Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

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Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

Annuities are often touted as the “cure” for all that ails your retirement.  Baby Boomers and retirees are the prime target market for the annuity sales types. You’ve undoubtedly heard many of these pitches in person or as advertisements. The pitches frequently pander to the fears that many investors still feel after the last stock market decline. After all, what’s not to like about guaranteed income?

What is an annuity?

I’ll let the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) explain this in a quote from their website:

“An annuity is a contract between you and an insurance company that is designed to meet retirement and other long-range goals, under which you make a lump-sum payment or series of payments. In return, the insurer agrees to make periodic payments to you beginning immediately or at some future date.

Annuities typically offer tax-deferred growth of earnings and may include a death benefit that will pay your beneficiary a specified minimum amount, such as your total purchase payments. While tax is deferred on earnings growth, when withdrawals are taken from the annuity, gains are taxed at ordinary income rates, and not capital gains rates. If you withdraw your money early from an annuity, you may pay substantial surrender charges to the insurance company, as well as tax penalties.

There are generally three types of annuities — fixed, indexed, and variable. In a fixed annuity, the insurance company agrees to pay you no less than a specified rate of interest during the time that your account is growing. The insurance company also agrees that the periodic payments will be a specified amount per dollar in your account. These periodic payments may last for a definite period, such as 20 years, or an indefinite period, such as your lifetime or the lifetime of you and your spouse.

In an indexed annuity, the insurance company credits you with a return that is based on changes in an index, such as the S&P 500 Composite Stock Price Index. Indexed annuity contracts also provide that the contract value will be no less than a specified minimum, regardless of index performance.

In a variable annuity, you can choose to invest your purchase payments from among a range of different investment options, typically mutual funds. The rate of return on your purchase payments, and the amount of the periodic payments you eventually receive, will vary depending on the performance of the investment options you have selected.

Variable annuities are securities regulated by the SEC. An indexed annuity may or may not be a security; however, most indexed annuities are not registered with the SEC. Fixed annuities are not securities and are not regulated by the SEC. You can learn more about variable annuities by reading our publication, Variable Annuities: What You Should Know.”

What’s good about annuities?

In an uncertain world, an annuity can offer a degree of certainty to retirees in terms of receiving a fixed stream of payments over their lifetime or some other specified period of time. Once you annuitize there’s no guesswork about how much you will be receiving, assuming that the insurance company behind the product stays healthy.

Watch out for high and/or hidden fees 

The biggest beef about annuities are the fees, which are often hidden or least difficult to find. Many annuity products carry fees that are pretty darn high, others are much more reasonable. In general, the lack of transparency regarding the fees associated with most annuity contracts is appalling.

There are typically several layers of fees in an annuity:

Fees connected with the underlying investments In a variable annuity there are fees connected with the underlying sub-account (accounts that resemble mutual funds) similar to the expense ratio of a mutual fund. In a fixed annuity the underlying fees are typically the difference between the net interest rate you will receive vs. the gross interest rate earned.  In the case of an indexed annuity product the fees are just plain murky.

Mortality and expense charges are fees charged by the insurance company to cover their costs for guaranteeing a stream of income to you. While I get this and understand it, the wide variance in these and other fees across the universe of annuity contracts and the insurance companies that provide them makes me shake my head.

Surrender charges are fees that are designed to keep you from withdrawing your funds for a period of time.  From my point of view these charges are heinous whether in an annuity, a mutual fund, or anyplace else. If you are considering an annuity and the product has a surrender charge, avoid it. I’m not advocating withdrawing money early from an annuity, but surrender charges also restrict you from exchanging a high cost annuity into one with a lower fee structure. Essentially these fees serve to ensure that the agent or rep who sold you the high fee annuity (and the insurance company) continue to benefit by placing handcuffs on you in terms of sticking with the policy.

Who’s really guaranteeing your annuity? 

When you purchase an annuity, your stream of payments is guaranteed by the “full faith and credit” of the underlying insurance company.  This differs from a pension that is annuitized and backed by the PBGC, a governmental entity, up to certain limits.

Outside of the most notable failure, Executive Life in the early 1990s, there have not been a high number of insurance company failures. In the case of Executive Life, 1,000s of annuity recipients were impacted in the form of greatly reduced annuity payments which in many cases permanently impacted the quality of their retirement.

