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Bamboozled? Public remains wary of insurance policies

LAST week I went into a bank, and heard a woman, probably in her late 60s, complaining to the wealth management staff about an insurance product she had been "coaxed" into buying two years ago.

"You said that I can have all my money and interest back in two years, but now you say I'll have to wait for another eight years to get the money back," I overheard her saying.

A staff member tried to explain that the product she bought is dividend-based insurance, and because the insurance company had poor returns in the past two years, the woman will have to wait another eight years to get her money. In the meantime, she has to swallow a loss.

The woman seemed confused, angry and, in the end, powerless to do anything about what she then must have realized was a bad investment.

Complaints about insurance products are nothing new, but they have been mounting in recent years as insurers turn to more varied and complex ways of attracting customers. Since the shift in business focus from a short-term profit earner to a long-term security provider takes a long time, regulators need to step in now to ensure that the public trust is safeguarded.

China's life insurance business is probably at its lowest ebb in past 20 years. In contrast to the modest but still robust growth of China's GDP and consumer spending, premium income from life insurance in April fell 6.5 percent from a year earlier.

Premium income from January to April dipped 0.13 percent, compared with a 14 percents rise in premiums from property insurance, according to data released by the China Insurance Regulatory Commission at the end of May.

In Shanghai, where the standard of living generally is considered a notch higher than the national average, premium from life insurance policies increased a scant 0.56 percent in the first four months of the year, trailing both the growth in property insurance and average wages.

Slowdown to continue

Analysts have forecast the slowdown to continue because insurers have done little to improve the efficiency of their sales team and because a ban on insurance agents selling products through banks has not been eased.

The ban, implemented by the banking regulator but not insurance authorities in January 2011, was introduced because people were complaining about banks selling insurance products as deposits and because banks were complaining that insurers were robbing them of customers.

Wealth management staff in banks can still sell insurance products to their clients, but their insufficient knowledge with insurance has proved unhelpful in boosting sales, or eliminating misunderstanding.

Since last year, the insurance regulator has taken a tougher stance toward irregularities in insurance selling. The regulator has demanded an end to misleading claims, has set higher standards for auto insurance and, in its last move, has banned the practice of customer service staff calling clients up all the time if the clients aren't interested.

The regulator has publicly denounced some shady behavior involving some of the largest insurers, including Ping An and China Life. It is not yet clear whether the regulatory measures will clean up some of the mess created by rapid, sometimes reckless, growth in the insurance industry, but an official with the Shanghai insurance regulator said the will is there to set things right.

"I'm sometimes embarrassed when I tell people or relatives that I work for the insurance regulator," he said during a lunch with reporters. "They always have things to complain about insurers and suggest we are not doing our job properly. In time, I think our punches will work."

From personal experience, I have received fewer harassing calls from insurers in the past two months.

The problem with China's life insurers is they have fared so well selling products with annual returns better than bank deposits that they didn't really care about the inherent risks to consumers. They have built the picture in the minds of ordinary people that insurers take money from clients, use the money for more profitable investments and then always find some excuse not to pay out as promised. Sometimes it's all in the fine contract print that nobody reads. Sometimes not.

Slow improvement

From the financial results released by listed insurance companies, improvement in insurance product structure is apparently slow. The long-term life insurance and accident insurance business of China Pacific Insurance and New China Life Insurance, for example, grew fairly well in the first quarter this year from a year earlier, while figures from Ping An and China Life show continued heavy reliance on growth of short-term products.

Of course, the development of long-term life insurance products may be suffering from a lot of public mistrust, stirred up by media reports and by the telltale experiences of friends and relatives.

Consumers are generally less confident in intangible goods. Many elderly people feel more secure paying 100 yuan once and getting an additional 4 yuan every year than paying 100 yuan each year and getting 10,000 yuan when, say, they come down with a serious illness.

No good product

And many people who are willing to pay for that longer-term sense of security against illness or accidents can't find insurance products they like or even trust.

A friend of mine looking for an insurance policy against cancer was dismayed to find that most insurers pay out only after cancer has spread from its primary site to other parts of the body.

There's no better example of public skepticism about insurance than the aftermath of the inferno that killed more than 58 people in a residential building in Shanghai 2010.

Despite a lot of talk about the need to insure one's house and belongings against disasters, few people ended up buying property insurance.

Maybe that was due, in part, to the fact that policyholders are required not only to prove the value of the apartment and all its contents but they also need to provide proof that all the assets covered by a policy were in the home when a disaster struck. Imagine how hard it would be to identify a bed or television that's been reduced to ashes! Beyond that, cash and jewelry are generally not covered in such policies.

Faced with all these obstacles, most people just walk away. There is not only a gap between policies and needs, but also a gap between prices and expectations.

I have been looking for help on the Internet to reduce this gap. If the day comes when all insurance products are listed transparently online, allowing a comparison of premium prices and services covered, I might feel the time is ripe to think about buying insurance.


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