Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Should You Accept a Pension Buyout Offer?

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Corporate pension buyout offers have been in the news lately with Hartford Financial Services offering lump-sum payment options to former employees and with Boeing offering a choice of lump-sum or annuity payments to a similar group.

Other major corporations have made similar offers in recent years including General Motors, who actually offered retired employees a “pension do-over.”

The answer to the question of whether you should accept a pension buyout offer is that it depends upon your situation.  Here are a few things to consider.

Are they sweetening the deal? 

I don’t know the details of either the Hartford or the Boeing offers but I have to think they are offering these former employees some sort of incentive to forgo their normal pension and to take the buyout offer.  Perhaps the lump-sum is a bit larger and in the case of the Boeing offer the annuity payments are a bit better.  Or perhaps there normally wouldn’t be a lump-sum option available from the pension plan so this in and of itself is an incentive.

Remember the incentive for the companies offering these deals is to get rid of these future pension liabilities.  The potential cost savings and impact on their future profitability is huge. 

Can you manage the lump-sum? 

The decision to take your pension as a lump-sum vs. a stream of payments is always a tough decision.  A key question to ask yourself is whether you are equipped to manage a lump-sum payment.  Ideally you would be rolling this lump-sum into an IRA account and investing it for your retirement.  Are you comfortable managing this money?  If not are you working with a trusted financial advisor who can help you?

There has been much written about financial advisors who troll large organizations (both governmental and corporate) looking for large numbers of folks with lump-sums to rollover.  In some cases these advisors have moved this rollover money into investments that are wholly inappropriate for these investors.  As always be smart with you money and with your trust.  Be informed and ask lots of questions.

Do you have concerns about the company’s financial health? 

Do you have doubts about the future solvency of the organization offering the pension?  This pertains to both a public entity (can you say Detroit?) and to for-profit organizations like Hartford Financial and Boeing.  In the latter case pension payments are guaranteed up to certain monthly limits set by the PBGC.  If you were a high-earner and your monthly payment exceeds this limit you could see your monthly payment reduced.

While I am not familiar with the financial state of either Hartford Financial or Boeing I’m guessing their financial health is not a major issue.  However if you receive a buyout offer you might consider taking it if you have concerns that your current or former employer may run into financial difficulties down the road.

Who guarantees the annuity payments? 

If the buyout offer includes an option to receive annuity payments make sure that you understand who is guaranteeing these payments.  Typically if a company is making this type of offer they are looking to reduce their future pension liability and they will transfer your pension obligation to an insurance company.  They will be the one’s making the annuity payments and ultimately guaranteeing these payments.

This is not necessarily a bad thing but you need to understand that your current or former employer is not behind these payments nor is the PBCG.  Typically if an insurance company defaults on its obligations your recourse is via the appropriate state insurance department.  The rules as to how much of an annuity payment is covered will vary.

An additional consideration in evaluating a buy-out option that includes annuity payments of this type is the fact that most of these annuities will not include cost of living increases.  This means that the buying power of these payments will decrease over time due to inflation. 

What other retirement resources do you have? 

If you will be eligible for Social Security and/or have other pension plans it quite possibly will make sense to take a buyout offer that includes a lump-sum.  Take a look at all of your retirement accounts and those of your spouse if you are married.  This includes 401(k) plans, 403(b) accounts, IRAs, etc. This is a good time to take stock of your retirement readiness and perhaps even to do a financial plan if don’t have a current one in place.

The Bottom Line

I’m generally a fan of pension buyout offers, especially if there is a lump-sum option.  As with any financial decision it is wise to look at your entire retirement and financial situation and to have a plan in place to manage this money.  Where an annuity is also available you need to understand who will be behind the annuity and to analyze whether this is a good deal for you.  I suspect that pension buyout offers will continue to be offered by more and more organizations seeking to reduce their pension liability.  You need to be prepared to deal with an offer if you receive one.

Indexed Annuities – Pros and Cons

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A recent article by Investment News’ outstanding insurance and retirement products reporter Darla Marcado discussed the increased popularity of indexed annuity products (link may require free registration) among registered reps.  The zealousness with which these products are often sold sadly invokes images of the annual Canadian baby seal hunts in which the animals are often clubbed to death so as not to damage their valuable hides, with the remains then left to rot once the hides are removed.