Insurance companies are regulated at the state level; state insurance departments are generally the backstop in the event of an insurance company failure. In most cases you will receive some portion of the payment amount that you expected, but there is often a delay in receiving these payments.

The point is not to scare anyone from buying an annuity but rather to remind you to perform your own due diligence on the underlying insurance company.

Annuities and the DOL fiduciary rules

The Department of Labor’s fiduciary rules that will govern which financial products financial advisors use for clients in their retirement accounts do not prohibit the use of annuities, but the new rules do require much more disclosure and justification when they are used. The final draft of the rules also cover indexed annuities which is different from drafts of the rules prior to the final version.

Should you buy an annuity? 

Annuities are not a bad product as long as you understand what they can and cannot do for you. Like anything else you need to shop for the right annuity. For example, an insurance agent or registered rep is not going to show you a product from someone like Vanguard that has ultra-low fees and no surrender charges because they receive no commissions.

An annuity can offer diversification in your retirement income stream. Perhaps you have investments in taxable and tax-deferred accounts from which you will withdraw money to fund your retirement. Adding Social Security to the mix provides a government-funded stream of payments. A commercial annuity can also be of value as part of your retirement income stream, again as long as you shop for the appropriate product.

Annuities are generally sold rather than bought by Baby Boomers and others. Be a smart consumer and understand what you are buying, why a particular annuity product (and the insurance company) are right for you, and the benefits that you expect to receive from the annuity. Properly used, an annuity can be a valuable component of your retirement planning efforts. Be sure to read ALL of the fine print and understand ALL of the expenses, terms, conditions and restrictions before writing a check.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  

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3 Financial Products to Consider Avoiding

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Red and white sign to avoid construction zone

Before buying ANY financial product make sure that this product is right for you in terms of your unique, personal financial situation.  Financial products are tools and just like your projects around the house you should use the right tool for the job, not the tool that the financial rep wants to sell to you.

Here are three financial 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.  They are also called fixed-index insurance products and indexed annuities. 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 internal expenses and surrender charges that keep you locked in the product for years. Worse yet, these internal expenses can be hard to isolate. If you decide to go ahead with the purchase of an Equity-Indexed Annuity be sure that you understand all of the details including the level of index participation, expenses, surrender charges, and the health of the underlying insurance company. Check out FINRA’s Investor Alert regarding Equity-Indexed Annuities for more cautionary information.

Proprietary Mutual Funds

It is not uncommon for registered reps and brokers to suggest mutual funds from the family run by their employer. In many cases they are incentivized or even required to do so. While some of these funds are perfectly fine, all too often in my experience they are not.  Whether via 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 alleged the company breached its Fiduciary duty by offering a number of the firm’s own funds in the plan and that these funds then paid fees back to Ameriprise and some of its subsidiaries as revenue sharing. The suit was ultimately settled.

JP Morgan also settled a suit by some retail investors over the bank steering clients into their more expensive proprietary funds over those of other families.

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 most 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.

These sales loads ultimately reduce the amount of your investment and are an expensive form of advice. Nobody expects financial advisors or any other professional to provide financial advice for free. Unless the person to whom you are paying these pricey loads is providing extraordinary advice, this is a very expensive way to go.

The DOL fiduciary rules

The fiduciary rules introduced by the DOL (Department of Labor) in April of 2016 impose a far greater level  of disclosure on financial advisors. The rules require financial advisors to act as fiduciaries when providing advice to clients on their retirement accounts such as IRAs.

The fiduciary rules require advisors to have their client sign a disclosure document for many financial products with sales charges and trailing commissions if used in a retirement account. Load mutual funds and proprietary mutual funds will most likely require a BICE (Best Interest Contract Exemption) disclosure. Additionally Equity-Indexed Annuities were not exempted from these disclosures in the final draft of the rules as they had been in earlier drafts.

It will remain to be seen how the fiduciary rules will impact these three products, both within retirement accounts and overall. As an example, broker Edward Jones recently announced that mutual funds and ETFs will no longer be offered to clients in retirement accounts where commissions are charged.

Before making any financial or investment decision review your specific situation. Consult a fee-only financial advisor if you feel that you need financial advice.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  

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Is a $100,000 Per Year Retirement Doable?

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Is a $100,000 a Year Retirement Doable?

A 2013 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.

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 “back of the napkin” 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). Note this is not to say that everyone needs to spend $100,000 or any particular amount during their retirement, but rather this example is simply meant to illustrate the math involved.

