Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

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.

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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 $100,000 a Year Retirement Doable?

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Retirement

A recent New York Times article discussed that a $1 million retirement nest egg isn’t what it used to be.  While this is more than 90% of U.S. retirees have amassed, $1 million doesn’t go as far as you might think.  That said I wanted to take a look at what it takes to provide $100,000 income annually during retirement.

The 4% rule 

The 4% rule says that a retiree can safely withdraw 4% of their nest egg during retirement and assume that their money will last 30 years.  This very useful rule of thumb was developed by fee-only financial planning superstar Bill Bengen, a NAPFA colleague.

Like any rule of thumb it is just that, an estimating tool.  At you own peril do not depend on this rule, do a real financial plan for your retirement.

Using the 4% rule as a quick estimating tool let’s see how someone with a $1 million combined in their 401(k) s and some IRAs can hit $100,000 (gross before any taxes are paid).

Doing the math 

The $1 million in the 401(k)s and IRAs will yield $40,000 per year using the 4% rule.  This leaves a shortfall of $60,000 per year.

A husband and wife who both worked might have Social Security payments due them starting at say a combined $40,000 per year.

The shortfall is now down to $20,000

Source of funds

Annual income

Retirement account withdrawals

$40,000

Social Security

$40,000

Need

$100,000

Shortfall

$20,000

 

Closing the income gap 

In our hypothetical situation the couple has a $20,000 per year gap between what their retirement accounts and Social Security can be expected to provide.  Here are some ways this gap can be closed:

  • If they have significant assets outside of their retirement accounts these funds can be tapped.
  • Perhaps they have one or more pensions in which they have a vested benefit.
  • They may have stock options or restricted stock units that can be converted to cash from their employers.
  • This might be a good time to look at downsizing their home and applying any excess cash from the transaction to their retirement.
  • If they were business owners they might realize some value from the sale of the business as they retire.
  • If realistic perhaps retirement can be delayed for several years.  This allows the couple to not only accumulate a bit more for retirement but it also delays the need to tap into their retirement accounts and builds up their Social Security benefit a bit longer.
  • It might be feasible to work full or part-time during the early years of retirement.  Depending upon one’s expertise there may be consulting opportunities related to your former employment field or perhaps you can start a business based upon an interest or a hobby.

Things to beware of in trying to boost your nest egg 

  • Avoid high cost financial products that often do more to boost the bottom line of the financial sales person than that of their clients.
  • Likewise don’t give into the fear mongers peddling financial products like Equity Index Annuities or similar products “that can’t lose.” 
  • Don’t be too cautious with your investments in retirement, inflation is a retiree’s worst enemy.
  • On the flip side don’t take on excessive investment risk in an effort to catch up if you feel that you are behind where you need to be. 

The scenario outlined above is hypothetical but very common.  As far as retirement goes I think financial journalist and author Jon Chevreau has the right idea:  Forget Retirement Seek Financial Independence.

Check out the retirement calculator tool below for a look at your situation. While this is an excellent tool, please remember the results only provide a first step in the retirement planning process.  This is not a substitute for an in-depth financial plan done by a qualified professional.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a free 30-minute retirement planning consultation and 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.  

Check out our Resources page for links to a variety of tools and services that might be beneficial to you.

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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.    

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Friday Finance Links April 26, 2013 – NFL Draft Edition

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Its NFL draft time again.  Let’s hope that UCLA’s Datone Jones, the first round pick of America’s team the Green Bay Packers pans out as well as some recent top picks such as Clay Mathews, Aaron Rodgers, and Randall Cobb.

Here are a few links to some great weekend financial reading. 

Personal Finance Blogs

Julie shares 3 Big Problems with Your Retirement Savings and What You Can Do About Them at The Family CEO.

Jason discusses Seven Reasons Why Being Rich Isn’t Evil at Hull Financial Planning.

Andrea explains Women and Retirement Planning: What You Need to do Different than Men at Take a Small Step.

Miranda asks Are Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) Going Away? at Cash Money Life.

Posts from Fellow NAPFA Members 

Kimberly Howard discusses The Current State Of Social Security at Figuide.com.

