3 LIMRA takeaways — Bourbon Street edition
By Daniel Williams
LIMRA held its annual life insurance conference April 15-17 in the Big Easy. Throughout the days and nights of the event, I found myself shuffling back and forth between the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, where the conference took place, and Bourbon Street, where all manner of life takes place.
On one hand, I heard about the latest trends in the insurance industry, about topics as complex and difficult to grasp as multilevel alternative distribution channels and macroeconomic modeling. On the other, I stood in the heart of the French Quarter, people watching, listening to every patois of the American language, taking in the movement, the music, and realizing that no matter where I placed my feet in New Orleans, there was something to learn.
On the following pages, I’ve listed three important takeaways from the conference and that other show, the one that can only be found in the French Quarter. 1. The long and winding road to recovery
Mornings in the Quarter glisten. They’re damp from rain, damp from partiers the night before, damp from vendors and retailers who wash it all away with fresh water from garden hoses.
In a coffee shop off Royal Street, an ancient place hidden by a blind alley and bougainvillea, I sip hot tea and eat a greasy bran muffin, wishing for a beignet from Café du Monde instead.
A hipster at a nearby table strokes his fuzzy chin while reading a book on existentialism. One of the Quarter’s many cats lounges on a bench. A triangle of sunlight warms her yellow fur. A tourist waiting for the Haunted New Orleans Tour sits beside the cat, playing with its tail. The cat, chubby and warm, sits up long enough to rip at the lady’s finger, drawing blood, before falling back asleep.
I sip the tea. I keep an eye on the cat and listen to the droning rat-a-tat-tat of progress. Jackhammers break up earth. Men wearing low slung tool belts and steel-toed boots push wheel barrows of rubble.
It’s been eight years since Katrina and it is in these labyrinthine alleyways of the Quarter that I’m most reminded of a line from the poet William Butler Yeats, “All things fall and are built again.”
During a keynote address at LIMRA, economist and Tulane professor Peter Ricchiuti says as much as he talks about the local folks’ resolve.
“We’re back. It’s already happening. The hiring machine is back in gear,” he tells the insurance crowd. He points to programs at Tulane that he has helped foster and some interesting items his research team at Burkenroad Reports has uncovered.
One of those discoveries is the availability of natural gas. “We’re energy independent right now!” he exclaims. If he’d been standing at a podium he might have taken off his shoe and pounded it on the lectern to make his point. He’s that passionate about Americans making the most of what we already have. “We don’t have to import another drop. What people need to realize is we’re the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”
Not only does Ricchiuti talk about the surplus of natural gas, but it’s affordability as well. Historically the price ratio between oil and natural gas was 6 to 1. Today, he says, that gap has exploded to a 25-to-1 ratio.
“Natural gas can be used to heat homes, power cars, generate electricity.” And then he trails off and rails about another subject that drives him batty about America and its roller coaster of an economic recovery — immigration reform.
“Today,” Ricchiuti says, “17,000 immigrants earn a graduate degree and then are sent back to their country of origin.” They learn how to earn here, then America is taken out of the economic equation by deporting potential high-wage earners. That’s just one of the enigmatic potholes to full recovery, he says.
I find other potholes, literal ones, while traipsing around New Orleans’ Business District. One of my colleagues grabs me by the arm while we cross the street. “If you were in your Honda Fit and drove into that,” he says “we might not ever find you.” 2. Dead men tell no tales
Death and resurgence have loomed over New Orleans since its inception and “for more than 200 years, people here have housed their dead in small, above ground tombs,” according to Troy Taylor’s book, “Haunted New Orleans.” “(The tombs) are built along streets in miniature cities of the deceased and the forgotten.”
Death in the Quarter is not hidden away; it is embraced. You see it in store fronts. Skeletons and death masks greet tourists with smiles. Those little cities of the dead nudge against favorite bookstores and art galleries.
In a bar named The Dungeon, squirreled away in dank catacombs, signs on the walls declare a warning: “Photos and videos are not allowed. “
We ask a Goth bartender why the need to order cash-paying customers to cut off technology and a chance for cherished memories. This is, after all, a tourist city.
“Because of the spirits,” the bartender says. She has a dozen or so metal pieces, like shrapnel, protruding from around her eyes and brow line. “This ground is watched by the dead.”
