Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

My Top 10 Most Read Posts of 2015

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I hope that 2015 was a good year for you and your families and that you’ve had a wonderful holiday season. For us it has been great to have our three adult children home and to be able to spend time together as a family. We saw the movie Sisters on Christmas day and I highly recommend it.

My Top 10 Most Read Posts of 2015

Hopefully you find many of the posts here at The Chicago Financial Planner useful and informative as you chart your financial course. Whether you do your own financial planning and investing or you work with a financial advisor my goal is to educate and provide some food for thought.

In the spirit of all of the top 10 lists we see at this time of year, here are my top 10 most read posts during 2015:

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

7 Tips to Become a 401(k) Millionaire

4 Signs of a Lousy 401(k) Plan

Is a $100,000 a Year Retirement Doable?

4 Reasons to Accept Your Company’s Buyout Offer

401(k) Fee Disclosure and the American Funds

Is My Pension Safe?

My Thoughts on PBS Frontline The Retirement Gamble

7 Reasons to Avoid 401(k) Loans

YOU RECEIVED A PINK SLIP AND SEPARATION AGREEMENT – NOW WHAT?

I continued to write elsewhere as well, most notably Investopedia and Go Banking Rates.

I want to thank you again for your readership.  I invite you to contact me ( or thechicagofinancialplanner at gmail dot com) to ask any questions that you might have, to tell me what you like or don’t like about the site and to suggest topics that you would like to see covered here in the future. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email.

I wish you and your families a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.

5 Reasons 401(k) Lawsuits Matter to You

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Several 401(k) lawsuits against major employers have been in the news this year. These suits are about high fees, conflicts of interest and plan sponsors failing to live up to their fiduciary obligations.

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Ameriprise Financial settled a suit that alleged that the firm offered a number of its own proprietary mutual funds in the company’s 401(k) plan and collected revenue sharing payments on these funds from an Ameriprise subsidiary.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tibble vs. Edison International that the large utility company had a duty to monitor the investments offered in the plan no matter how long along they were initially added to the plan. One of the issues here surrounds the fact that lower cost share classes of these funds became available but the plan stayed with the higher cost retail share class.

Most recently Boeing settled a lawsuit that was first filed in 2006 for $57 million. The suit alleged that the company had breached its fiduciary duty to its employees by using high cost and risky investment options in the plan and by allowing the plan’s record keeper to charge employees and retirees excessive fees.

While all of this may be interesting, you may be asking what does any of this have to do with me? Here are 5 reasons 401(k) lawsuits matter to you.

Plan Sponsors have a fiduciary obligation 

These and a growing number of 401(k) related lawsuits have reaffirmed that retirement plan sponsors have a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of the plan participants. This includes:

  • The selection and monitoring of the mutual funds (or other investment vehicles) offered in the plan.
  • The selection and monitoring of the service providers selected for the plan.
  • All costs and fees associated with the plan.

Moreover plan sponsors should have a process in place to manage all aspects of the plan.

Mutual Fund share classes 

Several of the lawsuits centered on plan sponsors offering expensive retail share classes of funds when lower cost share classes were available. These higher cost share classes might throw off more revenue sharing and other fees to the plan but they are more expensive for the plan participants. It behooves plan sponsors more now than ever to offer the lowest cost share classes of a given fund available to them.

Numerous studies have shown the connection between lower investment costs and investment return. Well-run 401(k) plans strive to keep investment costs down and one way to do this is to ensure that the plan offers the lowest mutual fund share classes available.

Duty to monitor 

As shown in the Tibble versus Edison ruling the Supreme Court said plan sponsors have a duty to continue to monitor the investments offered in the plan long after they may have been initially offered. This dovetails into an ongoing duty of plan sponsors to monitor the investments offered to you to ensure the costs are reasonable and that they meet a set of criteria.

Typically a 401(k) that is well-monitored and managed via a consistent investment process will tend to offer a better investment line-up to their participants.

