MetLife Securities (MET) will pay $25 million to Wall Street’s industry-funded watchdog in a settlement stemming from misconduct related to switching customers’ variable annuities, the regulator said on Tuesday.
The sanction includes a $20 million fine and $5 million to be paid to customers, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) said. The fine marks FINRA’s largest related to variable annuities, FINRA said.
“MetLife fully cooperated with the FINRA investigation and we are pleased to put this matter behind us,” a MetLife spokesman said. The company, which neither admitted nor denied FINRA’s charges, has set aside funds to pay the fine, he said.
MetLife’s “annuity switching” business generated at least $152 million in commissions between 2009 and 2014, FINRA said.
An annuity is an insurance product that offers investors steady income payments, typically in exchange for a lump-sum investment. Account values of variable annuities, a mix of life insurance, mutual funds, and tax-deferred retirement plans, vary depending on how those investments perform.
“Annuity switching” happens when a broker encourages a client to trade an older annuity to buy a different one, often at significant cost to the client and benefit to the broker.
MetLife, during the period, misrepresented or omitted at least one significant fact about costs and certain features of customers’ existing variable annuities in nearly three-quarters of 36,000 applications for switches.
For example, MetLife falsely told customers that their existing annuities were more expensive than replacements MetLife recommended, FINRA said.
Brokers also did not disclose in many instances that customers who switched would give away certain features in their existing annuities, such as a an opportunity to invest in an account that guaranteed principal and interest – as high as 3 percent or 4 percent in some cases – at no extra cost, according to the settlement.
What’s more, MetLife did not “reasonably supervise” annuity switches during the period, FINRA said.
The sanction follows a March, 2014 FINRA complaint against two former MetLife brokers whom FINRA said engaged in a seven-year scheme to inflate commissions by having customers switch $21 million in annuities.
MetLife terminated Williamsville, New York-based brokers, Christopher Birli and Patrick Chapin, in 2012, according to regulatory filings. The two had advised State University of New York employees who participated in the school’s retirement plan, according a 2014 FINRA complaint.
Both brokers agreed to be permanently barred from the industry without admitting to nor denying FINRA’s allegations, according to regulatory filings.