The Annuity Trap
Like the infamous Roach Motel, annuities allow investors to check-in while making it very difficult to check out. In many instances, getting out of annuities can be cost prohibitive (fees, charges, commissions, expenses, etc.), even if escaping these fee-laden products is in the investors’ best financial interest.
In an article dated April 13th, 2010, Jay Peroni warned others by outlining a typical annuity fee structure as follows:
- Mortality and Expense Charge 1.50%
- Sub Account Management Fees 1.00%
- Unreported trading costs 0.78%
- Annual Administrative Expenses 0.15%
TOTAL ANNUAL EXPENSES 3.43%
What aren’t included in these numbers above are the surrender charges, which effectively can lock you into the annuity if you are averse to paying hefty surrender charges. Normally, the surrender charges vary from up to a 10% charge for large withdrawals in year one, decreasing to something like 1% in year 10. Worth noting, steep sales commissions can be layered on top of the previous charges or mysteriously embedded in the fee structure categories above.
The Big Sell
Driving the push for these 3%+ annual fees are lucrative financial institutions hiring aggressive salespeople. Typically annuities are sold under the guise of safe tax shelter investments. What the broker won’t tell you is that only a fraction (“exclusion ratio”) of the annuity payments is shielded from taxes, and the rest of the payments are taxed at the higher, unfavorable ordinary income tax rate (relative to qualified dividends and capital gains from other securities). Much of the time, many of the salespeople, who call themselves “financial advisors,” know little about these complex annuity products (see Financial Sharks article). What these brokers do understand are the big, fat commissions they stand to collect upon fleecing unsuspecting investors.
Scores of these so-called advisors are actually “registered representatives” who do not carry a fiduciary duty (meaning they are NOT required to make investment decisions in the best interest of their clients). Certainly, there are some situations where annuities might be appropriate, but from my experience there are very few cases where the egregious charges and expenses outweigh the benefits. I believe the vast majority of brokers/registered reps/salespeople are more concerned about padding their wallets than building and protecting client portfolios.
If safety and tax advantages are features you are looking for then I encourage you to look at more efficient options such as the following:
- 401k Defined Contribution Retirement Plan (or other “Qualified Plan”): Allows you to achieve tax deferral often with free money given to you in the form of a match to your contributions.
- IRA (Individual Retirement Account): Whether you consider a traditional or Roth IRA, there are tax deferral advantages with lower fees.
- Low Turnover, High Dividend Portfolios: Using a tax efficient management strategy with better tax treatment of income is another approach that I firmly believe will outperform most annuities.
- Tax-Exempt Muni Bonds or Corporates: The tax-exempt status of municipal bonds affords investors a tax advantaged status. The after-tax yield on corporate bonds can be compared to the returns promised on annuities (AFTER all fees, charges, and commissions). Holding individual bonds until maturity can help avoid interest rate risk.
- Ladder Zero Coupon Bonds: If safe fixed payments are what you are looking for, then staggered purchases of zero coupon bonds can be purchased as well.
These are only a few options that could and should be considered when reviewing your personal objectives and circumstances. With regard to the insurance component of an annuity contract, there are more cost effective ways of paying for insurance – most notably, term insurance.
At the end of the day, no matter the financial product, it is important you understand the underlying fees charged on any strategy, along with how the person selling you stuff is compensated. If you don’t do your homework on these extremely complex products (many not regulated by the NASD or SEC), then you may find yourself checking into the annuity hotel, but unable to check out.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.