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Feb 1, 2018

Investing Inside An Insurance Policy - Part 3 Universal Life Insurance As An Investment

by Colin Ritchie

Colin RitchieThink that life insurance is just a tool to make sure that junior gets the university vacation if you die in your 40s, your spouse doesn’t have to worry about mortgage payments if you die in your 60’s or your kids have enough money to pay the final tax bill on the family cottage if you die in your 80’s? Not so fast, says the insurance industry. They are now seeking a place at the table when clients discuss ways of funding their own retirement, particularly for those clients in higher tax brackets and those that have their own corporations.

The first two parts of this series have detailed some of the significant tax advantages enjoyed by life insurance and steps you can take to mitigate risk when looking to invest through life insurance or if you’re already the proud owner of a policy to call your own. To date, I’ve said little about your actual investment options inside an insurance policy, although I’ll focus solely on “Universal Life” or UL policies, the insurance that most closely resemble traditional investments. For those of who are fans of Participating Whole Life (“Par”) Policies, you’ll unfortunately have to wait until next time. Finally, regardless of whether you’re looking at either of these types of policies or even more basic permanent policies, my (hopefully) final article in this series will hopefully provide you with guidelines to use when measuring life insurance against traditional investments, as any comparison between options is only as accurate as the underlying assumptions.

But, before I go any further, I wish to thank the insurance advisors I’ve canvassed for their insurance investment recommendations: Lee Brooks of View 360 Insurance Advisory (New Westminster, British Columbia), Tyler Eastman, Sun Life Advisor (Terrace, British Columbia), John Ong, Certified Financial Planner (Vancouver, British Columbia) and fellow MoneySaver Contributing Editor, Rino Rancanelli, owner of (Oakville, Ontario).

Setting The Stage

While Par Policies are something of a mysterious black box that spits out policy dividends each year and often offer guaranteed increases in cash value, UL policies are generally more transparent, flexible and multi-purpose creatures. There is a set minimum premium payable monthly or yearly for guaranteed death benefit or “face value” of the policy but extra contributions are allowed into what is called an “accumulating fund” that is essentially a tax-free investment account whose balance at death is paid out tax-free on top of the face value. Each insurer offers its own set of different investment options. Traditionally, this meant predominantly mutual funds, which has often meant more uncertain and volatile returns than Par Policies and some rather steep investment management fees.

Like Par Policies, the greatest risk to owning a UL is having the policy run out of money when the owner doesn’t have extra funds to contribute to the cause. Traditionally, there has been a far greater chance of this happening for UL policies than their Par compatriots for a few reasons:

  • Volatility

Although a UL policy will offer you far more upside than a Par Policy, it also exposes you to double-digit losses in a year if you pick riskier investment options and all does not go well.

  • Inability to lock in gains

If you get paid a policy dividend in your Par Policy, it gets added to the cash value and the insurance company can’t take it away from you the next year if their investments don’t perform as expected. Accordingly, they invest more conservatively and factor lots of margin for safety when setting premium rates. UL policies give clients the chance for making a lot more profit but don’t generally provide them with this safety net, except for “limited pay” policies that at least ensure that you are no longer responsible for ongoing premium payments after a set period of time even though any additional contributions you’ve invested are still fully at risk. I have listed a few exceptions to the rule later in this article.

  • Overly optimistic investment return assumptions

In the 80’s and 90’s, when markets soaring and interest rates were high, UL policies were the policies of choice, while Par Policies were considered yesterday’s news. Although illustrations for both types of policies purchased during this period have not lived up to expectations, UL policies (particularly if invested in mostly equities) took far more of the pain. While Par Policies ended up paying less than everyone hoped, at least they continued to pay out policy dividends year over year. In contrast, negative portfolio returns in UL policies meant that the anticipated growth that was supposed to pay future policy premiums was not merely growing slower than expected but was actually shrinking. That meant policies running out of money far sooner.