Claire Emory tell us that Monopoly Offers Lessons On Investing And Financial Planning at Figuide.com.   

Other financial articles from around the web

Christine Benz poses 5 Key Questions to Ask Before Purchasing an Equity-Indexed Annuity at morningstar.com.

Dan Solin sheds light on A Billion-Dollar Misunderstanding (in Gold) at usnews.com.

In case you missed it here is my latest contribution to the US News Smarter Investor Blog Beware of Financial Fraud. 

Here’s wishing everyone a great weekend.  

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3 Financial Products to Consider Avoiding

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Red and white sign to avoid construction zone

It’s a New Year and many of us are looking to start the New Year out on the right foot financially.  Couple this with the upcoming tax season and this is prime time for the financial product sales types.   Before buying ANY financial product make sure that this product is right for you in terms of your overall financial situation.  Financial products are tools and just like your projects around the house you should use the right tool for the job and not the tool that the financial rep wants to sell to you.

Here are three products that you should consider avoiding:

Equity-Indexed Annuities 

Equity-Indexed Annuities are an insurance-based product where the returns are tied to some portion of the performance of an underlying market index such as the S&P 500.  Your gains are limited to a portion of what the index gains and there is generally some sort of minimum return to limit (or eliminate) your risk of loss.  As you can imagine these were pitched heavily to Baby Boomers and retirees after the last market downturn and are still being sold based upon fear today.  Two problems here are generally high expenses and surrender charges that keep you locked in the product for years.  The reality based upon my experience is that while most investors suffered major losses during 2008-09, my clients (and the clients of other financial advisors with whom I network) had generally made up those losses in a relatively short period of time and now find themselves decently ahead of where they were.  I’m not sure that an expense laden Equity-Index Annuity would have made them any better off.  If you decide to go ahead with the purchase of an Equity-Indexed Annuity be sure that you understand all of the details including index participation, expenses, surrender charges, and the health of the underlying insurance company.

Proprietary Mutual Funds

 It is not uncommon for registered reps and brokers, who are compensated all or in part by commissions or trailing fees from the mutual funds they sell, to suggest mutual funds from the family run by their employer.  While some of these funds are perfectly fine, all too often in my experience they are not.  Whether from high fees and/or low performance these are often investments to be avoided.  A lawsuit against Ameriprise Financial brought by a group of participants in the company’s retirement plan alleges the company breached its Fiduciary duty by offering a number of the firm’s own funds in the plan and these funds then paid fees back to Ameriprise and some of its subsidiaries.  JP Morgan settled a suit by some retail investors over the bank steering clients into their more expensive proprietary funds over those of other families.

While this is most common in the world of fee-based and commissioned reps, if you are working with the advisory units of a fund company such as Fidelity or Vanguard you should also question recommendations that are exclusively or mainly into their own proprietary funds.  Though I like and use funds from both families you should still question these types of recommendations.  Moreover anyone who pushes you to invest mainly with mutual funds offered by their employer should be questioned vigorously.

Load Mutual Funds

It is important that you understand the ABCs of mutual fund share classes.  In the commissioned/fee-based world reps often sell mutual funds that offer compensation to them and to their broker-dealers.  A shares charge an up-front commission plus a trailing fee (often a 12b-1) of somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.25% or more.  B shares charge no up-front commissions, but carry an additional back-end load as part of the ongoing expense ratio.  This can amount to an addition 0.75% or more added to the fund’s annual expenses.  In addition these shares also contain a surrender charge that typically starts at 5% if your sell the fund before the end of the surrender period.  B shares have been largely phased out by many of the major fund providers.  C shares typically have a permanent 1% level load added to the fund’s expense ratio and carry a one year surrender period.

Look I certainly don’t provide financial advice for free and wouldn’t expect any other professional to do so either.  Unless the person to whom you are paying these pricey loads is providing extraordinary advice, this is a very expensive way to go.  My very biased opinion is that you should look for a fee-only advisor who isn’t compensated based upon the products they sell to you.  Rather fee-only advisors generally act as fiduciaries and are paid for their professional advice and expertise without the conflicts of interest inherent in selling financial products.