Indexed Annuities – Pros and Cons

As with any financial product it is a good idea to look at the pros and cons of Indexed Annuities.

Indexed Annuities – Pros

For the life of me I cannot come up with a single reason why I would ever recommend an Indexed Annuity to anyone.  To be sure I wasn’t missing something I posed this question to my fee-only advisor study group recently and they agreed.

Indexed Annuities – Cons 

Unreasonably long surrender periodsI’ve reviewed a number of these contracts over the past couple of years and they all seem to have surrender periods of ten years or longer.  I can’t see giving your money to anyone who won’t let you have access to it for a decade.  You can of course annuitize and most contracts allow for the withdrawal of a portion (usually 10%) each year, but you’re prohibited from doing a 1035 exchange to another annuity contract if you find a better deal.

High fees and commissions.  These fees serve to reduce your returns and are often hard if not impossible to determine.  They can run in the 5% – 10% range and provide a great incentive for financial sales types to really push these products.  Make sure you demand that your rep disclose ALL commissions and fees that she might earn should you buy a contract.

They can be hard to understand.  With any financial product you should never even consider writing a check until you fully understand how it works and why it’s beneficial to you.  The premise is typically that you will participate in a portion of any gains on an underlying market benchmark such as the S&P 500 and that there is some minimum amount of return that you will make no matter how the index performs.  Make sure you understand the underlying formulas that determine your return and any factors that might cause a change in the formula.  Check out FINRA’s Investor Alert on Indexed Annuities as well.

Limited upside potential.  It is important for you to understand that this is not an equity investment.  Most contracts limit your participation in the underlying index.  For example in 2013 the S&P 500 gained over 32% so if your participation was limited to say 8% you would have missed out on a lot of the gain.

Confusing sales pitches. While technically not a feature of the product, it seems like the sales pitches for Indexed Annuities change to fit the times.  In the wake of the financial crises the fear mongering sales pitch was along the lines of avoiding the risk of the stock market while still participating in the upside.  These days it seems to be about the minimum returns as an alternative low-yielding CDs and other bank depository products.  Sorry there is no “wonder drug” financial product that I’m aware of.

Look this blog is not meant to provide readers with specific financial advice for their unique situation so please at the very least if someone is pitching you an Indexed Annuity (or any other financial product for that matter) ask them and yourself a few basic questions:

  • What’s in this for the financial sales person?  Is this recommendation based upon my best interests or based upon them earning a hefty commission?
  • Does this product make sense for me based upon my situation, my goals?
  • Do I understand how this product works including the upside potential and the downside risks?
  • What are the underlying expenses?  Is there a lower cost alternative that I’m not being made aware of?
  • Is this the best version of this type of product or just the version the sales person has available to sell to me? 

As with any financial product make sure you are buying an Indexed Annuity because it is right for you and not because you succumbed to a convincing sales pitch.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.

Please check out our Book Store for books on financial planning, retirement, and related topics as well as any Amazon shopping needs you may have (or just click on the link below).  The Chicago Financial Planner is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.  If you click on my Amazon.com links and buy anything, even something other than the product advertised, I earn a small fee, yet you don’t pay any extra.

  

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Financial Advice and Mini Bottles of Liquor

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Regular readers here know that the inspiration for some of my blog posts comes from non-financial sources such as youth soccer fields and the Rolling Stones.  In that spirit the idea for this post popped into my head while waiting in line to pay for an item at a local gas station.

Financial Advice and Small Bottles of Liquor

I noticed the clerk behind the counter restocking the very prominent display case with mini bottles of liquor of the type you would buy on an airplane.  When I asked if they sell a lot of these she indicated that I would be surprised and I was.  This is the last place that I would think of buying mini bottles of liquor.  My hope is that the contents are not being consumed en route from the gas station.

I liken this to some of the places that people seek financial advice.  Are you getting financial advice from someone best positioned to advise you or simply from where it is convenient to obtain it?  Here are a few thoughts on some of the alternative sources available to you when seeking financial advice.

