Walmart has an annual revenue greater than the GDP of 9 in 10 countries. It employs 2.2 million people - the world's second largest workforce after the Chinese Army. It serves 200 million customers a week, including one-third of the US population. It is one of the top five largest corporations in the world, and the only one of those that doesn’t sell oil. Walmart is primarily a grocery retailer, although it does its best to sell anything its customers might want, calculated with the help of a consumer database so detailed that only the Pentagon keeps more information on us citizens.
In 1999, Walmart employee Michael Rice died of a fatal heart attack in his employer's parking lot. Walmart, along with corporations like Nestlé USA and Walt Disney, had taken life-insurance policies out on its lowest-paid workers – also known as “deadpeasant insurance” – and after Rice’s death a week later, Walmart collected US$300,000. His family received nothing.
In 1988, a US market emerged based on the life insurance policies of terminal AIDS patients. HIV-positive Americans would make entrepreneurs the recipients of their death benefits in exchange for cash. The investors would pay the policy’s monthly payments, so when new medicines arrived in 1995 that allowed people to live with AIDS indefinitely, the market slumped.
Investment companies and banks took note of the model. By 1994, they had begun targeting the huge investment potential of the USA’s sick, particularly its 500,000 annual cancer deaths. To be investment-worthy, invalids simply had to have life insurance, be willing to sell it, and die soon, before the cost of a policy’s monthly payments mounted up.
In 2007, the life settlements industry was worth US$12 billion. States began to legislate against “spin-life policies”, where unscrupulous brokers would prey on uninsured seniors, offering them gifts like expensive restaurant dinners to persuade them to take out life insurance policies payable to investors. By 2012, spin-life policies were outlawed in all but five US states.
Since the 2008 financial crash, Wall Street banks have traded securities based on bundling life settlement investments from a diverse range of sicknesses, ensuring that a miracle cure for one disease won’t wipe out returns from the whole market. By 2016, the US “death bonds” market is expected to be worth up to US$140 billion.
From the pages of COLORS #85 - Going to Market.