If you can find discount stockbrokers who will save you money by lowering their sales commissions ...
If you can find mutual funds that will save you money by charging no commissions at all ...
How come you can't readily find a discount insurance agent?
Answer: Insurance agents have protected themselves from price competition. Under their influence, all states but two make discounting (known in the industry as "rebating") illegal.
Only Florida and California permit agents to lower your costs by cutting their own commissions. Even there, few do.
In fact, Florida just passed a law that has virtually brought discounting to a halt, according to general agent Brian Sheen, president of the Sheen Group in Boca Raton. (Sheen brought a lawsuit in 1987 that tried to further discounting in Florida.)
The loser has been the consumer. Normally, you pay anywhere from 70 percent to more than 100 percent of the first year's premium in various sales charges.
These high commissions are one reason that most cash-value policies build so little savings in the early years.
If discounting were legal everywhere, competition would create better deals -- for annuities as well as insurance.
Here's how discounting works: Let's say that you're paying an insurance premium of $5,000 a year and your agent says that he or she will rebate 50 percent.
You write the agent a $5,000 check that goes to the insurance company. The insurance company pays a sales commission of perhaps $4,000. Your agent then pays half of that money, $2,000, back to you.
As you might imagine, agents who charge full commissions despise discounting. "It is not in the consumer's best interest," says Jay Morris, spokesman for the National Association of Life Underwriters, which represents insurance agents. "It leads to discriminatory practices and other sorts of abuses."
Yet many agents already take "pay cuts" when big premiums are involved. Everyone I spoke with for this column said that illegal under-the-table discounting is commonplace. There are also legal ways of cutting commissions for favored customers.
For example, most insurance companies offer high-commission and lower-commission versions of the same coverage.
The agent can choose which version to offer you. Lower-commission policies build more value for customers. Whether you're offered one depends on who you are and whether you comparison-shop.
Similarly, the agent may negotiate with the insurer to reduce the sales commission on especially large insurance policies.
Yet when it comes to offering discounts to one and all, the industry disparagingly calls it "discriminatory."
Like everything else in business, discounting can be abused. In Florida, some agents have lured customers by promising them 50 percent rebates on annuities, Sheen says.
But the annuities they sold paid exceptionally high sales commissions and lacked industry ratings for financial soundness. Result: The customer got a risky annuity and the agent made out even after the rebate.
But occasional abuse doesn't mean that the practice should be illegal. Consumers who know what they're doing can save a lot of money on excellent policies.
One discounter to call: Direct Insurance Services in San Diego (phone 800-622-3699). DIS rebates 50 percent of the commission to anyone who pays annually and can sign the contract in Florida or California.
The new agent-backed law that puts Florida discounting at risk requires agents to file their discounting schedules with the insurers issuing the policies.
Further, it stops agents from discounting on policies issued by insurers who prohibit rebates.
"Some of my biggest insurance companies forbid rebating," Sheen says. "As soon as you tell them you're rebating, they may yank your licenses." Phoenix Mutual took his license, he says, and Prudential threatened to.
Peter Katt, a discounter in West Bloomfield, Mich., reports no problem with Phoenix Mutual, but says that several other companies don't send him policy quotes.
Although Florida is attacking its discounters, California is protecting them. There, companies trying to fix agents' commissions may be engaging in illegal restraint of trade.
Ironically, Brian Sheen hasn't been discounting lately because he doesn't want to take a pay cut.
Still, he wants the option -- and may challenge Florida's chilling new discounting rules in court.