Insurance companies and agents

We have had our auto, homeowner’s, and person umbrella policies with an agent affiliated with a major insurance company for years.  Our agent is great and has provided outstanding service.  His company made a big push into providing personal financial planning largely to tap into their vast customer base to try to sell various financial products to these customers.  When I asked my agent if he was now going to become a financial planner he just kind of grumbled as he wanted no part of this.

My experience is that insurance companies are looking to sell annuities and other insurance-based products as their answer to your financial and retirement planning needs.  Many of these companies also offer their own proprietary families of mutual funds and other investment vehicles.  As with anything you need to understand the motivations and capabilities of the person trying to sell these products to you.  Is this agent qualified to provide you with unbiased financial advice or do all questions lead to a solution that involves the sale of a variable annuity or a related product?

Banks offering financial advice

Many banks offer investment and financial advice across a number of formats.  It’s not uncommon to have a registered rep at the branch selling various financial products.  The bank may even have their own line of mutual funds and their own brokerage operation.

Other banks have in-house or affiliated investment advisory operations which offer investment and perhaps wealth management services for a fee as opposed to the commission-based services mentioned above.

Again banks view this as a way to expand their service offerings and broaden their revenue streams by tapping into their depositor base.  As with any financial services provider you need to understand what your bank offers, how they offer it, any potential conflicts of interest, and most of all if this type of arrangement is right for you. 

CPAs offering financial advice

CPAs have rightly earned a reputation as a trusted advisor, especially for business owners.  The good ones offer a range of tax and financial advice that is invaluable.  Many CPAs have ventured into the business of offering investment and financial advice as well.  They realize that this is an excellent revenue stream, often a better one than they can generate via their core business.

As with other providers of financial advice you want to understand that if your CPA is qualified to provide financial planning and investment advice as this is a different knowledge base than his or her normal world.  A few other considerations:

  • Does the CPA have specific knowledge or training here?  A designation such as the CFP® or the PFS (the CPA equivalent) can be good evidence of training and commitment to this area.
  • What happens during tax season?  Are they available to answer your questions and monitor your situation?
  • Is the advice offered as an RIA (Registered Investment Advisor) or via a Broker-Dealer type arrangement?  In the latter case the CPA is likely engaging in advice via the sale of commissioned financial and insurance products.   

Financial Planners 

The term financial planner can be used by anyone so you will want to understand a few things about how any financial planner operates before determining if this is the right advisor for you.

  • What are the financial planner’s credentials and training?  Does he/she hold a CFP® or some similar designation?
  • How is the financial planner compensated?  Fee-only?  Commissions?  A combination of fees and commissions?  It is important for you to understand if there will be any conflicts of interest involved in the delivery of financial advice.
  • What type of financial advice does the financial planner offer?  Hourly as needed?  Comprehensive financial planning? Investment advice and wealth management?  More importantly is this the type of advice that you need?
  • Who are the financial planner’s typical clients?  If you are 60 and nearing retirement an advisor who specializes in clients in their 20s and 30s is probably not the right advisor for you.
  • Check out NAPFA’s guide to finding an advisor for some tips on choosing the right financial advisor for you.  

I’m often puzzled by the process used by many folks in choosing a financial advisor, but I guess it is no stranger than buying mini bottles of liquor at a gas station.  Choosing the right financial advisor can be very rewarding, choosing the wrong advisor can have a devastating impact on your financial life.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.

Please check out our Book Store for books on financial planning, retirement, and related topics as well as any Amazon shopping needs you may have (or just click on the link below).  The Chicago Financial Planner is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.  If you click on my Amazon.com links and buy anything, even something other than the product advertised, I earn a small fee, yet you don’t pay any extra.

  

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What I’m Reading – Triple Crown Edition

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The Belmont Stakes offers the chance for California Chrome to become horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner since 1978.  Win or lose he is destined for nice life after racing as he will surely command enormous stud fees that will enrich his owner’s.  We will certainly be watching and rooting for him.

Kentucky Derby 2014-0186

Here are some financial articles that I’ve read lately that you might find interesting and useful. 

Stan Haithcock offers some great insights for annuity holders in How to evaluate your annuity contract at Market Watch.

There is a new king in terms of 401(k) assets as reported in Vanguard Passes Fidelity to Become Number One in 401(k) Assets at Bloomberg.

Jim Blankenship shares Mechanics of 401(k) Plans – Loans  shedding light on this often misunderstood aspect of 401(k) plans at Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row.

