Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 13: SCIENTIFIC LIFE INSURANCE - Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems
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CHAPTER 13: SCIENTIFIC LIFE INSURANCE - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems 
Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems, 2nd edition, revised (New York: The Century Co., 1923).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
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SCIENTIFIC LIFE INSURANCE
§ 1. Reserve life insurance. § 2. The mortality table. § 3. The single premium for any term. § 4. Level annual term premiums and reserves. § 5. Term policies and straight life. § 6. Limited premium payments. § 7. The endowment feature. § 8. The choice of a policy. § 9. Insurance assets and investments as savings. § 10. Future of insurance.
§ 1. Reserve life insurance. The plan of reserve insurance provides a remedy for the difficulties just indicated. The essential purpose of the reserve plan is to collect during the earlier years of the insurance policy, when the mortality is less, a sum larger than is needed to meet the current losses. This sum, the reserve, is kept invested and accumulating an income sufficient to offset the increase in losses as years advance. In reserve insurance, therefore, the premium never increases from year to year, although it may be so arranged as to diminish or to cease entirely some time within the term for which the insurance continues.
The premium must always be fixed in advance. The calculations for determining the premiums on different kinds of insurance policies are many and complex, but all conform to a few general principles. The three factors assumed are an average mortality table, a rate of interest (or yield on investments), and an expense rate in proportion to the premiums on outstanding insurance. Insurance on the reserve plan is often called scientific insurance because, upon the basis of these assumptions resulting from experience, it makes exact mathematical calculations of the premiums and reserves needed for insurance of any particular kind in respect to age of insured, number of payments, method of paying the beneficiary, and any other conditions. The premium thus fixed is, however, only a maximum, and usually is reduced as the result of conditions more favorable than those assumed.
§ 2. The mortality table. When large numbers of men are taken as a group, a certain proportion of those at each age may be expected to die. A mortality table starts with a group of persons, as 100,000, at a given age, as 10 years, and shows the number who die and the number who survive at each year of age until all are dead. The tables generally used in the United States are the “Actuaries” which assumes the limit of life to be 100 years, and the American Experience Table of Mortality, constructed by Sheppard Homans in 1868, which assumes the limit of life to be 96. Some figures from the latter table, at specified years, are given below:
The actual deaths in any group of insured are not exactly the number in the mortality tables. But this is not an essential difficulty as long as the deaths are fewer than the figures of the tables, at least in the earlier years of the policy. Any excess of premiums thus collected but increases the safety of the insurance or reduces the need of later payments. In fact, the mortality in all well conducted companies in the United States is below the figures of these tables, partly because the tables were conservatively calculated, partly because of the favorable influence of medical selection, especially among the recently insured, and partly because of the improvement in longevity since the tables were constructed.
The premiums given as illustrations in the following discussions are “net premiums,” or natural premiums, estimated as just sufficient to meet the actual payments required by the contracts in the policies. To provide for the expenses of management, an addition is made to the net premium, called the “loading.” The entire premium is called the “gross premium.” The loading, a large part of which goes for agents’ commissions and the costs of management, is a very considerable addition to the net premiums, adding in the case of the standard companies nearly 25 per cent to the premiums for an endowment policy, nearly 30 per cent on a limited payment, and more than 40 per cent on a straight life. A part of this, however, may be refunded to the insured in the form of “dividends.”
§ 3. The single premium for any term. It is apparent that the natural assessment premium (ignoring the factor of interest) for $1000 of insurance is expressed by the death rate for that year, e. g., at age 10 the payment of $7.49 by each of the 100,000 living at the beginning of the year will provide the $749,000 needed to pay the losses. If premiums are collected at the beginning of the year and losses are paid at the end of the year, and if interest can be earned meantime at the rate of 3½ per cent, the premium in advance for a one-year term policy is the natural premium discounted, e. g., $8.64 is the present worth of $8.95, which is the natural premium at age 35 due a year later, interest being 3½ per cent. In these calculations there is no allowance for expenses, the necessary “loading.”
In the same manner may be determined the natural assessment premium for each year of insurance. It is a simple matter to determine the amount of a single premium, at any age, that is adequate to pay for insurance covering any selected number of years (term insurance) up to the entire period of each insured person’s life (full life). It is necessary only to apply the formula of present worth and that of compound interest on investments.1 Thus the losses of any future year, according to the table of mortality, discounted by the rate of yield on investments, are the present worth of insuring the entire group for that year. The single premium for each of the insured for any term of years is the sum of the present worth of insurance for all the years of the term, divided by the number living at the beginning of the period.2
The payment in advance of the single premium for any definite term provides a reserve fund sufficient, on the assumptions made, to carry all the insurance without further payments. Each year there is added to the fund the income earned on investments, and there is subtracted the amount of the losses for the year, until the death of the last member of the insured group. If the deaths in the earlier years are fewer than were expected in the mortality table, this will be offset eventually by more deaths at the advanced years; but in the meantime a reserve larger than was expected is yielding income, thus providing a larger sum than is needed to pay all the policies at maturity. This surplus might be distributed as so-called “dividends” from time to time to those surviving, or be added pro-rata, at intervals, to the amount of the policies as accumulated dividends.
