Annuity underwriters are working hard to eradicate the mind-numbing jargon that has long peppered prospectuses and marketing brochures.
Companies such as Metropolitan Life Co., Manufacturers Life Insurance Co., Nationwide, and Prudential are among the first to weigh in with revised documents that have eliminated old favorites like "annuitization," "accumulation value," and "assumed investment return."
"'Annuitization' is a word that is just totally meaningless to people and somewhat scary," said A. Scott Logan, the president of Wood Logan Associates, an Old Greenwich, Conn., sales and marketing subsidiary of Manulife. He said he prefers to say "continuing your paycheck in your retirement years."
The new prospectuses were required by a Securities and Exchange Commission rule, similar to one adopted for mutual funds, requiring that all annuity prospectuses produced after Oct. 1, 1998, be written in easily understood language.
The new documents will break down barriers to customer comprehension, said James P. Heide, who was annuity products manager at KeyCorp before recently becoming business development manager in the company's payment services group.
A customer who has met with a broker can read and understand these new prospectuses at home. That allows for reinforcement of points with other family members, Mr. Heide said. But platform sales representatives also benefit.
"I think for reps-as they get into this product-it might be less intimidating as well," Mr. Heide said.
Mr. Logan, like others issuing new prospectuses, said Manulife's "plain- English" prospectus is just a first step in what will be a steady assault on jargon.
In late February the National Association of Variable Annuities sent its members a set of guidelines on translating weighty or intimidating language. For "death benefit" it suggests "beneficiary protection;" for "guaranteed minimum account value benefit" it suggests "minimum retirement savings guarantee."
As the industry has focused on terminology, the quality of prospectuses submitted for regulatory review has improved steadily, said Susan Nash, senior assistant director at the SEC. Many early submissions had to be returned to improve clarity, she said.
MetLife's first plain-English annuity prospectus, released this month, went beyond tinkering with sentences to including color elements and large white margins with brief explanations of key concepts. And the insurer, known for its use of the cartoon character Snoopy in ads, used many characters from the "Peanuts" comic strip to illustrate annuity features.
In one example, Charlie Brown reaches into a jar of money next to a section titled "access to your money."
"The SEC said it's one of the most fun prospectuses that they've read," said Barbara Hume, vice president of MetLife's retirement and savings center.
She said translating annuity concepts into easily understood language is more difficult than doing the same for mutual fund concepts. An annuity is more complicated, with both investment and insurance features.
For example, early in the prospectus MetLife devotes more than a page to defining annuities. "You'd rarely say in a mutual fund prospectus, 'A mutual fund is ... ,'" Ms. Hume said.
Unlike some underwriters, MetLife and Manulife both used in-house staff members to create the new documents. Doing so involved breaking down the jargon-rich habits of employees. "That's a challenge, but it's not insurmountable," Mr. Logan said.
In another first at MetLife, the company decided to avoid duplicating information in the marketing brochure and prospectus that were to be bound into one volume. That makes it easier forcustomers and employees to read and understand the information, Ms. Hume said.
MetLife discussed the new document at a presentation to the company's best agents. "We got a standing ovation because they said for the first time the prospectus can be used as a marketing document," Ms. Hume said.
Still, MetLife said the refinements aren't near completion. One area the company plans to clarify is a discussion of tax issues.
Plain-English efforts will build trust with customers, said Mr. Heide of KeyCorp.
The first one he saw had been sent to his mother-in-law. She understood most of it but asked him, as the family expert, to evaluate the Sun Life annuity's prospectus.
"It was a joy to read-even as someone who knows what to look for," he said. He expects these new prospectuses to boost sales but said the change would be too difficult to measure.