Scott Holsopple explains What to Do With ‘Orphaned’ 401(k)s at US News.

Russ Thornton discusses The Lifestyle Cost Of High Investment Expenses at Wealthcare for Women.

Michael Zhuang declares Variable Annuity: Bad Investment! at Investment Scientist.

Mike Piper of Oblivious Investor always does an excellent job of explaining complex topics in easy to understand terms, so consider checking out his latest book.

If you are new to The Chicago Financial Planner here are our three most popular posts over the past 30 days:

Financial Advisors to Follow on Social Media

Life Insurance as a Retirement Savings Vehicle – A Good Idea? 

Peyton Manning and Investment Success

I hope you enjoy some of these articles and hope you have a great weekend.

Please check out our Book Store for books on financial planning, retirement, and related topics as well as any Amazon shopping needs you may have (or just click on the link below).  The Chicago Financial Planner is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.  If you click on my Amazon.com links and buy anything, even something other than the product advertised, I earn a small fee, yet you don’t pay any extra.

  

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.

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7 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Variable Annuity

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Variable annuities are often touted as an ideal retirement investing vehicle, especially by financial advisors who sell them.  Variable annuities can be a useful vehicle for retirement accumulation.  However variable annuities (and other types of annuities) are quite often misunderstood by those who are the targets of these sales pitches.  Is a variable annuity right for you?  Here are 7 questions to ask before buying a variable annuity.

What does a variable annuity do for me that I can’t accomplish outside of a variable annuity? 

This is a great question and if you ask your annuity sales person you will get a variety of answers.  I’m certainly not anti-variable annuity, but they are not the wonder drug that many brokers and registered reps selling them would have us believe.  Make sure that you ask the next person who makes a variable annuity sales pitch this very question (and a few others) and listen to their explanation.  Maybe you will get a cogent, sensible answer maybe not.

Will I eventually annuitize the contract? 

One of the benefits of any form of an annuity is the ability to create a stream of income in retirement.  This is the reason for the mortality and expense charges in every contract, this is the insurance company’s compensation for your option to annuitize the contract in the future.  If this isn’t something that you are likely to do perhaps a variable annuity is not the answer for you.  At the very least find one with reasonable expenses.

Have I maximized my contributions to my 401(k), my IRAs, and other retirement plans? 

In my experience contributing to your 401(k) or similar workplace retirement plan and to your IRAs provide a better retirement savings vehicle than a variable annuity, if for no other reason than they usually have lower expenses and don’t have restrictions like surrender charges.  In fact I often put a variable annuity lower on the list than investing in a taxable account, though this will vary person by person based on each individual’s situation.

What are the expenses? 

As mentioned above many variable annuities are laden with onerous expenses that enrich the insurance company and perhaps the person who sold you the annuity, but likely not you.  There are many lower cost annuity products offered by the likes of Vanguard and others that may be worth checking out if a variable annuity is of interest.  A fee-only advisor will likely go in this direction, but an annuity sales person can’t as there is no compensation in it for them.

What are my investment options? 

Years ago there was an SNL skit that referenced something called “bef” which was almost like beef, but wasn’t.  This is similar to the variable annuity world where the investment options are called sub-accounts.  They look, feel, and smell like mutual funds but they aren’t mutual funds.  They might even have familiar mutual fund sounding names, but they are still different and generally pricier.  Understand the investments as this is the vehicle that will fuel your accumulation in the variable annuity.

Are there restrictions if I want to move my money? 

As they used to say on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (NBC from 1968-1973) “… you bet your sweet Bippy…” there are restrictions on moving your money from a variable annuity in most cases.  While I can understand taxes and perhaps penalties for withdrawing prior to age 59 ½, the surrender charges on many variable annuities serve to hold your money captive for as many as 10 years even if you find a better deal down the road.  Make sure you understand any and all surrender charges and other penalties before buying into a variable annuity and better yet avoid financial products with these charges.

Who stands behind the product? 

Annuities are guaranteed by the “full faith” of the insurance company offering the product.  Be sure to investigate the financial strength of the issuer as they are the ones responsible for making any annuity payments you might opt for.  While annuity defaults are quite rare they do happen and if it does your recourse is likely with a regulator.