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 

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.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  

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Annuity Sellers Love Stock Market Turmoil

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We experienced our first major stock market correction in several years earlier this week. As I write this the market is recovering but who knows where things will go.

Just like clockwork if we see a prolonged period of volatility you can count on a new wave of ads touting various types of annuity products as the answer for investors worried about the stock market. Annuity sellers love stock market turmoil. Those of you who follow my blog know that I have a special level of contempt for those who sell financial products by invoking fear.

Stan Haithcock wrote Annuity sharks smell blood with market volatility recently at Market Watch. This was one of those articles that after reading it led me to wish I’d written it.  Stan’s opening paragraph provides a great overview.

“Any time the stock market has a bad week or experiences extreme volatility, the annuity sharks start smelling blood in the investment waters and will be on the attack to lock your money into their “perfect product.” Current indexed- and variable-annuity sales pitches can sound enticing and almost too good to be true, so it’s important to keep your head and understand the contractual realities and proper uses for annuities in a portfolio.” 

Mike Ditka and Indexed Annuities

My dislike of fear-mongering annuity ads started a few years ago when the local news radio station was full of ads touting indexed annuities as the cure for the risky stock market. The group enlisted former Bears coach Mike Ditka as their pitchman. Ditka can probably sell anything to the win-starved fans of the Chicago Bears.

I personally think using any celebrity spokesperson to sell financial products is reprehensible and takes something as serious as someone’s financial well-being and equates it to the decision of which snack food to buy.

Indexed Annuities 

Though I’ve tried to keep an open mind about these products, I’ve reviewed many contracts over the years and have never found one that seemed to have much redeeming value for the contract holder. By this I mean I’m not sure what the product does for them that a properly diversified investment strategy with a well-conceived retirement income plan couldn’t do just as well or better for a whole lot less money.

Indexed annuities, sometimes called equity-indexed annuities, offer limited upside participation in a stock market index such as the S&P 500. The reason they are sold as an alternative to the risky stock market is they offer either a guaranteed minimum return each year or a limit on how much of a loss the contract holder can incur each year. The sales pitches will vary and they are often also touted as an alternative to CDs.

A few things to be leery of if you are being sold one of these products:

  • Long surrender periods. I’ve seen policies where the surrender charges last for 10 years or more.
  • High fees and commissions. The fees internal to the contract serve to provide nice compensation to those selling them. Why do you think agents and registered reps are so eager to sell you an indexed annuity?
  • Hard to understand formulas to determine your return. 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 participation in the underlying index.

Additionally the sales pitches can be confusing. Make sure you understand what you would be buying, all of the underlying expenses and most important why this is the BEST solution for you.

Variable annuities and riders 

Variable annuities generally have underlying investment choices called sub-accounts that function like mutual funds. They also have internal fees called mortality and expense charges that cover the insurance aspect of the contract. These fees can vary all over the board. Many contracts also carry surrender charges for a number of years from the issue date as well.

While the value of the VA will vary based upon the investment results, several riders or add-ons can create certain product guarantees. These riders come at a cost and that cost will impact how long it takes for the contract holder to come out ahead.

Two popular living benefit riders are guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits (GMWB) and guaranteed minimum income benefits (GMIB).

A GMWB rider guarantees the return of the premium paid into the contract, regardless of the performance of the underlying investments via a series of periodic withdrawals.

A GMIB rider guarantees the right to annuitize the contract with a specified minimum level of income regardless of the underlying investment performance.

Both types of riders entail added costs and require varying time frames to be eligible for exercise and/or to recover the cost of the rider.

A variable annuity with or without one of these riders may be the right choice for you. You are far better off shopping around for the best product versus allowing yourself to be sold via a slick sales pitch.

The Bottom Line 

Renewed market turmoil means a new wave of annuity sales pitches reminding prospects how risky stocks can be. Financial planning should always trump the sale of any financial product so investors who are worried about the volatility in the stock market will generally be better served by having an overall financial plan in place from which the appropriate products for implementation will flow.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

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 with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Please check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

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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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.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email.

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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.  

Photo credit:  Wikipedia

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Indexed Annuities – Da Coach Likes Them Should You?

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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.

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

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.

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.

Check out an online service like Personal Capital  to manage all of your accounts all in one place.  Please check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

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