The above comments are general and reflect my opinions.  However no financial product is right or wrong in every case.  Before making any financial or investment decision it is best to review your specific situation.  Consult your financial advisor if you work with one.

Please feel free to contact me with questions about any financial products you may be considering or to address your investment and financial planning advice needs. 

Do-it-yourselfers check out morningstar.com to analyze your investments and to get a free trial for their premium services. Check out Personal Capital for a variety of online services including expense tracking, financial planning capabilities, and investment monitoring.

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Indexed Annuities – Da Coach Likes Them Should You?

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Alumnus Mike Ditka is a Hall of Fame tight end...

Mike Ditka recently began doing radio commercials for an insurance group touting their Indexed Annuity product. He ends one of the commercials with his characteristic “… tell them Mike Ditka sent you…” Given that Da Coach was a member of the last two Chicago Bears championship teams since the days of leather beater helmets (1963 as a player and 1985 as coach) he is perhaps the preeminent pitchman here in Chicago.

Should you pick up the phone and say that Coach sent you?  Let’s examine a few issues.

What is an Indexed Annuity? Per the FINRA website, EIAs (Equity Indexed Annuities) are complex financial instruments that have characteristics of both fixed and variable annuities. Their return varies more than a fixed annuity, but not as much as a variable annuity. So EIAs give you more risk (but more potential return) than a fixed annuity but less risk (and less potential return) than a variable annuity.

EIAs offer a minimum guaranteed interest rate combined with an interest rate linked to a market index. Because of the guaranteed interest rate, EIAs have less market risk than variable annuities. EIAs also have the potential to earn returns better than traditional fixed annuities when the stock market is rising.

Reuters recently ran a piece on these products. A few points raised in the article:

– Hidden fees and commissions. Commissions typically run between 5 percent and 10 percent of the contract amount, but can sometimes be more. These and other expenses are taken out of returns, so it’s hard for buyers to determine exactly how much they’re paying.  

– Complex formulas and changing terms. The formulas used to determine how much annuity owners earn are so complex that even sales people have a hard time understanding them, and they can change during the life of the contract.

– Limited access to funds. Buyers who try to cash out early will incur a surrender charge that typically starts at 10 percent and decreases gradually each year until it stops after a decade or more.

–Limited upside. An annuity’s “participation rate” specifies how much of the increase in the index is counted for index-linked interest. For example, if the change in the index is 8 percent, an annuity with a 70 percent participation rate could earn 5.6 percent. However, many annuities place upside caps on the index-linked interest, which limits returns in strong bull markets. If the market rose 15 percent, for example, an annuity with a cap rate of 6 percent would only be credited with that amount.

I’m guessing that Mike Ditka is not an inexpensive spokesperson. Nor do I believe that ads on our local CBS radio affiliate are cheap. This goes to reinforce the point about high expenses and fees from the Reuters article. In fact I have been told that annuities are among the highest revenue generators for financial sales people, to me this creates a potential conflict of interest.

Additionally, any annuity product is only as good as the insurance company behind it. Before buying into any annuity be sure to understand who the insurer is and get information about their financial health.

An Equity Indexed Annuity might or might not be a good solution for your situation. In fact many of the proponents of these products point out that their performance has by and large been as expected over the past several years.

Rather than focus on any particular financial product or investment vehicle, start with a financial plan. Determine your financial goals, your risk tolerance, and your time horizon to achieve your goals. Look at your current resources and compare these to what you might need to accumulate to achieve your goals. Only then are your ready to look at what financial or investment products might be appropriate for you.

Lastly I would encourage you to ignore celebrity endorsements for financial products or services. While Mike Ditka might be an exception, there are many stories of athletes and celebrities making really poor financial decisions and being ripped off by financial sales people and advisors. If you buy the wrong brand of snack food based on their endorsement, not much downside. The same can’t be said if you pick the wrong financial advisor.

Please feel free to contact me with questions on Index Annuities or any aspect of financial planning.

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