Variable annuities are a valid retirement planning tool.  Just make sure that you understand what you are buying, why you are buying it, and ALL of the underlying expenses involved.  Make sure that you buy the product for the right reasons and not because you succumbed to an aggressive sales pitch.

Please check out our Book Store for books on financial planning, retirement, and related topics as well as any Amazon shopping needs you may have (or just click on the link below).  The Chicago Financial Planner is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.  If you click on my Amazon.com links and buy anything, even something other than the product advertised, I earn a small fee, yet you don’t pay any extra.

  

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.

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Is Fear the Ultimate Financial Sales Tool?

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If you are like me you may have noticed a preponderance of TV and radio ads where fear is used to pitch various financial products.  If seems that these are overwhelmingly from providers of products such as annuities, insurance or other commissioned financial and investment products.   Recently I heard commercial for a variation of the insurance product called Be Your Own Banker.  Their pitch was the inevitability of a 50% loss in the stock market.  Really, come on.

Fear Is the Mindkiller

My personal pet peeve is that far too often these fear mongers seem to target seniors afraid of losing their nest eggs.

Should fear be a financial motivator? 

Ameriprise has been running a commercial asking folks if they would outlive their money in retirement.  A valid question and one in part based upon fear.

In fact many folks in their 50s or 60s looking for financial planning help as they approach retirement are asking this question.  Whether it’s fear-based or born out of a desire to be prepared it is a good lead-in to the financial planning process for folks in this age range.

On the other hand scaring people, especially seniors, into purchasing a financial product that may or may not be right for them strikes me as sleazy.

In a prior post on this blog, 5 Steps to a Lousy Retirement, I listed making financial decisions based on emotions as one of the steps to take on the road to a lousy retirement.  This especially true when you are being sold annuities or insurance products because so many of them come with onerous surrender charges meaning that it will cost you dearly to move your money elsewhere over the first 5-10 years of ownership.

Planning should precede the sale of financial products 

The logic, other than the desire to earn a sales commission, of pitching a financial product instead of a financial plan to a client escapes me.  In my world a financial planning strategy generally comes first, the implementation of that strategy including the use of appropriate financial products comes afterwards.

Inflation vs. investment loss 

Many of these fear-based product pitches cropped up in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008-09 and the corresponding drop in the stock market.

In my opinion, however, retirees should fear the impact of inflation on their purchasing power vs. losing money in the stock market.  Even a relatively benign 3% inflation rate will cut your purchasing power in half over a 24 year period.

Yes the stock market was hammered in 2008 and if you use the SD&P 500 as a benchmark the market gained very little during the decade 2000-2009.  However a diversified portfolio did reasonably well even during this “lost decade.”

Ask questions and do your homework  

Many successful financial sales types are very personable individuals.  In some cases the sales person might be your neighbor, a member of your church, or a fellow member of the local Rotary club.  This shouldn’t disqualify them as an advisor, however you should also be prepared to scrutinize their credentials and the products they may be trying to sell you with the same tough standards that you would hopefully apply to a stranger in the same situation.

As an example, with the Be Your Own Banker (or any of its variations) sales pitch that I mentioned at the outset, you need to dig very deep before writing a check for this type of insurance policy.  I went to the site and found much of the presentation confusing and found little or no information about the associated policy costs and expenses.

Whether an insurance policy, an annuity, or commissioned investment products you need to ask many, many questions of the agent/registered rep.

  • At the very least understand ALL associated fees, expenses, and restrictions on moving your money.
  • How does this individual get paid?
  • With an insurance related product how solid is the company behind the policy or annuity contract?  

Fear must be a very effective tool in selling financial products, otherwise we would not see so many fear-based product pitches.  Don’t fall for this type of sales pitch.  The only financial products that you should consider are those that are right for your situation, not those that you are scared into buying.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss  all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services. 

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Annuities On Trial! Is Your Annuity Guilty or Not Guilty?

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You have to love financial services marketers.  The title of this blog post is actually the headline on an invitation that I recently received to a dinner session on annuities.  You can’t make this stuff up.  While this seminar invitation may be a bit cheesy, it does raise some valid questions about annuities.  In that vein here are some thoughts about annuities and about financial dinner seminars.