§ 4. Level annual term premiums and reserves. It is a matter of no very abstruse mathematics (in principle) to find the equivalent of this single premium in any one of many other forms of premium payment. The processes are but variations of present worth and compound interest calculations. Such calculations, however, lead into many complexities of practical detail difficult to explain in brief compass, and are the special task of the actuary (the mathematical expert dealing with such problems in the insurance business). The most useful actuarial equivalent of the single premium is the level annual premium for any period (term or life). Almost all policies now written have the level annual premium as a feature. The amount of the level annual premiums at first is greater than the losses: this causes for a time the steady accumulation of a reserve that yields income. Then, as the losses grow, they overtake and finally surpass the amount of the annual premiums. Therefore, the total reserve for any group of insured, within the definite term for which insured, increases year by year to a maximum and then declines until it reaches zero with the payment of the last claim. The individual reserve for each policy not yet matured increases steadily the longer it is in force, whatever be the term. The total reserve is essential to the solvency of the company and the payment of all the policies as they fall due.
The companies that issue policies on the level premium plan or reserve plan are known as “old line” companies, or as “legal reserve” companies, because the state laws require every company of this type to maintain the reserves calculated on the basis of a certain rate of yield. The growth of the legal reserve companies in recent times constitutes one of the financial marvels of the age. They had in 1919 more than 58,000,000 policies in force, for a total of nearly $36,000,000,000 of indemnity (insurance in force); their total income was nearly $1,600,000,000 (about one fortieth being from investments, the remainder from premiums), and their total assets $6,700,000,000. These figures grow so rapidly that any statistics are soon out of date. The upward curve may be seen in the following data:
Reserve insurance is carried on by both mutual and stock companies; of late some large stock companies, such as the Equitable and the Prudential, have been transformed into mutual companies. The mutual company legally belongs to the policyholders, though its control is actually in the hands of a self-perpetuating group of trustees and officers, more or less supervised by state officials. The gross premiums in reserve insurance are, for the purpose of safety, fixed at a figure larger than the expected cost of the insurance, and normally the earnings from interest are higher, the mortality is lower, and expenses are less than those on which the calculation of rates is based. From the excess of income resulting, the company sets aside a surplus and then divides the rest among the policyholders. These returns, virtually but the refund of excess premiums, are called “dividends” (a somewhat misleading term, not to be confused with dividends on corporate stock). The policies that receive dividends are called “participating” and are said to participate in the earnings. Formerly the majority of policies paid “deferred” dividends after five, ten, or twenty years, according to various tontine and semi-tontine plans, the survivors to these periods receiving their dividends plus those of the other policyholders who had died or had withdrawn from the company. This form of policy was objectionable in that it involved a lottery element, the survivors winning the “dividends” that should have been paid to the deceased; it was made illegal in New York and other states, and in most cases dividends are now paid annually. The stock company, organized for profit, frequently charges lower premiums for “non-participating” policies, and then retains such profits as may result from keeping expenses below receipts.
§ 5. Term policies and straight life. A person purchasing life insurance, taking out a policy, finds himself facing a choice among a confusing variety of policy forms. Apart, however, from some comparatively minor features such as those just described, as to distribution of dividends, the various forms of policies result from combining in various ways three features. The first of these is the term within which the level premium is calculated. This may be one year, or any number of years, most frequently five or some multiple. Whatever be the term, the rate of premium is calculated with respect to the expected mortality at the ages included, and at the renewal of the insurance for a new term the premium rate “steps up” to that required to meet the expected losses at the higher ages. Evidently, the shorter the term for which a policy is written, the lower the rate of premium, for the early years, because the smaller the reserve needed to keep down payments in the later years of the term. For example, on a twenty-year term policy taken at age 35 the natural premium would be $10.80 a year. Break this term up into two terms of ten years each, and the annual premium for the first ten year would be $9.36; but when the policy is renewed for the second term of ten years (at age 45) the rate would be nearly $15.00. The policy known as “straight life” or “level life” is simply term insurance for the term limit (or highest age) of the mortality table (in the American Experience table that is 96). The net premium for straight life at age 35 is $19.91, and this permits (at the rate of earnings assumed) the accumulation of a reserve of $310.75 at the end of twenty years, whereas the reserve on the twenty-year term ending then is zero. The income of this reserve, added to the annual premium, is enough to meet the expected losses in the later years as they gradually rise. (These amounts are on the assumption of the American mortality and 3½ per cent interest.)