  • Yearly Increases in Premiums

It was common for clients to purchase UL policies that had yearly increases in their insurance costs (sometimes to set ages and sometimes indefinitely) to keep costs low in the early years so they could have more money working for them in their investment fund. The theory was that the opportunity to have more money in the market longer helped clients since the extra profits they would earn on their investments in the early years would pay for the increased insurance costs on the back end. When performance lagged and the clients didn’t continue to contribute fresh funds to keep their UL policies on course, the increases in fees, modest for younger clients but growing significantly for older clients, ultimately made many policies unsustainable. By contrast, Par Policies generally offer a level premium for life so that, even if they weren’t able to be self-funding as early as originally illustrated, the cost of keeping the policy going was not nearly as significant.

On the other hand, life is about learning from one’s mistakes. Just because UL policies have performed badly in the past, doesn’t mean that there is no place for them in your future. The potential tax savings and advantages offered by these policies are real and can still offer significant benefits to the right clients. For the same reason that it can be a mistake for investors to completely shun investing in the stock market just because they’ve been bitten in the past, it may also be a missed opportunity for investors to not investigate using ULs now merely because of past problems. The secret is often to learn from and fix the mistakes of the past rather than abandoning a strategy without a backward glance.

Along those lines, the insurance industry has made some significant changes to their investment offerings and the investment fees charged on these offerings that do a lot to mitigate risk and enhance performance. Moreover, no one is purchasing these policies on the expectation of continuous double-digit returns, which means that it is now a lot easier for ULs to live up to their promises. In defence of insurance advisors past, however, it wasn’t merely the insurance industry that was assuming that investors in that period would continue to enjoy double-digit returns in perpetuity; many investment portfolios burdened by similar unrealistic expectations also floundered and flopped.

Finally, more clients select policies with level premiums, specially designed policies that allow tax sheltering but reduce or even almost eliminate the insurance costs over time, or, if they do choose yearly increases in costs, doing so with a contractual right to switch over to a fixed yearly charge at a later date of their choosing at a predetermined rate. In other words, they can take advantage of the rather significant savings and potentially improved overall results by paying yearly increasing rates for a number of years but preselecting a time to bite the bullet and switch over to level rates based on their age at that time in order to control future costs. In the end, UL policies are a lot like an electric drill– if used in the right situation, in a careful, safe manner and regularly maintained, it just might be the best tool for the right job, although if used inappropriate, there is the chance of pain and shocks.

Changes in UL Investment Options

In my previous article in these series, I argued that it’s important to manage your UL policy in the same way as the rest of your investments. This means reviewing and potentially rebalancing the investments inside your portfolio at least once a year, changing your holdings if your time horizon and risk tolerance change and getting your insurance advisor to update your policy illustrations every few years so you can make small changes immediately rather than facing large changes later.

Noting all of this, in the end, it still often comes down to investments inside the policy. My personal bias is to use UL policies for the slow and steady portion of your portfolio rather than the “shoot for the moon” component. The less volatile your investments, the less likely things can go wrong. Furthermore, for the same reasons I love investments that pay interest and dividends along the way in order to reduce the need to eat into capital during down markets, I love similar investments inside UL policies in order to generate cash to pay the annual premium costs.

Fortunately, there are an ever-increasing number of investment options. One insurer actually offers more than 200 investment choices for UL investors, although I am not completely convinced that more is always better. Many of these are mutual funds, often the same ones you could select within an RRSP or an open account, but they aren’t the only game in town. Here are a few of the more innovative choices:

  • A Mortgage Investment Corporation

BMO offers you the chance to invest in a portfolio of mortgages held by a Mortgage Investment Corporation (“MIC”) that would pay around 6% and is a non-stock market investment. Since this is a private investment, this means not having to worry about stock market fluctuations and, despite a low interest rate environment, earning a yield that is probably higher than the one used to illustrate the performance of your UL policy. It also means that yield should increase relatively quickly when mortgage rates go up, as the mortgages are all two years or less and there are always mortgages coming due and fresh money is being lent at the new market rate.