Dead. The word itself, the saying of it, is so sudden and final. It does not so much linger in the air as cut through it with the force and precision of a guillotine. We leave The Dungeon with our spirits intact, but talk of the dead stays with us. The next day at the conference the thread continues. But speakers talk of preparing for death rather than the spirits of the already dead.
Pat Leary, assistant vice president of distribution research at LIMRA, tells us life insurance ownership is at a 50-year low even though the perceived opportunity is at an all-time high. With death and the dead so close to us all day it’s a disturbing thought to digest.
We have more cars, more TVs, more smartphones and tablets. We have more things. All of us have stuff — so many people, so much stuff. But for some reason life insurance, for far too many of us, is not on the list.
As I said that’s a disturbing thought, one that’s difficult to get the old noggin around. Advisors have more tools to work with than ever before. They have more technology and better databases to organize their clientele and more data on their prospects to find those sought-after qualified leads.
We’re not talking about Willy Loman out there, dying door by soul-sucking door. Today’s producers are armed with so much information and experience. They spend quality time with those qualified leads. And yet the percentage of consumers holding policies remains down, historically down, according to Leary.
I ask him why.
“We haven’t done a good enough job of keeping up with population growth,” Leary says.
The biggest part of that problem, according to Leary, is the shrinking number of producers trying to keep up with the growing number of potential clients. The biggest hit is within the independent producer ranks. In 1998 the independent sales force hit north of 195,000 agents. In 2010 that number plummeted to some 163,000 independent agents.
While that imbalance might be good news to the existing, top agents, it’s bad news for consumers as too many aren’t getting covered for their pending death. 3. The music never stops
As Leary and Ricchiuti and other speakers throughout the week concur, the news is as good or as bad as you choose to make it. Clearly, the opportunity for producers is there. On the plus side, as Leary states, “people are starting to understand the value of life insurance, especially in a ‘flat’ economy like we’ve seen.”
In addition, those leading advisors who remain at the forefront of the industry provide “more focus, more experience, and therefore enhanced comfort levels with the products and the process,” which is all a boon for those clients they are able to meet with.
Corporate America has something to crow about as well. The markets, overall, are rising. The news on that front is good for consumers and good for business. As Ricchiuti tells us, “corporate profits are phenomenal. Corporations have never earned this much in human history.” He points to the cash hoards of leading American companies: Apple with $138 billon, Microsoft at $60 billion and Google at $49 billion.
Ricchiuti says we worry about the wrong things and too much misinformation is out there. He adds, “Look at exports. They’re at record levels. Exporting is and will continue to be the key for us as a nation.” Americans need to continue to focus on what we do best: “We innovate. We create. We invent.”
Later that night I’m leaning on a balcony railing at the intersection of Bourbon and St. Peter, drinking an Abita with my colleagues, and the whole world seems to exist right here on this single street corner. It’s like watching life through 4D glasses, if you’ll bear with me, because everything here is a tactile thing, even the air.
Life seems to move in slow motion. Policemen on horseback wake and shoo a man wearing a fuzzy dog head over his own. Baby boomers in tuxedos and formal gowns step inside a candlelit steak house. On the jukebox behind us, Paul Simon sings the African-influenced “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” And the song’s chant rises and falls,
Ta na na
Ta na na na
Up the street more music blares, drowning out our jukebox. We look up as a ragtag phalanx of traveling minstrels lurches past us. Some of them play brass instruments. Others walk dogs. A few dads carry their kids on stooped shoulders. One woman, wearing a million Mardi Gras beads, does the Umbrella Dance. My favorites though are the people dressed as superheroes. There’s Captain America with padded muscles and another partier wearing a single Hulk Hand gripped around a Hurricane from Pat O’Brien’s.
Suddenly, Black Hawk helicopters roar overhead. The air above is too thick to see them but the sound of the military rips us from the dream if for a moment. Katrina is eight years in the past; the financial collapse hit in 2008; the Boston Marathon bombing took place days ago and is fresh on our minds.
We look up, in fear, to a sound. A dad covers his son’s ears. The man with the Hulk Hand roars at the sky. A homeless person covered under a wool blanket does not stir. And the misshapen band, which long ago lost any sense of alignment, plays on. Their song, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” is a song of rebirth of resurrection — it’s the song of New Orleans.