Premier Series Fixed Annuities Premier Series ...

Financial dinner seminars 

Financial dinner seminars are a traditional method for investment advisors, estate planning attorneys and insurance and annuity sales types to get their message out to a group of potential clients.  Common sense tells us that these seminars are costly to stage and that the advisors sponsoring them are looking for a return on their investment.  In terms of this annuity seminar or any type of financial or estate planning dinner seminar consider the following before you decide to attend:

  • The ultimate objective of the seminar is to get you to buy something.
  • Ask yourself if this is really the best route to finding a financial advisor.
  • Can you resist the pressure, direct or implied, that will be put upon you to meet with the individual(s) sponsoring the session and do business with them?

In terms of this annuity seminar in particular, I called the company sponsoring the session and pretended I had some questions before deciding whether or not to attend.  The pleasant young woman on the phone indicated that the organization was “holistic” in their approach to working with clients.  They could sell you another annuity if appropriate, manage your money, or consult on matters such as Social Security.

While this all sounds nice, the individual sponsoring the annuity seminar runs a marketing organization and was once affiliated with Tarkenton Financial a financial marketing organization run by Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton.  In a Motley Fool piece The “Criminals” Who Sell Annuities, the author quotes Tarkenton as saying:

“There are 38,000,000 Seniors in America. Do they know who you are? Seniors know and trust an American Classic, NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback Fran Tarkenton. If you are a professional in the insurance industry focused on the Retirement and Senior Market, Tarkenton Financial can help you build your business.” 

The Motley Fool piece goes on to say “Nowhere in these ads will you find anything even vaguely along the lines of “we’ll help you help your clients achieve their financial goals.” Because, for some of these people, it’s more about building their own net worth’s, not their clients’. 

This leads me to believe that there will be a lot of direct and indirect selling at this annuity dinner session and very little about helping the attendees to achieve their financial and retirement goals.  At least the venue is a restaurant with excellent food.

Considerations before buying any annuity 

You might get the impression that I am anti-annuity.  You would be wrong.  I have nothing against annuities, only the way that they are often sold and with many of the annuity products that are pushed by insurance agents and registered reps.   Here are some things you should consider before buying any annuity product:

  • Make sure you understand all of the expenses, fees, and charges involved with the product.  I’ve seen variable annuities with annual ongoing expenses well in excess of 2%.  To say this is outrageous and obscene would be kind.  Suffice it to say expenses like this are eating away at the amount that will be available to you when it comes time to annuitize the product or to take partial distributions.
  • If a fixed annuity is paying a much higher rate of interest than other similar products ask yourself why.   Is the insurance company taking excessive risk?  Will they be able to sustain the returns needed to maintain the payments?  Is this a “teaser” bonus rate that drops down to more normal levels after a period of time?  The old adage “… if it sounds too good…” applies here.
  • Who is behind the annuity?  How strong is the insurance company?  If something happens to the insurer it falls to the appropriate state department of insurance to cover you.  There are generally limits on the amount guaranteed for annuities so you will want to read the contract and make sure you understand this all of this.
  • Many annuities contain surrender charges that impose some stiff fees if you try to get out of the contract during the first few years.  Again make sure you are aware of these fees.
  • Equity Index Annuities are often sold by capitalizing on the fears of seniors and others in the wake of a down market.  Typically the returns of these annuities are based on some percentage of an index like the S&P 500, with some minimum guaranteed return and/or floor on the amount that the investor can lose.  Again these products often carry steep surrender charges and they must be pretty lucrative for those selling them judging from the comments I received when I wrote Indexed Annuities-Da Coach Likes Them Should You?  Don’t take my word for it; check out this SEC investor bulletin.

Don’t fall for annuity sales pitches.  An annuity may be appropriate for you but the only way to really know this is by getting a financial plan in place for yourself and your family.

For more information check out:

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss all of your financial planning and investing questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services. 

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Is a Variable Annuity Right for You?

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Souvenir Programme, inside cover I’m asked this question from time to time.  The most recent incident was by a friend whose “financial guy” was pushing her to invest a substantial portion of her investable assets into a variable annuity that was “coincidently” offered by his employer.  This friend asked me a simple but thought provoking question:   What type of person is a variable annuity a good product for?   Let’s analyze this question.