  • A Stock Market Investment that Guarantees No Losses

BMO offers the “Guaranteed Market Index Account”, which it describes as offering the security of a GIC with exposure to the TSX 60. It’s a simple proposition – you get 50% of the market upside each year but none of the downside. Although this doesn’t eliminate volatility and still means having to eat into capital during a bad year to pay premiums, it does offer some exposure to the market during good times and better protects your capital during the bad ones.

  • Absolute Return Funds

Sun Life offers a fund designed to make a yearly profit of 5% more than the overnight lending rate over every 3-year period, regardless of market conditions by using a bunch of strategies, depending on market conditions at that time. Thus, instead of claiming a successful record merely because it has lost less than its competitors, it is only successful if it’s making you the promised profit, regardless of what the market does. Furthermore, they strive to be less than half as volatile as the global stock market.

  • Diversified Accounts

Sun Life Offers the Sun Life Diversified Account that reminds me a lot of the investment portfolio you’d receive inside a Par Policy: private mortgages, some private investments, real estate, public bonds and some public equities. It also smooths returns in order to provide less volatility and predictability. At the time of this article, it pays daily interest equal to about 4% per year and guarantees that your yearly return will never drop below 0%.

  • Hybrid UL / Par Policies

Industrial Alliance offers a product called the “Equibuild” that is designed to give you the best of both worlds. The basic premiums go into a fund that generates guaranteed cash value like you’d enjoy with a Par Policy and pays policy dividends. Any extra money you contribute can be allocated to Equibuild Fund, which is the Par Policy equivalent, or towards more traditional UL investments. There is also even the option to use extra money to buy an additional paid up death benefit each year. As another feature, there is a cash for life feature where the owner is guaranteed payment for life if he wants to use the policy for retirement purposes.

Obviously, there are likely other intriguing insurance investment options out there, as these are only some of the options I’ve discovered on my own and through my cadre of insurance advisor friends. I suggest doing what I do when working with financial planning clients who are potentially interested in life insurance – collaborating with a licensed insurance advisor (which I am not, as my focus is on big picture planning despite owning my Certified Life Underwriter Designation and having spent 15 years advising insurance advisors) who can make specific policy recommendations.

Unless your insurance advisor is experienced in overall financial planning and knows your situation, I strongly suggest getting a financial planner familiar with your overarching financial plan review the size, type and ownership of the policy suggested to ensure that it’s the best possible fit. Think about buying life insurance like shoe shopping – even though you need new runners for an upcoming marathon, if you buy the wrong pair or overpay, you may either not make it across the finish line or, if you do, the resulting discomfort and stress of cramped toes or living outside your budget may ultimately make the experience a lot less enjoyable.

Also, when deciding whether to own the policy personally, corporately, in a trust or as a combination of these choices, it’s important to get it right the first time, as there are often tax costs that can arise if you have to change ownership of a policy later. Unfortunately, I often get involved after the policy is already in place, when options are more limited and changes can be expensive.


Although many clients feel more comfortable with Par Policies (which I will talk about more next time), I still see UL policies as a strong choice for the right client in the right situation. They offer more flexibility and transparency. For example, some UL policies both allow the entire cash value of the investment account to be withdrawn tax-free during life in the event of a disability and allow you to change your policy investments at your own discretion, which may allow clients to perform better over the long term if they play their cards right.

In the end, each policy has its own advantages – for example, clients planning on borrowing against their policies during retirement are often able to borrow more against the cash value of Par Policies than their UL cousins while someone planning on withdrawing directly from their policy during retirement might be better served with a cheaper UL policy with reducing insurance costs. Ultimately, I believe that insurance can become a valuable tool in many retirement plans and that the type of policy best suited to the purpose depends on the client and situation. In these days of steadily increasing income tax rates, life insurance and all the tax benefits that come with it might be worth a second look when looking to fund your retirement.


Colin S. Ritchie, BA.H. LL.B., CFP, CLU, TEP and FMA is a Vancouver-based fee-for-service lawyer and financial planner who does not sell investment or insurance, just advice. To find out more, visit his website at