The IFDA seems to be everyone’s favorite whipping boy. Even prominent industry leaders are stepping back from the Association in its time of need. The epicenter for the latest news on the IFDA’s troubles has been the Springfield Journal-Register and Bruce Rushton. Mr. Rushton has done a thorough and excellent job of reporting on the IFDA master trust. In support of that reporting, the Journal-Register published an editorial calling for action to protect Illinois consumers. In response, Springfield funeral director Chris Butler wrote to the Journal-Register to present a different perspective of the reporting and editorial. I, for one, agree with Mr. Butler that the Journal-Register is contributing to the confusion and anxieties of consumers who hold a preneed contract.
References to the IFDA master trust as a Ponzi scheme have been abused. It’s a fact that the IFDA made promises to its membership that it has not been able to keep. In a very literal sense, this may seem to fit the Ponzi scheme definition, but the IFDA master trust does not begin to equate to the Bernie Madoff fraud, or even the NPS business model. Certain factors have contributed to a liquidity problem for the master trust. The single greatest factor, the collapse of the financial markets, is completely beyond the IFDA’s control. Rather than sell off assets at a loss, fiduciaries in this situation would prefer to use incoming funds to meet liquidity needs. This is not the classic Ponzi scheme.
As Mr. Butler suggests, it is the Illinois funeral director who will bear most of the financial consequences of the master trust deficits. While there is a legitimate exposure to the consumers holding non-guaranteed contracts, the IFDA must be afforded the opportunity to do right by these consumers. Contrary to what the Journal-Register suggests, state law does not appear to ensure these consumers ‘can’t lose money on their investment’. In reality, the non-guaranteed contract purchaser has investment risk because of the decision to forego the guaranteed contract. Granted, the consumer may not have been able to afford the guaranteed contract (and its required installment payments). But, the non-guaranteed contract represents a fund set aside for use at a future date (without promises from the funeral home about what those funds will purchase).
When a funeral home steps forward to honor a non-guaranteed contract regardless of the deficit, the consumer should recognize that the funeral director is covering the deficit out of a commitment to the family, and not because of a state law. Consumers of guaranteed contracts should also appreciate that funeral homes are honoring those contracts despite legitimate controversies over their obligation to do so.
The IFDA and its advisors made serious mistakes, but so did the regulators. Oversight fell through the cracks several years ago. Restructuring the master trust and its oversight could take years. The reform process will only take longer if misplaced criticism must be addressed at every step.