Joseph Belth is one of the top business journalists in America. He served as the conscience of an industry for 40 years and influenced countless careers, including mine.
Yet Belth was never up for a Pulitzer Prize, which I think he deserves. Unless you work in the insurance industry or write about insurance or personal finance for a living, you’ve probably never heard of him. Many journalists do not even recognize him as a member of their tribe.
Belth is professor emeritus of insurance at Indiana University. Since 1973 he has published a monthly newsletter called The Insurance Forum, which was much more interesting and controversial than its name suggests. In October, Belth wrote to subscribers to announce that the December issue of The Insurance Forum will be the last. At age 84, Belth plans to finish writing a book about his experiences with the newsletter and otherwise retire from journalism.
He leaves behind a body of work admired by many and, it is safe to say, loathed by many more. People who sell insurance sometimes seem to think they have a constitutional right to be the only source of information available to potential customers, and they tend to be callous in their attacks on those who don’t jump on board their latest marketing wagon.
This is the reaction my colleagues and I experience every time we write about the shortcomings of long-term care insurance. For Belth, the attacks were just part of the workday. He and his publication were berated by all sorts of names, the most polite of which was probably “The Insurance Bore-’em.” Yet his work was anything but boring.
In 1981, Belth challenged the sales tactics of the AL Williams organization, which recruited a small army of part-time agents to advise consumers to “buy term and invest the difference”, rather than stick with lifetime policies with significantly higher premiums. Indeed, in many situations, buying term life insurance is the best way to get affordable protection for a family. But replacing existing policies that have already paid commissions with new policies that charge high commissions is generally not a good idea. AL Williams won an injunction from North Carolina insurance regulators to ban that issue of the newsletter from circulation in the state; Belth had the flagrantly unconstitutional order overturned in a federal court.
Over a four-year period, he wrote repeatedly about the questionable financials of Executive Life, a once highly regarded company that went bankrupt in 1991. of their assets, including not disclosing the true cost of paying premiums in installments, deferring payment of death benefits without paying interest, and converting customer-owned mutuals into joint stock companies without fairly compensating policyholders for shares allocated elsewhere. In recent years he has strongly criticized deceptive practices surrounding the design and marketing of large new policies financed and largely controlled by speculators.
Belth constantly fought for the free flow of information. He filed more freedom of information requests each year than most reporters make in a career. He revealed attempts by insurance companies and regulatory regulators to withhold data on the company’s financial condition, executive compensation and other enforcement issues.
His newsletters were concisely written, meticulously edited, and thoroughly sourced. Belth didn’t do ax work. He always invited subjects to respond to his observations and often quoted extensively from court documents and other raw material.
In 1991, Belth received a George Polk Award, one of the highest awards in journalism, in the “special publications” category. “Mr. Belth is determined to implement reforms and inform those in decision-making positions, but continues despite the continued hostility of many in the industry,” the awards panel said in a statement. (1)
A few years ago, I looked to nominate Belth for a Pulitzer, but ran into a roadblock: Pulitzer eligibility is limited to “material from a U.S. newspaper or news site that publishes at least weekly and adheres to the highest journalistic principles.” The weekly publication requirement, whatever its purpose, seemed to exclude Belth’s monthly self-published newsletter.
Perhaps Belth’s publishing schedule mattered to the Pulitzer pooh-bahs, but that didn’t matter to me. I have read his newsletter carefully to keep abreast of industry trends and issues, and have quoted him several times. My readers have benefited from Belth’s coverage of delays in finding life insurance beneficiaries, the true cost of paying premiums in installments, and the misleading use of tools known as “surplus notes” to reveal the true indebtedness of life insurance policies. cover insurers.
In his November issue discussing the history of the newsletter, Belth Ralph Nader cites the inspiration for founding The Insurance Forum. Belth met Nader at a conference in 1966 and was surprised to learn that Nader had read Belth’s little-known book on retail life insurance pricing. “During that conversation, Nader made a suggestion that changed the course of my career,” Belth recalled. “He said he noticed that I wasn’t identifying companies. He said books, articles and reports that don’t name names are generally not read and do little except gather dust. He said I should name names when I have something important to say. wanted to achieve for the benefit of the public. I started doing that then, with predictable results.” (2)
Trade journals that depended on advertisers and insurance company subscribers would not publish Belth’s finger-pointing articles. Academic journals weren’t afraid, but hardly anyone in the industry read academic journals. So Belth launched his own newsletter. He never accepted advertisements and usually never made money from them, according to his farewell report.
But he set a high bar for insurance industry behavior and provided a roadmap for unbiased financial advisers and journalists to guide consumers towards wiser choices.
I am on a business trip to Nova Scotia. When I return I will message Joe Belth to let him know how much I appreciate his work and how much he will be missed.
1) The New York Times, “13 Journalists Are Polk Award Winners”
2) The Insurance Forum, Old Issues