What is a Variable Annuity? 

Investopedia defines a variable annuity as follows:  “An insurance contract in which, at the end of the accumulation stage, the insurance company guarantees a minimum payment. The remaining income payments can vary depending on the performance of the managed portfolio.”  Money invested in a VA grows tax-deferred just like a Roth IRA (note VAs are often the vehicle used in 403(b) plans and can be used in an IRA, but for purposes of this article we are only discussing after-tax, non-qualified accounts).  At some point in the future the money can be withdrawn either in a stream of payments (annuitized) over a variety of time frames with varying payouts for a survivor if applicable, withdrawn all at once, or in partial withdrawals over time.    Generally the amount contributed is not subject to taxes, the gains are subject to taxes at ordinary income rates.

Who should consider a Variable Annuity? 

I generally counsel most people to fully fund their company retirement plan such as a 401(k) first, their next priority should generally be funding an IRA (traditional, Roth, or after-tax).  This prioritization is general and certainly one size does not fit all. For example a variable annuity might be more attractive to someone who is looking for an investment vehicle where gains can grow tax-deferred and whose 401(k) plan is lousy.  4 Signs of a Lousy 401(k) Plan include:

  • A plan investment menu loaded with proprietary funds offered by the plan provider.
  • A fund line-up consisting solely of funds from a single fund family.
  • A line-up consisting of funds with high expense ratios.
  • A plan that is wrapped in an insurance company group annuity plan.

Additionally if your plan doesn’t offer a match in addition to having one or more of the above characteristics a variable annuity might be attractive to you. A variable annuity can serve as an additional leg on your retirement planning stool.  For example you might have a 401(k) plan, an IRA, taxable investments, Social Security, and possibly a pension.  A variable annuity can offer another vehicle for tax-deferred investment growth.

Expenses are a key factor 

As an insurance product all variable annuities have an insurance cost as well as the expense ratio of underlying investment sub-account.  The cost of two otherwise similar variable annuity products can vary widely. For example the annuity this friend asked me to review carried expenses that were in excess of 2% all-in for most of the sub-accounts.  This notation on the Vanguard site illustrates the wide variations in VA costs:

“* Source: Morningstar, Inc., as of December 2012. The Vanguard Variable Annuity has an average expense ratio of 0.58%, versus the annuity industry average of 2.28%; excludes fees for optional riders. Actual expense ratios for the Vanguard Variable Annuity range from 0.46% to 0.79%, depending on the investment allocation. The expense ratio includes an administrative fee of 0.10% and a mortality and expense risk fee of 0.195%. The expense ratio excludes additional fees that would apply if the Return of Premium Death Benefit rider or Guaranteed Lifetime Withdrawal Benefit rider is elected. In addition, contracts with balances under $25,000 are subject to a $25 annual maintenance fee.” 

Additionally many VAs offer additional riders or contract features such as the Return of Premium Death Benefit Rider mentioned above.  In all cases you should evaluate the cost of any riders and the benefit you would derive and then relate this to your unique situation when evaluating a given VA product. The VA that I was asked to review also had a surrender period.  What this means is that for a period of time (either 10 or 7 years in this case) you will be charged a penalty if you surrender the contract (in English this means withdraw your money).  While the insurance company might argue that this is needed to provide them with stability or some other mumbo jumbo, the fact is that you would be charged a hefty (especially in the early years of the contract) fee even if you found a better variable annuity and wanted to move your money to that product.  The surrender charge declines over the life of the surrender period and you can withdraw a small portion of your money without penalty each year.  I strongly urge you to find a VA (such as Vanguard’s or several others) with no surrender charges.

Investment choices 

Most VAs utilize sub-accounts that look like mutual funds, but aren’t.  For example the sub-account might have a name like the XYZ Annuity Fidelity Contra sub-account.  While the sub-account might invest in shares of the Fidelity mutual fund with the same name, or might even be managed by Contra’s manager this is not the Fidelity Contra fund.  If for no other reason than the higher annuity expenses, the returns will be different (and generally worse). Just like any investment vehicle the quality of the investment options and their expenses should be a key factor in evaluating a given variable annuity and even whether to invest in a VA at all.

Is a variable annuity the right choice for you? 

