August 17, 2014


math puzzles
My client’s annual statement for universal life insurance showed a tax-free death benefit of the face amount ($2,000,000) plus the investment returns ($317,079). Do the math and what’s the total? I get $2,317,079. The insurer showed $3,317,079 — an extra million dollars. I contacted them and got a quick response. They’re issuing a letter of apology and a corrected statement.

Luckily, my client didn’t have whole life insurance where the lack of transparency makes mistakes almost impossible to spot.

Big insurers have big resources but even leaders in corporate governance make mistakes. That’s because computers are programmed and the limited testing is generally done internally. The systems are expected to be 100% functional when launched. In contrast, Gmail was in beta for from April 2004 to July 2009.

Time bombs

When I developed products, we focused on launching new offerings. We maximized our resources by delaying work which could be completed later. For launch, we needed
  • marketing tools: an announcement, PowerPoint presentations for the marketing directors to use with advisors, computer-based tools for advisors to prepare proposals for their clients
  • administration support: printing the policy contract (basics like accepting premiums, paying compensation etc were already part of the administration systems and rarely required major modifications)
To speed up times, we minimized printed materials like marketing guides. They looked nice but added costs and created delays. We then had leeway to make “last-minute” changes.

Month-to-month, universal life insurance policies operate much like bank accounts with deposits (premiums, investment returns) and withdrawals (mortality charges, administration charges). The major calculations took place on policy anniversaries. That meant we had almost a year to get ready.

Other capabilities like inforce illustrations (projecting performance after purchase) could be delayed for years. Manual calculations could be done in the interim, if necessary. I once got approval to add two unbudgeted head count. During a hiring freeze. That’s because we could no longer defer some work.

The Human Element

Staff leave. Staff forget. Staff are under pressure to meet deadlines. Miscommunication occurs. Documentation may not be comprehensive enough or clear enough.

Administration systems change. Older products might be on legacy systems. Migrating them to the latest system is much more difficult than upgrading from a version of Windows (see challenges in trying to upgrade to Windows 8 or from 8 to 8.1).

Be Vigilant

Mistakes occur. You might not be sympathetic but you can be vigilant. You don’t need a PhD in mathematics or to be an actuary (though both help). Instead, be a detective. Question what looks odd or what you don’t understand. You’re entitled to ask.


PS Your advisor should be looking for mistakes on your behalf.

August 10, 2014


price tag $1
The price match should have reduced the price by a dollar from $7 to $6. Instead, the cashier reduced the price to a dollar --- a reduction of $6. The customer noticed but didn’t say anything. This wasn’t for her personal benefit but to protect the cashier from getting in trouble for the mistake.

That’s noble, but would the customer in this real-life example have been concerned about the cashier if the price were higher than expected?


We’re great at justifying to get advantages. Have you heard or used arguments like these
  • stores overprice
  • you didn’t make a mistake
  • you had to do extra work to get the price match
  • the store doesn’t lose money overall because unaware customers are paying their higher price (the store didn’t lower their price even when you showed them they were charging more)
  • the store should train their staff properly
  • if the store had the lowest price, there would have been no need for a price match

What’s The Real Price?

You can only compare prices when different retailers sell the same product and publish their prices. They’ll often match prices when you provide proof. Sometimes they’ll reduce their prices temporarily to match a competitor (e.g., when we ended 10 years without a TV).

Mismatching: When You Can’t Compare

When you’re buying financial products, what’s the lowest price? The options might be tailored to you, which makes comparisons difficult. There’s rarely an easy way to check online. Prices might not be negotiable, even if you have proof. While you may not be able to much about the price, you can get better value by selecting a better advisor.

When you can’t compare make good comparisons, you risk getting poor options. For instance, Freakonomics found that real estate agents encouraged clients to buy/sell quickly, rather than wait for a better price … but left their own properties on the market for longer and sold for higher prices (see the video in tips for first-time homebuyers).

Sellers have ways of justifying their actions
  • the higher margin choice isn’t necessarily “bad”
  • selling takes work and maybe you took extra time
  • showing more options might confuse you and stop you from buying (see the jam experiment)
  • you’re better off buying what they have in stock
  • you’re not forced to buy
Both buyers and sellers have ways to justify their actions. Buyer beware. Seller beware too.


PS Imagine a world without price matching (or mismatching)