Such poetic irony, don't you think? The deaths of the little people working for corporate behemoths goes to pay bonuses to their company's top earners. Hey, it may be legal - but it sure lacks class.
Banks are using a little-known tactic to help pay bonuses, deferred pay and pensions they owe executives: They're holding life-insurance policies on hundreds of thousands of their workers, with themselves as the beneficiaries.
Banks took out much of this life insurance during the mortgage bubble, when executives' pay -- and the IOUs for their deferred compensation -- surged, and banking regulators affirmed the use of life insurance as a way to finance executive pay and benefits.
Bank of America Corp. has the most life insurance on employees: $17.3 billion at the end of the first quarter, according to bank filings. Wachovia Corp. has $12 billion, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. has $11.1 billion and Wells Fargo & Co. has $5.7 billion. (Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia at the end of last year.)
The insurance policies essentially are informal pension funds for executives: Companies deposit money into the contracts, which are like big, nondeductible IRAs, and allocate the cash among investments that grow tax-free. Over time, employers receive tax-free death benefits when employees, former employees and retirees die.
Though not improper, the practice is similar to what is known as "janitors insurance," an insurance-on-employees technique that has long been controversial. Critics say the banks' insurance contracts are a way for companies to create tax breaks for funding executive pensions. And some families have complained that employers shouldn't profit from the deaths of their loved ones.