Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Good, the Bad, the Annuity

Nothing that is good for you can be considered bad and vice versa. Except perhaps when asking a five-year old about broccoli. But the vast majority of adults, fifty years hence wouldn't even consider an annuity for their retirement and if they did, would almost certainly regret the decision at some point soon after. How can annuity be both regrettable and not, good and sometimes bad, bad and almost the best option?

First, a disclaimer: I am not a big fan of annuities - too complicated and too costly and too much insurance. Secondly, as if that weren't enough of reason to dislike them, they are quickly becoming an idea with a certain allure, almost mystique. They have done little to reinvent what they are - aside from some product tweaks along the way, they are essentially exactly what they always were. So why the sudden interest? Okay, it's not really sudden. The thought that is currently being bandied around by many of my cohorts is worth considering. After I tell you what they are.

If I were to offer you a "guaranteed income for life" that grew at 4%, you'd think to yourself that this was too good to be true. If it were free of fees and locked in penalties and all sorts of hidden costs, it would be too good. But this is an insurance product. And I'd be willing to wager you have never met, over the course of your lifetime, an insurance product that is free of some small print just waiting to rear its ugly head the moment you need it. Then they tack an investment portfolio into the mix and you have a recipe for problems. Kinda sorta.

First off, you need to buy the product. When you buy it has more to do with it than the actual need or desire. Annuities come with salespeople in tow and when they begin talking, most of the information you might need to know later gets pushed to later. What stands out is the fixed number, the income for life. Secondly, you will not be the same person ten-years from now and this makes this sort of purchase subject to those shifts in not only who you are but where you are financially.

MetLife explains the difference between the two most common types: the fixed and the variable. A fixed annuity "earn[s] a guaranteed rate of interest for a specific time period, such as one, three, or five years. Once the time period is over, a new guaranteed interest rate is set for the next period. A fixed annuity guarantee is subject to the financial strength and claims-paying ability of the insurance company that issues the annuity."

In other words, you know exactly what it is your are getting into - if only it were that simple. The fixed rate often offered is just barely beating inflation and won't beat taxes. Yes it will be fixed but this also depends on your age and your sex. If you are a woman, you will receive less compared to a man because you will live longer - the insurance side of the deal in the equation.

If you meet a retiree who regrets their decision once they have bought and annuity, it will be because the stock market is doing well. Studies have shown that if the markets are good in the months preceding retirement, the retiree will more than likely opt for investing on their own; if they are bad, they buy an annuity.

When MetLife describes variable annuities, they roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders, knowing that even as the markets are doing better, you still want safety. They describe these products: "Variable annuities typically offer a range of funding options from which you may choose. These funding options may include portfolios comprised of stocks, bonds, and money market instruments. The account value of variable annuities can go up or down based on market fluctuations. Your purchase payments and earnings are not guaranteed; they depend on the performance of the underlying investment options."

But believe it or not, there is a place in your retirement plan where these products belong: inside your 401(k). When asked about them in 401(k) plans: "Eleanor Blaney, consumer advocate for the Certified Financial Planning Board, is blunt, "This is categorically a bad idea."" Of all people, women benefit the most from annuities in these plans. They don't discriminate based on sex. They give women the conservative approach many say they want - and the knowledge of knowing what they will have - and it gives them the opportunity to educate themselves about other potential investments available to them. Plus, it eliminates the choice at retirement that most people can't make. Stuffing them in every 401(k) can help men make the right choice for their wives - who will live longer and benefit from them.

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