When talking about annuities, over the years I have met with many people who get a glazed look on their faces and ultimately they throw their hands up and say, “I am so confused”. I will admit that some investments are confusing. But here is one that almost anyone can get their arms around – a retirement income contract, commonly known as an annuity. (Say "an annuity" 10 times really fast!)
When considering the many types of investment vehicles in the market place these days, one should consider a variable annuity.
Basically, an annuity is an income contract with an insurance company. You pay the insurance company money, either in a lumpsum or in payments over time. In return the insurance company contracts to pay you an income for a period of time, typically based on a set number of years or until death. (In this way you cannot out live the income benefit.)
Annuities are primarily used for funding retirement income, so they are a long-term savings vehicle. Depending on the annuity contract, the point at which they begin paying the income is up to you.
There are three basic types of annuities: fixed, indexed and variable. A fixed annuity behaves much like a CD (Certificate of Deposit). On the contract anniversary, the insurance company establishes a new interest rate the company will pay over the next twelve months.
The advantage is that the interest earned, growth and dividends compound income tax deferred.
A variable annuity is also an income contract, rather than investing in the fixed assets of the insurance company and receiving a fixed rate of return, you may invest in a combination of sub-accounts.
These sub-accounts behave almost identically to mutual funds. They can have many of the same objectives as investing in mutual funds, such as, US large cap stock, US bonds, non-US stock, non-US bonds, real estate, etc. Some mutual fund companies have created partnerships with insurance companies to offer copy-cat funds inside variable annuities. Most variable annuity contracts also have a fixed account that will work similar a fixed annuity.
All of these accounts grow tax deferred. It’s like having a tax deferred mutual fund. The tax deferral will result in a greater amount of available funds at retirement, which can greatly increase your income.
Because an annuity is a retirement income contract, it is subject to early distribution penalties by the IRS, similar to an IRA. Making a withdrawal before age 59 ½, creates a 10 percent income tax penalty.
And the risk? People rightly associate mutual funds with risk – after all, aren’t they invested in the stock and bond markets? Can’t I lose my money? Yes, but no more than you would in regular mutual funds. That is why investors should be wise in how they are managed. Never invest and leave the money there and forget about it.
This prompts a discussion about the indexed annuities – these annuities are good investment vehicles. One client had much of his retirement money in an indexed annuity before the market meltdown of 2008. Many of his neighbors lost thousands (maybe millions) during that time a few lost their homes. He was just fine, did not lose a nickel as he says.
An indexed annuity pays a fixed rate of return based on the returns of a particular investment index like the S&P 500. If the index goes up the annuity earns a percentage of the amount it increases. So if the index goes up 10 percent, the annuity may earn 6 percent. But when the index drops and goes down below a certain level the account value does not follow it down; the annuity simply earns 0% that period. Many people would rather earn nothing than lose money.
With an indexed annuity you get the upside but not the down side.
Each type of annuity has its place for different investors. You may consider each one for a part of your retirement nest egg.
One thing to be mindful of is the insurance company that is offering the contract. Each one may be a little different and their fees for managing the annuity contract may vary. One annuity contract may charge a low flat monthly fee of as little as $20 and another as much as three percent. It is important to read the information about the contract and ask questions so you understand; don’t end up confused! Do you own an annuity?