Manage plan expenses 

Boeing recently settled the second largest 401(k) suit in history at $57 million. In part the allegations included that Boeing allowed its outside record keeper to charge employees and retirees excessive fees.

This and other suits underscore the responsibility of plan sponsors to manage 401(k) plan costs and the activities of plan providers such as an outside record keeper. To the extent that administrative expenses are paid out of plan assets plan sponsors who strive to keep these expenses low are doing the right thing for their employees.

Plan Sponsors are getting it 

While this is not a blanket statement as there are still plenty of lousy 401(k) plans out there, there is evidence that plan sponsors are getting the message that they have a responsibility to the plan’s participants.

As an example mutual fund expenses in 401(k) plans have been declining for the past 15 years. Fewer companies are mandating the use of company stock in their 401(k) plans and a 2014 Supreme Court ruling will certainly help keep this trend going.

The Bottom Line 

Retirement plan sponsors have a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of the plan’s participants. A number of 401(k) lawsuits in recent years have served to reinforce this duty and this is a good thing for those participating in 401(k) plans. As a plan participant become knowledgeable about the investments offered in your plan and how much the plan is costing you. If you have concerns raise them in a constructive fashion to your employer.

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.

Social Security-The End of the File and Suspend Couples Strategy

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The big news in the world of retirement planning is end of a lucrative couples Social Security claiming strategy, file and suspend with a restricted application. The ability take advantage of this lucrative option comes to an end as of April 30, 2016 thanks to the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Bill of 2015.

Social Security-The End of the File and Suspend Couples Strategy

What is the file and suspend strategy?

Under this strategy spouse A upon reaching their full retirement age (FRA) would file for their benefit and then suspend it. They would accrue delayed credits at 8% per year out to age 70 (or sooner) at which time they would resume taking their benefit.

Once spouse B reached their FRA they would then file a restricted application for benefits in order to receive a spousal benefit based upon spouse A’s earnings record. Their own benefit would continue to accrue out until age 70 at which time they would switch to their own benefit if it was higher than the spousal benefit or continue to take the spousal benefit if it was larger.

In many cases this might add an additional $60,000 in benefits to the couple over the four years between spouse B’s FRA and age 70.

There are numerous reasons to do this and it has become a popular couples claiming strategy in recent years.

This option ends as of April 30, 2016.

Who can still take advantage? 

Couples who have executed this strategy are fine and there will be no changes. Couples who are eligible to execute this strategy prior to April 30, 2016 will still be able to.

What are the implications? 

Couples who might have factored this into their retirement strategy will need to rethink their plans and their Social Security claiming strategy.

Those who advise clients nearing retirement and those who provide Social Security tools to the financial advisors will need to rethink their advice and redo some of these tools. Websites offering Social Security calculators will need to redo them as well.

If this change impacts your situation I’d urge you to consult with a knowledgeable financial advisor.

There is much more detail on this change and much has been much written on this topic by a lot of folks whose opinions and knowledge I respect. Below are some excellent articles to check out to learn more about this.

8 Questions About Social Security Claiming Strategies by Mark Miller

The Death of File & Suspend and Restricted Application by Jim Blankenship

Congress kills Social Security claiming loopholes by Alice Munnell

Social Security changes will hit couples, divorced women hard by Robert Powell

Navigating The Effective Date Deadlines For The New File-And-Suspend And Restricted Application Rules by Michael Kitces 

Congress Eliminates Two Popular (and Profitable) Social Security Claiming Strategies by Tim Mauer 

New Social Security Rules: What You Need to Know by Mike Piper 

In addition here are two pieces on the topic that I recently wrote for Investopedia:

Social Security File and Suspend to End: How to Adjust

Social Security File and Suspend Claiming Strategy is Ending: Now What?

The Bottom Line 

The popular couples Social Security claiming strategy, file and suspend with a restricted application is coming to an end as of April 30, 2016. This is a game-changer for a lot of couples. This may be the time to seek out a knowledgeable financial advisor to advise you. Also stay tuned as there will undoubtedly be much more written on this topic moving forward.

