Category Archives: Variable Annuities

Retirement Decisions: Lump Sums vs. Income Streams

Americans love getting big checks.  The instant gratification of dramatically increasing one’s liquid net worth is far more desirable for most people than the comfortable but far less exciting feeling of getting a check every month for the rest of their life.  Ironically, taking the lump sum option is most often the wrong decision.  People mistakenly believe they can better manage funds on their own than leaving it in the hands of experienced pension managers and insurance companies.  It’s not so hard to understand why people make this choice – if you were 65 and deciding between $500,000 or $3,000/month for life, I think many people would take the lump sum.  Why?  You can buy a house with $500,000, or pay for a college education, or buy a boat, or take many incredible vacations.  However, $3,000 per month doesn’t allow for any of those large and highly gratifying purchases.  That last point is exactly why we want to pass on the $500,000 and take the long-term income stream instead.

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An Update on Variable Annuity Pros & Cons

The variable annuity market experienced tremendous growth over the past decade. The introduction of a product which guarantees lifetime income payments while providing the opportunity for market growth was precisely what many investors were looking for. Companies such as Prudential, MetLife, AXA, Nationwide, Jackson, and Transamerica rolled out product after product which generated billions of dollars in sales through financial advisor channels. The purpose of this article is to determine if these products are still working well for investors and to point out the challenges which the current market environment presents to the insurance companies which issue these variable annuity products. In essence, are the product offerings at the current costs worth purchasing? Or should investors be looking at other products and strategies to augment their retirement income?

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The Variable Annuity Market is Shrinking

It seems like every time I turn around another variable annuity (VA) provider is closing its doors. Sun Life, John Hancock, AXA, Genworth, and ING are among the companies which have either limited new contributions to one of their VA products, taken some other step to minimize exposure to the VA market, or completely exited the market. Meanwhile, that has translated into more premium dollars for big players like Prudential and Jackson National which have increased market share over the past year, according to Bloomberg Financial. The irony here is that VA sales in Q3 of 2011 hit $8.8B which was the highest level since Q3 of 2007.* One would think companies would want to enter this arena and compete for new dollars, not run the other way.

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Why Variable Annuity Popularity May be Increasing

I’ve noticed an increasing number of people contacting me about variable annuities lately. I think this can be explained by a fear increase among investors. In the past investors may have been willing to forego a guaranteed income stream for the chance at having substantially more assets during retirement. That mentality made sense at a time when the stock market averaged 10-12% growth per year and government entitlement programs were well funded. But during this ‘lost decade’ investors find themselves clinging to cash and prioritizing guaranteed income over growth. Variable annuities actually offer both which is probably why investors are asking questions.

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Comparing & Contrasting Variable Annuity Riders

As most of my readers know, my blog is designed to inform clients about issues related to financial planning, investment products, and the economy. Lately I’ve been fielding more questions than usual about the various annuity products out there and which ones are best, the worst and potentially the most interesting. It’s also no surprise that variable annuity features and riders change frequently to correspond to changing market conditions and current client needs. It would be nearly impossible for the average investor to be fully informed about the differences between variable annuities offered by Prudential, Jackson National, Nationwide, AXA, Sun Life, Transamerica, etc. Well, this post should provide some clarity and also give you insight into how the insurance companies think about and price these products.  Note: While some of the information below is still accurate, the various annuity riders and pricing have changed over the past few years. If you are looking for product specifics which are accurate for 2013 forward, please send me an e-mail or give me a ring.

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The Changing Mindset of Variable Annuity (VA) Providers

A year ago it was hard for me to keep variable annuity (VA) wholesalers out of my office. The features offered by various insurance companies would change so rapidly that I’d have to take meetings to stay up-to-date.* There was essentially a competition between insurers to load more and greater guarantees onto their products to attract the most new money. But when the stock market started collapsing, the reaction by insurers was very interesting. You see, a large number of annuity contract holders never use the guarantees they pay for. The rider expenses and other fees paid by contract holders which provide them the peace-of-mind they are looking for also keep the insurance companies running profitable businesses. When many contracts became worth dramatically less than the initial premiums, insurers had to hope that there wasn’t a rush to exercise those income benefits, which could have potentially put some insurer’s VA divisions out of business. Not only was each insurer’s ability to ‘hedge’ well enough to pay their riders in question, but their overall balance sheets, in many cases full of bonds and other investments were also cracking at the same time. The snowball effect can lead to ratings cuts which ultimately leads to broken trust and confidence by investors.

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Is a Variable Annuity Right for You?

Welcome to one of the most misunderstood financial products out there. It’s no surprise how little most investors know about variable annuities because they’re extremely complicated and their explanations often come from insurance brokers and financial advisors who often don’t adequately explain their potential benefits and drawbacks. Over the past year variable annuity (VA) sales have skyrocketed as investors seek guarantees which may help them keep retirement plans on track.* So, who exactly is this product right for?

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Variable Annuity Pros and Cons: What’s all the Chatter About?

The chatter surrounding variable annuities is louder than ever. Investors want security regarding their money in the face of increasing amounts of uncertainty about the future. Variable annuities may feed this desire with two features not generally offered together: the opportunity for growth combined with a variety of guarantees protecting both the payment to a beneficiary if the account owner dies, and the income derived from the principal amount invested.

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What is a Variable Annuity?

An annuity is a stream of income.  A purchaser makes periodic or one-time payments during the “accumulation phase” of an annuity so that at some point in the future they can trade those payments in for a stream of income.  The aspect of an annuity which makes it “variable” as opposed to “fixed” is the fluctuating performance of the sub-accounts which they invest in.  Typically, annuity sub-accounts are invested in mutual fund-like holdings which can own stocks, bonds, and alternatives.   The total contract value of your annuity will vary depending on the performance of the underlying investments. There is a lot of chatter about the positive and negative aspects of investing in variable annuities because of their complexity and potential expense.  I will explain further below:

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