Ask fML Advisers: What Are Your Opinions on Endowment Plans?

By fundMyLife

Usually marketed as a form of "forced savings", endowment plans are long-term plans designed to help you achieve a certain financial goal over a time period. We have written at length on endowment plans, and what to do if you ever think of selling them. However, while we hear a lot of stories from friends and family about endowment plans, what do financial advisers themselves think?

In this article, we asked three financial advisers of fundMyLife - Melvin from Manulife, Jonathon from Prudential, and Ryan from AXA - on what they think of endowment plans, such as interesting case studies and common misconceptions. Without further ado, here's what they have to say:

Melvin Liu, Manulife

Melvin Liu, Manulife

What is your opinion on endowment plans?

At least half of the people I encountered have the general impression that the returns are guaranteed, that they are safe and likely to hit the projected returns. They forgot that they were told that the projections are not guaranteed, only to remember when I reminded them.

When I look at endowment plans, I study three things:

1. Guaranteed Cash Values/Projected Yield to Maturity

2. Liquidity/coupon paying features

3. Intention and suitability of clients for considering endowments as an option

In general, I noticed that endowment plans have evolved over the past five years and not all endowments are the same since each may differ in features such as premium-paying periods, liquidity options and protection features. The plans nowadays are competitive and the guaranteed amount upon maturity aims to be on par if not higher than total premiums paid.

My personal opinion is that people really need to understand why they are purchasing endowments in the first place. In addition, people generally should not plan to withdraw cash benefits (where applicable) from their endowment plan before maturity, unless its necessary.

What are some interesting stories that you'd like to share with us?

There were two cases I was involved in.

In the first case, it involved a 21-year old lady who was seeking my advice on an endowment plan she recently purchased which she was having 2nd thoughts about her choice. She was contributing a substantial amount of her monthly income, i.e. $750/month, to a 25-year premium paying endowment plan. She got this particular endowment plan from someone she met at a roadshow. Moreover, she was a Malaysian working in Singapore, and having to sustain her premiums for a good 25 years here might sound challenging due to many potential uncertainties, to which she agreed. After consideration, she deliberated between keeping it for another 2 years or so when she could surrender it to take back some cash, or to surrender it straightaway after paying for about 6 months. I showed her objectively the difference in the amount she would lose if she hung on for another 2 years vs surrendering immediately, i.e. $16k+ vs $4.5k respectively, and let her make the call. She eventually managed to resolve it with the agent, and I didn't probe further on her decision.

In the second case, I was advising a 50-year old lady on her plan to have a regular stream of income in about 2 years time for her retirement. She was surprised that I advised her that she did not need any plans after I reviewed and advised that she was ready to retire with the sum of money she already had. However, she nonetheless was keen to see what options she had to put her in a better financial position while meeting her income needs with a lower risk. We worked out a few options and suggested that she could prepaid an endowment plan in a lump sum so that she can start getting guaranteed cash coupons as retirement income from the second year onwards while maintaining her desired lump sum balance for security and/or legacy.

Endowments are generally more suited for those who wish to take on a lower risk, prefer having a guaranteed cash value component and have a specific time period to save and cash out for their needs.

However, endowments are often promoted also because they are easy to sell and easily positioned as forced savings e.g., for young adults who are starting to work. Like any financial plan, endowments should be recommended as an option only if it meets the client's needs and not just simply a way to save money.

Jonathon Han, Prudential

Jonathon Han, Prudential

What is your opinion on endowment plans?

A major misconception that people have regarding endowment plans is that they think that these plans are lousy. People often compare endowments with investments, which is like comparing apples with oranges - they are different asset classes with different risk categories.

Endowments are good to grow money at a secure rate for timed events, for example an education fund for children or a retirement fund. If you choose to invest in the stock market instead, the time horizon involved, e.g., 20 years, means that you risk a situation where you disappoint your children because the markets are not doing well.

