Nobody said that all subjects are pleasant to read. For example, there are people running around who profit from someone's early death. It's the idea behind what are called traded life policies or TLPs.

However, putting the morbidity factor aside, those who are tempted by promises of double-digit returns may not realize that TLPs are extremely high-risk investments. With medical breakthroughs leading to cures for some forms of cancer as well as controlling Aids, coupled with drugs that extends life expectancy, investors could be left gasping.

In America, TLPs are called viatical settlements and they involve the sale of life insurance policies to investors by terminally ill people who want to get at their money before they die. The market originally skyrocketed during the Aids epidemic a decade ago when young Americans with a limited life expectancy found a way to live out their last years in style.

In England, there is only one player, a company called Shepherds, that trades from the Isle of Man. Basically, it says that if the policyholder dies earlier than expected, the purchaser of the viatical settlement stands to make a profit. However, if the patient goes into remission, then there may be lots of premiums to pay as well as a long wait for the buyer of the policy. Investors, of course, spread this risk over many years, but don't forget that returns are still driven by doctors overestimating life expectancy.

Charles Andsell, head of corporate communications for London-based InterAlliance, an independent advice network, says that returns are determined by an actuarial anomaly. "It's important that investors understand what these anomalies are and the risk behind them before buying."

Again, keep in mind that the amount an investor pays for a policy depends on how long doctors think the patient will live. The longer the life span, the cheaper the policy. Nevertheless, Shepherds says that assessments are many times wrong. So, it offers a tempting annual return of 9 percent a year rising to 12 percent if the investor stays in for six years.

TLP business here in the States is often accompanied by questionable marketing. One emeritus professor of insurance at a major university is convinced that viatical settlements create an incentive to murder and says they should be made illegal. Providers claim there has been no proof of any foul play.

The bottom line, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association, is that "Because of uncertainties in predicting when a terminally ill person is going to die, traded life policies must be considered extremely speculative."

Of course, don't tell that to Warren Buffett. He spent a ton of money earlier this year on two viatical market makers.

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