Not All “Bears” Are Bordering Extinction

by Heber G. Smith

This article was originally published in the summer 1998 issue of the Expert Witness.

Plaintiff counsel’s job respecting a personal injury action is securing an acceptable offer. All of his/her energies are expended to that end with the result that little attention is given to after-settlement considerations. Now that the claimant has the cash, how does he/she convert the cash into income to provide for lost future income or the cost of future care?

Impressive gains in the market have headlined all financial publications in recent years. Consider recent mutual fund advertisements citing returns of 20.8% in one year and 21.2% in two years. What sensible personal injury or wrongful death award would not be enticed by the siren of such gargantuan returns?

In contrast, today’s interest and annuity rates seem inordinately low and may drive investors that should seek safety to the equity markets. However, consider the risks and costs with embarking on such a strategy.

One risk that needs to be considered is the nature of equity markets. In many respects we may have become lulled into a false sense of security with the extraordinary increases over the past few years. Recent market volatility and uncertainty are causing many investors to rethink their positions. As a result there has been a movement toward higher quality equities and a resurgent interest in bonds. Another uncertainty that today’s investor faces is trying to determine the length of this increased volatility and uncertainty. Is today’s uncertainty merely a pause, or does it foreshadow a greater correction? Historically, the usual market uptrends have been sporadically dotted with significant downturns that have taken many years to recover to pre-correction levels. Under these conditions, recipients of lump sum awards fully vested in equity markets could become severely disadvantaged especially if the downturn was to last for an appreciable amount of time. In the current issue of Investment Executive, Carlyle Dunbar is quoted as saying: “though they [investors] won’t sell if the market drops, most aren’t expecting a drop of 20% or 25%. The reality has been that most investors – especially newcomers go into shock when a bear market develops.”

Another consideration is the fiduciary role of financial advisors who are governed by the “prudent-man” rule. Should a lump sum recipient retain a financial advisor, it is likely that their risk position be classified as conservative. Under this classification, a recipient’s assets would be allocated across equities, fixed income and cash equivalents. The fact fixed income and cash equivalents typically return less than common equities would preclude the possibility that the recipient would achieve the type of returns advertised by many funds.

The prudent man rule dictates that, amongst other criteria, a financial advisor provides for “reasonable diversification”. Such diversification might suggest a common 50/40/10 (equity/bond/cash) portfolio investment split. Some formulas may suggest a 60/30/10 but the former may be more responsive for an investor requiring income. Consider the following example:

Equity Bond Cash
Percentage Allocation 50% 30% 10%
Assumed Return 10% 5.5% 3%
Management Fee 2% 1% 0.5%
Tax 20% 40% 40%

Weighted Average, Net After Tax Rate of Return: 4.53%

Given that the above strategy assumes a high measure of equity exposure, one may wonder why the recipient of a personal injury award or wrongful death settlement might not consider a structured settlement when the net return is approximately 5.5% (the equivalent of a pre-tax rate of return of 9.17% for a tax payer in a marginal rate of 40%). An investment strategy, incorporating a structured settlement tailored to the specific circumstances of the claimant, will result in superior returns at a lower risk.


Heber Smith is the principal of Smith Structured Settlements Inc. a structured settlement and annuity brokerage with offices in Calgary and Vancouver. He is also a partner in Structured Settlement Software, a firm that provides tax driven software to the American structured settlement industry.