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.

Discover the Secret to Living Tax-Free in Retirement

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On those rare occasions that I develop writer’s block in terms of what to write about here the financial services industry seems to bail me out. Case in point the invitation to a “Private Taxation Workshop” (versus just a plain old seminar) I recently received in the mail. The title of the seminar on the invitation was title I used for this article.

Think about the words “secret to living tax-free in retirement” and while doing so make sure you know where your wallet is.

(note the book pictured above is an excellent guide and will provide sound information compared to what you might receive at a session like the one described in this post)

Look I’m not saying the accounting firm who is conducting the session in conjunction with a financial services firm is anything but above-board but when I hear words like living tax-free in retirement my first thought is that there will be someone telling you that purchasing the cash value life insurance policy or annuity product being peddled is the answer to your retirement anxiety.

To top this off the seminar is being held at a park district facility, not at a restaurant. In other words they aren’t even providing dinner. Those of you who are regular readers of The Chicago Financial Planner know that I do not hold the sponsors of these sessions in high regard. (Please read Investing Seminars – Should You Attend? and Should You Accept That Estate Planning Seminar Invitation? )

How to legally be in the 0% tax-bracket for any income level

This is one of the bullet points listed under the items they will be discussing at the session. Come on, really? If it were that easy wouldn’t everyone be doing it?

Again I’m guessing that there is some sort of life insurance or annuity product that will be promoted. Note nothing will be sold at the session (it says so right on the invitation) but you can be sure that if you schedule a follow-up session the hard-sell with be there right after the hand-shake. In fact you can count on being given the hard-sell to schedule a follow-up session.

The most overlooked strategy for creating tax-free income from your taxable investments

Another bullet point on topics that will be covered. This sounds great! Wow!

OK back to reality. Remember the adage if it sounds too good to be true it probably is? Well this sounds like it fits.

Again I have no idea what they will be saying but if this was some super-secret sophisticated tax strategy would they be sharing it with a group of non-screened attendees in a park district building for free?

The Bottom Line

I am not saying anyone is doing anything fraudulent, illegal or untoward. What I am saying is that this appears to be nothing but a thinly veiled sales pitch by an accounting firm and a financial services firm to pique your interest and to ultimately sell you some sort of life insurance policy, annuity or some other financial product with hefty commissions attached. I’m guessing the accounting firm has some arrangement to realize a portion of the product sales arising from session attendees.

I’m not against learning and improving your financial knowledge. In fact that’s why I started this blog and why I write for Investopedia, Go Banking Rates and elsewhere. If you go to one of these seminars go with a very skeptical attitude, listen hard and be non-committal about your interest when they urge you to schedule a follow-up meeting. Go home afterwards and at least research the ideas they are touting and the firms involved. Be a smart consumer of financial products and advice. That is the best way to protect yourself from financial fraud and from buying expensive financial products that serve someone else’s needs better than they serve yours.

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

Six Reasons Small Businesses Should Offer a 401(k) Plan

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The statistics on the number of American workers not covered by a workplace retirement plan like a 401(k) are sobering. According to a 2011 survey just over half of all American workers had access to a workplace retirement plan.

Sadly all too often the reason that smaller companies don’t offer a 401(k) plan are that they can be expensive and there are a vast number of government rules and regulations that must be followed. Small business owners have all that they can handle in running and growing their companies.

Here are six reasons that a small business should consider offering a 401(k) plan for their employees.

The owner’s retirement needs

 Small business owners work hard to manage and grow their companies. Unlike with a larger organization there generally are not armies of employees to handle administrative tasks like human resources or accounting. The owner is often the face of the business and intimately involved in sales and various business processes. It is not uncommon for small business owners to put in many long hours and take very little time off.

Too often the hope is that the value of the business will serve as their retirement plan. Maybe this will happen; they will find a willing buyer who will pay a premium price for the company. Or maybe it won’t happen at least not quite that way.