Important point: besides using endowments for retirement and children's education, it can also be used to build capital towards buying a second property. The advantage of using endowments over investments is that endowments are less susceptible to market fluctuations. On the other hand, property prices and the stock market are correlated; in the event of a market downturn, both stock and property prices fall which defeats the purpose of investing for a second property in the first place.

The second major misconception is that endowments have poor returns. The perceived low rate of returns is due to the financial adviser allocating too much percentage of the premiums to protection instead of investments. Ideally, you should find someone who can advise and allocate the investment-protection proportion correctly. In fact, it is possible that certain endowment plans can beat Singapore Savings Bond and fixed deposits.

Currently, most insurance companies have endowment plans where you can withdraw money after 2 years. However, if you choose to withdraw the money instead of re-investing for further compounding, the returns might be much lower at maturity. As such, I advise clients to take up fixed endowments but pay less premiums for a relatively higher rate of return compared to those cashback endowment plans.

The third misconception is a lot of practitioners introduce the projected 4.75% investment rate you see in the Benefits Illustration as interest, THIS IS NOT ACCURATE. The effective annual interest rate is also something consumers might find it hard to calculate unless they have an access to a financial calculator.

What are your thoughts on picking a good endowment plan?

I believe 80% of people who buy endowments are happy because they serve a good purpose for their needs. Please note that not all endowments are designed to be withdrawal before their maturity. There might be a serious misconception among customer who buy endowment plans from banks that these endowment plans are fully liquid, please bear in mind that endowment plans are never as liquid as compared to your current account.

Secondly, it is important to study the performance of the insurance companies selling the endowment. Endowments are paid of out a participating fund and if it does well, insurance companies have more funds to allocate to policyholders, i.e. 90% surplus to policyholders and 10% to shareholders. As such, it is useful to pick major insurance companies with good track-record of participating funds - you find the information online. Note: past performance is not indicator of future outcomes.

Lastly, decide whether you want the endowment plan to be fixed or flexible. Don't ask for flexibility unless you need it since it reduces returns in the long term. You should decide also if you need to add on riders for the protection component. However, keep in mind that the cash value of the protection does not increase over time.

Ryan Teo, AXA

Ryan Teo, AXA

What is your opinion on endowment plans?

People often have the misconception that the returns are guaranteed. Another misconception that people have is that they mistake returns in the Benefits Illustration with interest rate which are two completely different things.

In general, endowments are pretty standardised. I take into account the length of the policy when it comes to endowments. What I advise people looking into savings plans but have concerns about liquidity, is to invest 1/3 of their funds into the Singapore Savings Bond and the remainder into an endowment plan. This arrangement provides liquidity.

Endowments generally have a trade-off between returns and flexibility. For example, for plans with cashback, the total maturity may be higher but guaranteed sum may be lower than premiums paid. A thing to take note: inflation should be considered when it comes to endowment plans. At the break-even point, i.e. the point where the surrender value is the same as premiums paid, the duration of the plan also implies that technically the consumer loses a bit of money due to inflation.

fundMyLife Summary

The major misconception that the public have for endowment is that the sum assured is, well, 100% assured. The advisers caution the importance of understanding what you're in for when it comes to endowments and know exactly why you're getting what you're getting.

Melvin shared what he looks for in endowment plans and recounted two interesting client stories - one who benefits from getting an endowment and the other, not so. Jonathon listed three major misconceptions that the consumers have regarding endowments and provides his thoughts on picking a suitable endowment. Finally, Ryan Teo noted the tradeoffs when it comes to flexibility and returns in endowment plans.

If you've more questions on endowment or any other insurance plans, head on to our main site and ask our curated pool of financial advisers! Alternatively, if you'd like to connect with either Melvin from Manulife, Jonathon from Prudential, or Ryan from AXA, just click on the link in their names and you can ask them questions directly from their profile pages.

This article "5 Common Questions on Critical Illness Insurance" by fundMyLife was first published on their blog on 14 February 2018 and is reproduced in this blog in its entirety.


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