§ 6. Limited premium payments. A second feature in which policies differ is in regard to the number of premium payments to be made according to the calculation. If the number of payments is any less than the number of years of the term the policy is one of “limited payment.” The most limited payment is the single premium already described, which may be used in connection with any term from one year to life. The single premium is simply the reserve required to meet the cost of the insurance, without further payments, to the end of the term. The net single premium, or reserve, for a straight life policy, at age 96 is $1000, the face of the policy. The most common limited payment policy is the twenty-payment life. The annual premium for this at age 35 is $27.40, which is more than twice as much each year as the premium on a twenty-year term ($10.80) although it provides no more indemnity. But whereas the reserve on the term policy at age 55 is zero, the reserve on the twenty-payment life is $566.15, this being just the amount of a single-payment life policy if taken at age 55.
By just as much as the experience of any company (or separate group of insured) is more favorable than the figures assumed as to rate of yield on investment, mortality, or expenses, there will be excess premiums to refund (“dividends”), which may be used by the insured to reduce his annual premiums or to purchase additional insurance or to add to the reserve. In the more successful companies an ordinary life policy eventually accumulates a reserve sufficient to carry the policy to the limit of age without further payments, and thus becomes in fact a limited payment policy.
§ 7. The endowment feature. A third feature in respect to which life insurance policies differ is as to the extent to which they include the feature of saving with that of insurance. We have seen that, just to the extent that any reserve whatever is accumulated to keep the premium level, to prevent its “stepping up” as the mortality rate advances with age, there is an act of saving distinct from the payment of a premium for insurance in that year. This is brought out clearly in the case of many insurance policies which provide for a “surrender value” annually equal to the accumulated reserve. So, in our example, the reserve of the straight life policy was $310.75, and that of the twenty-payment life was $566.15. If the insured survives he may, according to the terms of many policies draw for his own benefit these amounts, the “surrender value.” This privilege in many cases unfortunately defeats the purpose of insurance for the families, and tempts men to use the proceeds of their policies for enjoyment or for investment in business.
A further step is taken in the savings process in endowment policies. In these the level premium for a definite term is made high enough to accumulate a reserve more than sufficient for a single-payment life policy beginning at the end of the limited payment period. The premium on endowment policies is so calculated that the reserve equals the face of the policy at the end of the payment period. For example, on a twenty-year endowment the net annual premium is $38.35, the terminal reserve is $1000, which is the surrender value. Many persons are attracted to endowment insurance by the oft expressed thought that “You don’t have to die to beat it.” But this is a mistake. The endowment policy is merely a convenient but somewhat costly plan of saving, hitched on to an insurance policy, with which “actuarially” it has no essential connection. In “scientific” insurance the insured pays its full actuarial cost for each feature of the policy that he buys: so much for the insurance, so much additional for the accumulation of the endowment. The premium for endowment insurance is much higher than that for term life insurance alone during the same period. If insurance is the thing one needs, one is purchasing only a fraction as much for the same annual outlay.
It will be observed that only the survivors to the end of the term get the endowment, and those dying earlier receive no more than if they carried the cheapest term insurance. This gives to the endowment policy a strong “tontine” or lottery character, the survivors profiting at the cost of those who die within the term. This often deceives the uninformed applicant for insurance into the belief that, despite the costs of management, an endowment policy yields a much higher return than other conservative investments at compound interest. The excess of the net endowment premium over the net term premium in our example is annually $26.65, which, compounded at 4 per cent, would be about $825 at the end of the period; but this is sufficient to give the survivors $1000 each, or approximately 6 per cent compound interest. The survivors are lucky not only in living but in getting a monetary prize (paid for by those who have died) for their success. All those who have died, however, would have been better off if they had taken out some cheaper form of policy (term, or straight life, or limited premium) and had deposited in the savings bank each year the difference in the premiums.
§ 8. The choice of a policy. The choice of a policy by an applicant for insurance presents much difficulty in view of the manifold differences in the details of the various contracts, the contingent nature of so many features on which the ultimate cost will depend, and further because of the various circumstances of the insuring individuals, making different policies suitable to their different needs. Moreover, the advice of the agent is too often of little assistance, when it is given in view of the amount of his commission, and with the desire to make an immediate sale, rather than with regard to the true interest of the insured. The first condition of a wise choice is to get into a sound company, of which there are now many, for mere size does not necessarily indicate either superior soundness or superior economy in a reserve company. The various policies written by any honestly conducted reserve company are all actuarily equivalent on the basis of the assumptions made, and all provide reserves adequate to meet their outstanding contracts. There are certain questions on which the applicant must be clear and which he alone can answer.