A 401(k) plan allows the business owner to contribute up to $18,000 or $24,000 (if 50 or over) of their compensation for 2015. In addition they can make a profit sharing contribution as well. This can bring the total combined employee deferral and employer contribution for the owner to a maximum of $53,000 or $59,000 if they are 50 or over. This can go a long way towards helping the business owner fund a comfortable retirement for themselves.

Business contributions and tax dedications

Any employer matching contributions will be tax-deductible as will any costs incurred by the employer in connection with offering the plan.

In order to alleviate any restrictions on the amount the business owner and top executives can contribute for themselves the company may decide on a safe harbor plan that entails a minimum matching level or a minimum level of contributions to the accounts of all employees whether they contribute to the plan or not. The safe harbor contributions are immediately vested for the employees. In exchange the owner will not be limited as to the amount of their contributions based on the results of the required non-discrimination testing. Certainly not all small businesses will be able to afford the safe harbor contributions but for those that can this is a great solution for the owners and the employees.

Doing the right thing for employees

There many articles written and studies done that point to a retirement savings crises in this country. Part of the problem as mentioned above is the lack of availability of a workplace retirement plan for a number of U.S. workers.

Offering your employees a low cost 401(k) plan is a great way to help them save for their retirement and frankly it’s the right thing to do for employees. They work hard and contribute to the success of the business, they should have the opportunity to save for their own retirement and build a measure of financial security for themselves and their families.

Attract and retain top talent

With the economy having largely recovered from the financial crises unemployment is low and many companies are having a hard time finding the workers they need in some cases. Top talent expects to be well-compensated and a quality 401(k) plan is a part of a top-notch compensation package. While likely not the main driver of determining whether a top prospective employee accepts your job offer, a really lousy 401(k) plan (or no plan) might be the “tie-breaker.”

Likewise if a valued employee is being courted by a competitor and that competitor has a robust benefits package that includes a much better 401(k) plan that might be the difference between retaining that key employee and losing them. 

Financial wellness can help the bottom line

Employees who are worried about retirement or other financial issues may be less productive at work. Stressed out employees might also drive up the company’s healthcare costs.

According to a survey by benefits consultant AON Hewitt about 90% of the country’s 250 largest employers also recognize the impact of financial stress on their workforce and will be looking to expand or start financial wellness programs.

Small businesses may not have the resources of these large companies but offering a solid, low cost 401(k) plan is a positive step for their employees on the road towards financial wellness. 

Technology has expanded plan options

Just a few years ago smaller plans and start-ups had very few alternatives and most of those alternatives were high cost plans with questionable investment choices. Insurance company group annuities were also a common option in this market, again generally an expensive, unattractive option.

There are a number of low-cost 401(k) options for small businesses today that thanks in large part to technological advances can offer a complete package including administration, education and low-cost investing options at a reasonable price. Some of these providers serve as plan fiduciaries taking that responsibility off of the shoulders of the business owner.

Frankly cost and the rules connected with running a plan can make it a hassle where these issues and the costs outweigh the good of offering the plan in the minds of many small business owners. The new generation of user-friendly low cost options for small businesses remove this hurdle.

The Bottom Line 

Traditionally the 401(k) options for small businesses have been limited to high cost options with less than desirable investment options. Today with the advances in technology there are a number of low cost, low-hassle options for small companies to consider. Offering a 401(k) plan is a win-win for small businesses in that the owners win and so do their employees.

This post was sponsored (meaning that I was compensated) by San Francisco based ForUsAll an innovative provider of low cost turnkey 401(k) solutions for small businesses. They had no editorial input on anything above. 

I discovered ForUsAll in a finance blogging group that I am part of and was very impressed with what they can offer a small business looking for a turn-key 401(k) solution. They take all of the administrative and compliance burdens off the shoulders of the plan sponsor through their status as a 3(16) fiduciary. Via their menu of low-cost Vanguard funds and their technology they offer a complete 401(k) solution that includes guidance for employees.