As with much in the realm of financial planning and investing, the answer is “it depends.”  In addition to what we’ve discussed above, ask yourself these questions:

  • What does a variable annuity do for me that I can’t accomplish with investments outside of a VA?
  • Will I annuitize the contract or take periodic withdraws?
  • Do I already have enough annuitized retirement income from Social Security and a pension?
  • Do the benefits of the VA I’m considering outweigh the expenses?
  • Why is my “financial guy” really pushing this VA?
  • How sound is the insurance company behind the product?  Do I understand what happens and who I might turn to if the insurer encounters financial difficulties?
  • VA gains are generally taxed as ordinary income, how does this fit with your retirement tax strategy?
  • VAs can trigger some estate planning issues, make sure that you understand these and are prepared to plan accordingly.  These include both tax-related issues and the fact that any money that is annuitized becomes unavailable to pass on to your heirs upon your death.

A variable annuity can be an appropriate tool in your retirement planning toolkit.  Just make sure that you understand what you are looking to buy, why you would be buying it, and ALL of the underlying expenses involved.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a free 30-minute consultation to discuss all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.   

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Call the Safe Money Guy: My Road Sign Epiphany

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English: Beware of warthogs road sign near Wat...

On a recent drive on the Tollway through the far South end of Chicago near the Indiana state line all of a sudden there it was the solution to all of the financial planning issues that I help clients deal with.  There was my financial epiphany, a road sign urging drivers to “Call the Safe Money Guy.”

Call me cynical, but I generally want to check to make sure my wallet is still in my pocket when I see a sales gimmick on the order of “The Safe Money Guy” advertised.

Sadly I was moving too fast to get the name of the firm so I am forced to dig into my vivid imagination to offer my thoughts on this and similar financial services marketing approaches.

Using 2008-2009 market drop as a sales tool 

I think the whole idea of using fear-mongering as an annuity sales tactic is reprehensible, which is what I’m guessing this guy is doing.  The pitch often goes something like this:

Fed up with the volatility in the stock market?  Tired of the guys on Wall Street making all of the money?  Invest for peace of mind and protect your principal.  Call us. 

So what’s wrong with this?  Far too often the annuity or insurance product being sold carries high ongoing expenses, onerous surrender fees, and returns that often don’t look all that great when you “peel back the onion” and take a hard look at the underlying product.  This pitch is common for Equity Index Annuities, a product that prompted even FINRA to post a warning page on its site.

Leading with a product vs. a plan 

My real beef with this approach and similar ones is that they lead with the sale of financial products instead of a financial plan.   How can anyone recommend any financial product to a client without first understanding in great detail the client’s goals, risk tolerance, and their overall financial situation?

Safe from what? 

Many investors would equate safety with having little or no chance of losing money on their investments.  That’s certainly one definition.  Let me offer a few other “safety” features you might find in some of the products sold in this fashion:

  • Safety from low cost investment vehicles.
  • Safety from the returns that might be needed to achieve your longer-term financial goals.  Over the years I have stressed the point to those planning for their retirement that the biggest single risk they face is from the ravages of inflation eroding the purchasing power of their hest-egg.  I’m not advocating that folks take more investment risk than is appropriate for them, I am advocating that they balance the need for growth to stay ahead of inflation against the bunker mentality being sold by some fear-monger financial sales types.
  • Safety from product transparency.  Anyone who has ever read an annuity or insurance contract can attest to this.
  • Safety from advisor compensation that is clearly defined and based only on financial advice provided.

Look I’m not against either life insurance or annuities.  They can both have a place in a well-constructed financial plan.   There are many folks who sell annuity and insurance products who are diligent and who do a great job for their clients.  Sadly there are others who use what I consider to be some questionable sales tactics.

The recent PBS Frontline documentary The Retirement Gamble served to highlight the high fees that are rampant in some retirement plans.  The same diligence needs to be applied by retirement savers and all investors outside of their company retirement plans.

If working with a financial advisor is right for you, choose a financial advisor who puts your interests first, who understands your needs, and who can recommend financial strategies and products to implement those strategies that are right for you, not those that put the most money in their pockets.

Please feel free to contact me with your retirement planning and investing questions.   Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page for more information about our services.    

Photo credit:  Wikipedia

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