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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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Mutual Funds and Alabama Football – Does Past Performance Matter?

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As most of you know, The University of Alabama is once again the king of the college football world.  They recently vanquished Notre Dame to win their second consecutive BSC Championship and their third in the past four years.  Including a BCS title while coaching LSU, Alabama coach Nick Saban has won four BCS titles in the last eight years.

Can we infer anything about the future from this performance? I would argue yes based upon a couple of recent articles that I have read about Saban’s approach to coaching and managing the football program.  According to the articles, there is a process in place for just about every aspect of the program from recruiting to practices and so on.  While Alabama still has to go out and play the games (in arguably the toughest conference around) they generally seem to find a way to win under Saban as evidenced by his worst record of 10-3 in 2010.

A repeatable process is what sets Saban apart and in my opinion is the key factor in his coaching success.  A repeatable process is also a key element in investment success.

Clearly in the investment world a disclaimer on the order of “…past performance is no guarantee of future performance…” is often used.  And with good reason.  If we apply this to the world of mutual funds any number of factors can come into play.  I and many other advisor colleagues and self-directed investors have migrated in large part to passive, low cost index funds and ETFs simply because so few active managers deliver top returns year in and year out.

Two active mutual funds managers who consistently deliver superior performance 

Sequoia SEQUX is a large cap blend fund that started as disciples of Warren Buffet’s investing style and still has a very definite process in place for finding stocks that meet the management team’s criteria.  Over the 15 years ended 12/31/12 the fund ranked in the top 5% of its category and has beaten the return of the S&P 500 by an average of 308 basis points annually.  The fund ranks in the top 2% for the trailing 3 and 5 year periods and the top 22% for the trailing 10 years.  Moreover this fund is closed to new investors more than it isn’t the fund was closed for 25 years until 2008.  At that point I added this fund to the portfolios of a number of clients.  The fund closed again at the beginning of 2012.  This is a sign of a superior fund company in that they didn’t feel they can invest all of the new money that was flowing into the fund so they closed it.

PIMco Total Return PTTRX is an Intermediate Bond Fund run by famed bond fund manager Bill Gross.  This is the largest and one of the most successful bond funds around.  Gross is very visible in large part due to his regular appearances on CNBC.  Many thought he had lost his touch in 2011 when the fund ranked in the bottom 13% of its category; however the fund turned around and finished in the top 12% for 2012.  The fund ranks in the top 25% for the trailing 3 years ended 12/31/12; the 7% for both the trailing 5 and 10 year periods and the top 3% of its category for the trailing 15 years.  In all cases the fund has outperformed its benchmark the Barclay’s Aggregate Bond Index significantly.  Gross and the PIMco team clearly have a process in place that has been successful and this was reinforced by the success of the recently introduced ETF version of the fund.  I have client money in this fund.

Two active managers who used to deliver consistently superior performance

American Funds Growth AGTHX was at one time a preeminent large growth fund.  While fund had a very strong year in 2012, returning 20.54% and outpacing the S&P 500 by 454 basis points, the fund ranked in the bottom half of its category in 3 of the 5 calendar years from 2007 -2011.  This was after a five year run during which the fund had ranked in the top 18% or better of its category in each of those five years.  I suspect the fund’s bloated size followed by significant reduction in fund assets via withdrawals contributed to this recent mediocre run.

Legg Mason Capital Management Value Trust LMVTX was formerly managed by the legendary Bill Miller who had rattled off a string of 15 consecutive years of beating the fund’s benchmark the S&P 500 Index.  In recent years the fund has fallen off  to the point where the fund ranked in the 99th percentile for the 5 years ended 12/31/12 and the absolute bottom of it category for the trailing 10 years.

The point is that there are actively managed mutual funds who deliver consistently excellent performance.  Even here, the performance can be uneven as evidenced by the fact that Sequoia has ranked near the bottom of its category in several individual years over the course of its solid run.

I tend to use index funds and ETFs pretty extensively, but I still use a fair number of actively managed funds as well.  Finding funds that fit the needs of my clients takes work and ongoing monitoring, but I have found this to be worth the time spent.  Even with the best managers there are no guarantees about the future, but analyzing and understanding the details of their past performance can provide insight.

As for the Crimson Tide, they may not win a third straight national title, they might not even win their division of the SEC (LSU and Texas A&M are formidable obstacles) but I have no doubt that they will be in the mix in 2013 and as long as Saban is coaching due to his process and preparation.

Please feel free to contact me with questions about your mutual funds 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 our Resources page for links to a variety of tools and services that might be beneficial to you.

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