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

Should You Wait Until Age 70 to Collect Social Security?

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This post was written by financial planner Daniel Zajac. 

The decision to start or delay Social Security is a big one, one that may materially impact retirement success or failure. Because it is so important to retirement success, it bothers me when I hear soon-to-be retirees say they are going to take Social Security benefits early.  It also bothers me when they take Social Security benefits at full retirement age without considering the alternatives.

Perplexed? Stay with me.

I know what you’re thinking: “Why wouldn’t a financial advisor be okay with someone taking Social Security benefits at full retirement age?”

It’s not that I’m never okay with starting Social Security early or at full retirement age, I’d just want to make sure they take their benefits for the right reasons and do the right research into all the available options.  When it comes to Social Security benefits, there’s a lot of money to be left on the table if you don’t know what you’re doing (or if you decide to collect at any age, “just because”).

Plan A: Wait Until Age 70 to Collect Social Security Benefits

The Social Security Administration explains that full retirement age “is the age at which a person may first become entitled to full or unreduced retirement benefits.”

(Specifically, your full retirement age depends on your birth year. Someone born in 1940 has a full retirement age of 65 and 6 months. Someone born in 1960 has a full retirement age of 67. Waiting until age 70 to collect Social Security benefits shouldn’t feel like that long of a wait.)

Unfortunately, a little digging is required to realize that even if you take full benefits at your full retirement age, you won’t get the maximum Social Security available per month.  The maximum benefit is reached at age 70.

So why wait until age 70 if you can start earlier in the first place?  You’ll get an 8% increase in your benefits per year.  For example, let’s assume your full retirement age is 66 and you are to receive $2,000 per month.  If you wait until age 67 to collect (1 year), you will receive $2,160 per month, 8% more.

Now, when is the last time you heard of an 8% rate of return? That’s difficult to find. Better yet, it’s government backed. If you think you’re going to live a long time and you don’t need the money right now, “Plan A” may be the right plan for you.

But the 8% isn’t the only reason:

  • Get paid a higher amount for life. Generally speaking, people are living longer.  The longer people live, the more years they spend in retirement and the greater the chance of running out of money.  Optimizing Social Security to produce the highest monthly income could be a prudent, cost of living adjusted hedge against living too long.
  • You can take a spousal benefit. Spouses have more options for collecting Social Security.  If you are married, you can optimize your total income from Social Security by strategically taking a restricted spousal benefit and waiting until age 70 to collect your own benefit.

If you can afford it, waiting until you reach age 70 may be your best option to receive Social Security benefits – your benefits will max out at that age.

Plan B: Take Social Security Benefits at Your Full Retirement Age

Many people go with “Plan B.” They choose to because they don’t want to wait any longer.  They have paid into the system for many years and want to start collecting what is due to them.  However, by starting at full retirement age, they’re losing out on all the benefits I mentioned above. Even still, there are reasons to take Social Security benefits at your full retirement age.

If you’re at full retirement age, are strapped for cash, don’t have any other potential income sources, and are unhealthy, it may be reasonable to start your benefits.

However, before you start collecting at your full retirement age, I advise you to consider the alternatives.  Consider funding your retirement expenses through your savings while deferring Social Security.  Or, if you’re able, work a few years longer.  Retirement doesn’t have to occur at a certain age. Many choose to work well beyond their full retirement age. There may be many potential benefits that come with work, including continued socialization and better health – in some occupations.

For those who plan to work and collect Social Security, your full retirement age is the age at which you can collect your benefit and not receive a reduction for earned income.  Prior to your full retirement age, you may receive a reduction in your benefit if you collect Social Security and work (you can make up to $15,720 per year in 2015 prior to your full retirement age and not receive a reduction of income).

Before you apply for benefits, use the Social Security Retirement Estimator to get a feel for how much you’ll receive.

