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Are Annuities a Good Choice for Bad Times?

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The current meltdown in the stock market has had mixed impact on annuities. As mentioned in this retirement blog, Variable annuities “vary in value” and have suffered sizeable losses during the market meltdown.

Fixed annuities, on the other hand, have avoided losses because they are guaranteed not to lose value if the market crater. Let look over the horizon and speculate about what the future holds for annuities.

The primary advantage of annuities is the deferral of income taxes.  While this feature has not always been center stage, the anticipated increase in future income taxes now highlights this attractive advantage and has spawned a new interest in fixed annuities. If the new Congress and Administration provide incentives for “saving” rather than “consuming”, tax deferred annuities will gain market share from bank CDs and other safe money alternatives because no taxes are paid on earnings until they are actually withdrawn.

The guaranteed lifetime income features of variable and fixed annuities have added substantially to their demand as retirement planning tools.  The retirement-minded have been able to roll-over qualified accounts into annuities and secure a guarantee lifetime income that remains under their control.  The value of the annuity converted to a lifetime income is guaranteed to grow at a stipulated rate, generally from 5% to 8%, even if the market loses ground.  This permits a known minimum lifetime income to be “locked up” while maintaining flexibility if the money is later needed for other purposes.  Just as insurance companies offer risk protection for health, life and property, retirees can now buy protection for their greatest fear: outliving their retirement money.  The development of lifetime income guarantees should prove to be a substantial demand-builder for annuities as the population ages, especially if the current economic and financial uncertainty persists.

While tax deferral and the ability to secure protection for longevity risk will no doubt bolster the demand for annuities in the future, there are other forces working that will have the opposite effect.  The same forces are not expected to affect variable and fixed annuities equally; thus, let’s discuss each separately.

Variable annuities are essentially mutual funds offering full market participation – both upside and downside – with tax-deferral but without capital gains treatment.  They also feature riders, generally for a fee, that offer lifetime income and good death benefits.  Plus, variable annuities permit wide latitude in choosing and changing sub-accounts. The recent market’s negative returns have been exacerbated by the steep fees on VAs and as a result demand has turned anemic.  Accordingly, variable annuities will most likely remain out of favor as retirement investments until the market’s future direction is crystal clear.

By avoiding losses in the current market meltdown, fixed annuities, including index-linked annuities, have emerged as a safe haven for retirement money.  Notwithstanding the avoidance of losses by fixed-index linked annuities, the SEC has proposed Rule 151(A) that will classify some or all fixed index-linked annuities as securities.  Should 151(A) become final many independent producers will simply stop offering indexed annuities because they do not want the hassle of becoming securities licensed and dealing with the hassles of becoming securities licensed or registered. Accordingly, is Rule 151(A) becomes law fixed index-linked annuities may be harder to find by the retirement-minded. This is the classic case of the government trying to help but actually hurting those that could most benefit from safety and tax deferral: the retired.   Of course, traditional fixed annuities which offer a set rate for one or more years will still be available as a safe place for tax deferral.

No doubt there will emerge innovative fixed annuities that avoid Rule 151(A) yet offer substitutes for fixed rates without relying on market indexes.  For example, an inflation-linked fixed annuity would offer retirees stable purchasing power without the involvement of market risks. What’s more, fixed annuities with annual inflation adjustment would mirror current Social Security benefits and could add considerable income stability in retirement.  The inflation-hedge feature is appearing with more frequency in annuities, albeit as a rider that commands a fee.

While there remain pluses and minuses, variable annuities are likely to continuing fading into the background as retirement investments simply because of market risk, high fees and poor performance.  While tax deferral, guaranteed lifetime income and death benefits are favorable, these continue to develop inside fixed annuities without the threat of market risks or the levy of high explicit fees.  The recent variable annuity losses will likely spawn further taint on their acceptance as retirement investments.

Fixed annuities on the other hand, should rise in popularity because they offer safety, deferral of anticipated higher income taxes and feature lifetime income options.  If the current generation of retirement-bound boomers and retirees are permanently jaded by the recent market meltdown, the acceptance of traditional fixed annuities could surge in an environment of rising taxes and low fixed rates.  This is especially true if the design changes to promote stable purchasing power during retirement.  The developing features of fixed annuities, low fixed rates from banks, expected higher taxes, and a risk-averse aging population augurs well for fixed annuities.

Shelby Smith, Ph.D.
December 2008

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