(1) What is it he most needs—is it the protection of insurance, or is it an opportunity to deposit savings regularly? The insurance method differs from the method of depositing savings by its contingent nature, the resulting income of any individual being possibly much greater than the amounts actually saved (e.g., when the insured dies or is injured soon after taking insurance), and possibly less or nothing at all.
(2) What is the period within which insurance is most needed?
(3) How much can he devote to insurance or to saving respectively, and how will this amount probably change in the course of years, increasing or decreasing? The premium in personal insurance (life, accident, sickness, invalidity, old-age pensions) is in almost all cases paid out of some current income. The premium paid is just so much subtracted from the amount available for present direct use and applied to the purchase of future incomes for one’s self or family.
(4) What would be the most suitable mode and distribution of indemnity payments? The payment usually takes the form of a lump sum payment at death or at the maturity of the endowment. In recent times there has been a growing use of original forms of payment which give to the beneficiary annual or monthly instalments for a definite number of years or for life.
In the light of the foregoing discussion, it is apparent that the more immediate and greater the need of insurance, and the more limited the present income of the insured, the briefer the term for which insurance should be taken for the greater the amount of indemnity that can be bought with a given outlay. A young man in his twenties or thirties, with a limited salary or with his capital invested in business, needs particularly to protect his wife and his children until they are of age. The difficulty with term policies, especially for shorter terms, is the stepping up of premiums, which later makes the cost prohibitive. However, life insurance is essentially needed by one having dependents (wife, young children, sisters, parents, etc.), and is far less often important to the older man than it is to the man between twenty and fifty years of age. A good golden mean for many men is a twenty-payment life policy, its surrender value at age fifty-five being an endowment for nearly two thirds the face of the policy. The best general purpose policy for the active business man who can use and invest his funds safely and well is the “straight life.” A very desirable kind of insurance (as yet little developed) for salaried men is that terminating at some chosen retirement age, (say sixty-five years) combined with an old-age pension for life thereafter.
§ 9. Insurance assets and investments as savings. Of all savings institutions insurance probably is destined to be the most important. It is probable that abstinence will more and more express itself not in accumulating large capital sums to provide for one’s old age or for survivors, but in providing insurance for dependent survivors, and invalidity and old-age pensions for the insured and others, payable as terminable annuities. In any case, the results to be expected in the changing forms and magnitude of private fortunes are certain to be great. The assets of life insurance companies in the United States have already attained the enormous sum of nearly $7,000,000,000, a sum equal to the reported savings bank deposits. In the last thirty years life insurance assets have more than doubled in each decade, and are now increasing by more than a quarter of a billion dollars annually. These great funds, which in equity nearly all belong to the policyholders, form already approximately one thirtieth of all the private capital of the country. They are invested in many ways, in real estate, in loans secured by mortgages on real estate, in bonds, municipal, railroad, and industrial. This is one of the ways in which the equitable ownership of the wealth of the nation is being practically and effectively socialized. The problem of wise legislation for these organizations, of their competent and honest management, and of their relation to the social, business, and political life of the nation, is certain to be of ever increasing importance. We are hardly more than emerging from the experimental stage of insurance, hardly more than at the beginning of its development.
§ 10. Future of insurance. It is striking evidence of the importance of the marginal principle that insurance should still be desired by men when the cost is so high and so large a part of the total premiums is absorbed in expenses.3 Insurance of all kinds grows apace, but its use would be wider and its benefits greater if the “tare and tret” of doing the business could be reduced. It seems a reasonable hope, now that the experimental stages are passed, that this may be done. It is true that some portion of the expenses of insurance companies give to the insured valuable services, such as inspection of houses for fire prevention, medical examination, and home nursing to reduce illness and conserve life and these services might be further extended. In the case of all kinds of insurance as yet a large expense for agents has been necessary to educate men to see the value of insurance and to purchase it, as well as for many other competitive expenses. It has been found that much of this expense can be saved by insurance in groups (for all employees in an establishment), by compulsory insurance (as of all workingmen), and by central state administration serving to regularize and unify the organizations. An important problem to be solved in the future is to find methods of insurance equal to or exceeding in their efficiency those now in use, but at much more moderate cost. It is not improbable that universal coöperative state insurance, both of life and property, will be worked out. This important question will be further considered in connection with “social insurance” as a measure to benefit the working classes.
TARIFF AND TAXATION
[1 ]See Vol. I, p. 279.
[2 ]Let P be the present worth of all the policies for a group of the same age, p the present worth of one policy, X the total insured at the beginning of the period, f the total losses for any year. Then
[3 ]See ch. 12 § 6.