Plan C: Take Social Security Benefits Before Your Full Retirement Age

When you take Social Security benefits before your full retirement age, your monthly benefit will be reduced. For example, if your full retirement age is 66 – at which you’d receive $1,000 per month – and you choose to start receiving benefits at age 62, your monthly benefit will be reduced by 25% to $750 per month.

That’s quite a drop in benefits. I love Social Security, but I wouldn’t choose this plan without good reason.

Are there times when it would be reasonable to go with this plan? Of course. For example, you might be working in a job that is physically demanding and bad for your health. In this case, it might be more reasonable to quit your job and take Social Security benefits than to suffer a possible heart attack from overexertion.

Which Plan is Right for You?

This is by no means a complete list of the available options to you as a retiree.  It is, however, a quick review of several advantages and disadvantages of oft chosen plans.  As you progress through your 60s, it will become more clear which plan is right for you. However, the ultimate clarity can be derived via a detailed analysis of your total financial plan including other income, assets, and taxes.

Consider seeking the help of a financial advisor if you’re having trouble sorting through your options. Make sure your family is on board with your decisions. Seek wise counsel before you decide to retire. With a little help from those around you, you can find the confidence you need to make the right decision.

None of the information in this document should be considered as tax advice.  You should consult your tax advisor for information concerning your individual situation.

Daniel Zajac, CFP®, AIF®, CLU®, is a Partner and Financial Advisor with Simone Zajac Wealth Management Group based in the Philadelphia, PA area. As a 33-year-old veteran of the financial planning industry, Daniel loves to share his financial expertise with the masses at FinanceandFlipFlops.com. There, he explores the ins and outs of topics such as life insurance, investing, retirement planning, and much more.

Advisory services offered through Capital Analysts or Lincoln Investment, Registered Investment Advisors.  Securities offered through Lincoln Investment, Broker Dealer, Member FINRA/SIPC   www.lincolninvestment.com

Simone Zajac Wealth Management Group, and the above firms are independent, non-affiliated entities.

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

American’s Attitudes About Their Money

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Americans have varying attitudes about their money. The infographic below sheds light on our attitutudes about our finances across various demographic lines including age and income level.

Please take a look and see how your attitudes about your finances compare.

It’s never too late to get started on your financial plan.  Its never to late to move forward and to take the actions needed to get your financial situation on track whether you need to prepare for retirement or beef up your emergency fund.

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

personal finance
Source: Masters-in-Accounting.org

 

What I’m Reading – NFL 2015 Season Opener Edition

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I write this on a sad date, September 11. The morning of September 11, 2001 I was waking up in a hotel room in Clinton, IA and would be doing an employee benefits seminar for Ernst & Young later in the day. The first plane hit the tower and the cable news commentator speculated that it had gone off course. We of course learned the truth shortly afterwards. What a sad day and I’m sure none of us will ever forget where we were or what we were doing.

On a happier note the NFL season started last night with the Patriots beating the Steelers and most importantly there was no news about the firmness of Tom Brady’s balls. The real season starts on Sunday and I will be rooting for America’s team The Green Bay Packers.

It’s starting to look like fall here in the Chicago area; here are a few good financial articles to curl up with this weekend:

Mike Piper answers a reader question Should I Still Contribute to a 401(k) if I Plan to Retire Early? at the Oblivious Investor.

Barbara Friedberg shares Top Tax Strategies for Retirement at Investopedia. 

John Rekenthaler discusses Where Active Management Succeeds (or Fails) at Morningstar.com. 

Mark Hulbert shares Opinion: An investing lesson from the 9/11 tragedy at Market Watch. 

Jim Blankenship explains RMDs From IRAs  at Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row.

I continue to write for Investopedia, here are a few of my recent contributions:

Robo-Advisors Face First Market Downturn Test

Why Market Timing Should Be Left to the Pros

Annuities and Baby Boomers: The Pros and Cons

Have a great weekend.  Yes the recent stock market volatility is unsettling but always take a deep breath and fall back on your financial plan before reacting to this or any stock market or economic activity.

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

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.