. By virtue of the terms of the preneed contract, the funeral director usually has the risk of investment performance (and under the current circumstances, that's more risk than what some funeral directors want). But in contrast to insurance and joint account contracts, the trust provides the death care operator some say in how investment risk should be handled.