Conflicting Interests and the Effect of Fiduciary Duty – Evidence from Variable Annuities
Dr. Shan Ge
Assistant Professor of Finance
Stern School of Business
New York University
We examine the drivers of variable annuity sales and the impact of a proposed regulatory change. Variable annuities are popular retirement products with over $2 trillion in assets in the United States. Insurers typically pay brokers a commission for selling variable annuities that ranges from 0% to over 10% of investors’ premium payments. Brokers earn higher commissions for selling inferior annuities, in terms of higher expenses and more ex-post complaints. Our results indicate that variable annuity sales are roughly five times as sensitive to brokers’ financial interests than investors’. To help limit conflicts of interest, the Department of Labor proposed a rule in 2016 that would hold brokers to a fiduciary standard when dealing with retirement accounts. We find that after the proposed fiduciary rule, the sales of high-expense variable annuities fell by 52% as sales became more sensitive to expenses and insurers increased the relative availability of low-expense products. Based on our structural model estimates, investor welfare improved as a result of the fiduciary rule under conservative assumptions.