Life Insurance as an Asset Class

It’s all about diversification

Modern Portfolio Theory has a very simple premise when it comes to diversification: Look at your investable assets in their most basic asset class components of cash, equities, and fixed income – while, being mindful of your risk tolerance. Then create a customized asset allocation that combines these components in such a way as to maximize growth and minimize risk. Modern Portfolio Theory is nothing more than Modern Diversification.

Of course, there are some additional asset classes money managers may expand into: real estate, certain commodities (precious metals and petroleum, for example), and life insurance.

Life insurance? Certainly! Consider the two fundamental components of life insurance purchased for a lifetime: the underlying cash values (asset class = fixed income) support the death benefit, and the death benefit itself (asset class = cash). This is not to suggest life insurance as an investment. When acquired for the classic purposes of replacing an individual’s Human Life Value, or when used to provide liquidity to an estate, business, or charity, life insurance properly acquired can be an important part of an overall approach to asset accumulation over one’s lifetime.

Life insurance is most typically allocated into the fixed-income category for its underlying cash value, which is in turn invested in high-grade bonds to support whole life policies. At the other extreme, life insurance can earn Index Credits if policy reserves are deployed, for example, into an S&P500® Index account.

Regardless of asset class attribution, cash values should be viewed as a long-term asset. Life insurance is not a savings account (there’s no immediate access to your cash values in the first few years), and yet the return on its long-term accumulation value is very similar to the real returns of high-grade bonds when considering the tax advantage of tax-deferred accumulation on cash values. When the insured dies, the accumulations become part of the death benefit, for which there is no income tax – essentially, “forgiving” the tax-deferred accumulations during life.

It’s also about risk tolerance

Considerations of risk tolerance are the key to success when pursuing asset allocation’s approach to diversification. Risk tolerance is typically described by four distinct categories: Conservative, Balanced, Aggressive, and Very Aggressive. A “conservative” investor’s risk tolerance is so averse to the loss of principal that it results in less than 40% – sometimes only 20% – of invested assets being deployed in equities. The balance is in cash and fixed-income securities, such as taxable and non-taxed bonds. While this better assures preservation of value, it is often at the expense of returns, since there is a historic relationship between the amount of risk you are willing to take and the reward you may achieve for that risk. Also, when preservation of principal is the objective, purchasing power is often sacrificed and the real after-inflation value of the investment could actually be negative.

At the other extreme are the “very aggressive” investors, who will ordinarily have their entire portfolio invested in equities. While there is a possibility that such risk tolerance, properly deployed, could substantially overcome the “drag” of inflation, there’s no guarantee of a return of anything – including principal.

There are numerous subjective qualities that result in an investor’s style ranging the spectrum from conservative to very aggressive, and you should consult a qualified financial professional to help you determine your unique considerations around risk tolerance.

About Jeffrey Berson

40 years in and around the industry has made Insurance a part of my DNA. I have had the pleasure of working with and for some of the greatest minds in our industry. My "Bersonal" View is an attempt to capture some of the best ideas, the best concepts and the best practices in a way that can lead to success for others. It will certainly be my point of view, so please...don't take it "Bersonal".
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