The Law and Economics of the Secondary Market in Structured Settlements
I saw a television ad while working out a bit ago in the fitness room at the New York Hilton, and it must be the influence of all the legal scholars around me, but even though I’ve seen it a zillion times, it now struck me as something that ought to be somebody’s research topic.
The ad is for J.G. Wentworth, which buys structured settlements. There’s a pitchman who ought to be every law firm’s managing partner (gray hair, jut jaw, gravelly voice) and the tag line “It’s Your Money; Use It When You Want It.” Structured settlements are appealing to insurance companies and tort defendants because of the gap between the absolute value of the settlement to the recipient and the present value to the payor. It’s effective to close out a negotiation where, say, the plaintiff is at $800,000 and the defendant is at $500,000 by structuring a settlement that is closer to $800,000 in total dollars paid over the life of the settlement but closer to $500,000 in present value.
Let’s take my hypothetical numbers as an example. The plaintiff gives up $300,000 in present value to get a settlement. I suspect there is risk averseness at play there in two respects – the certainty of settlement versus trial, and the greater value of the current money to the later money. I don’t know how much of the discount is due to litigation risk and how much is time value of money, but there’s no doubt some of each.
So the plaintiff gets the structured settlement, decides she needs the money now, and goes to J.G. Wentworth, which factors it for her. That means J.G. Wentworth is going to take an additional [?] discount [?] to give the plaintiff a lump sum now and collect in the plaintiff’s name over the balance of the structured settlement. This is speculation, but I suspect plaintiff now collects less than the $500,000 the defendant/insurer was willing to pay in present value originally. Would Wentworth’s discount rate, if you applied it to the original $800,000, tell us how much of the $300,000 haircut was due to litigation risk and how much due to time value? I don’t know and I’m quickly getting in over my head here.
I’d be the last person in the world (perhaps) to suggest that there ought to be a governmentally imposed restriction on the right of anybody to sell a financial instrument. I’d also be skeptical of attempts to regulate the practice by cognitive means like disclosures and warnings. But this strikes me a weird market, and if an SSRN key word search and a Westlaw search of the form [(structured /2 settlement) /p (secondary /2 market)] are any indication, nobody has written on it.