Pros and cons of variable annuities

A look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of annuities.

Are annuities the right investment for you?

Are Annuities Right for You?

How many times have you gone to meet with a financial advisor and they offer you an annuity? How many times have you heard about how awful annuities are? The truth is annuities very rarely make good investment vehicles.

In light of the recent market volatility, variable annuities are being reintroduced to a broader audience. Pre-retirees and retirees are giving annuities a second look because of the tax-deferred features and income guarantees. Is an annuity right for you? Let’s take a look at a few of the basics:

What is an annuity?

An annuity is a contract between you and a life insurance company that promises you lifelong income in exchange for a lump sum payment or series of payments to the insurer. The income arrives in periodic payments, either at once (an immediate annuity) or in the future (a deferred annuity, which also offers you tax-deferred growth of the assets inside it).

A look at the Pros and Cons of Annuities

As an independent financial advisor who gets paid a fee only rather than commission, I am always looking at the pros and cons of various investments. Let’s take that same approach with an annuity. There generally are two types of annuities – fixed or variable annuities. Fixed are tied to interest rates or indexed annuities tied to various indexes and variable are tied to the investment performance of the mutual funds within the policy. Let us look at the good, bad, and ugly features of the most popular type of annuities- variable.

The Good

Annuity ownership does come with some attractive benefits such as:

1. Flexibility and investment choices – Variable annuities have sub-accounts with various mutual funds to select from. This makes it easy to change investment direction or your allocations with little or no costs.

2. Tax deferral for your investment gains – Just like your 401k or IRA, your contributions and earnings can grow tax-deferred until you withdraw funds. If this is in a non-qualified account (non IRA or retirement), you do not have to make mandatory withdrawals at age 70 ½.

3. Income for life – I will concede that no other investment allows for the creation of income for life. Once you select monthly payments (or annuitize) your annuity contract, the insurance company will guarantee you (and your spouse, should you desire) the income payment for the rest of your life. This is like creating your very own pension!

4. Asset protection – In certain states, annuities are a shelter from creditors. If you work in a field prone to lawsuits or even if you are in a car accident, protecting your assets is important. Annuities typically provide this type of protection.

5. Potential protection from market losses. Many variable annuities let you benefit from stock market gains while shielding you against stock market losses. In the past, many have offered the annuity holder at least a minimum rate of return (a GMIB, or Guaranteed Minimum Income Benefit). Many have also offered guarantees that the annuity value will not dip below the value of the initial principal (a GMAB, or Guaranteed Minimum Accumulation Benefit). However keep in mind these guarantees are expensive and come with many strings attached. So buyers beware.

The Bad

1. Irreversible consequences. The idea of income for life sounds enticing but here are a few cavots. For example, once you annuitize (create income for life or a period of time), it often becomes irreversible. You often give up the ability to get your lump sum back or even pass it to “other beneficiaries”. So say you put $250,000 into an annuity at age 60 and accept the insurance company’s offer to pay you a monthly income for the rest of your life. It could take 20 to 25 for you to break even on that investment.

2. Locked up until 59 ½. Another downside is that once you put funds into an annuity contract you cannot touch those funds until you reach age 59.5. Otherwise you have to pay a 10% penalty for early withdrawals.

3. Poor tax planning. A withdrawal from an annuity is treated as ordinary income rather than qualifying for the often more favorable long-term capital gains treatment. When you do start to take funds from the contract, the portion of your payments that are considered investment gains are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate instead of the long-term capital rates. This rate could be higher than the current capital gains rate.

4. Insurance company financial health. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge an insurance company by its Comdex ranking. This is a useful place to start. As the name implies, the Comdex is a composite index: an average percentile ranking of credit ratings provided for life and health insurance companies by firms such as Moody’s Investors Service, A.M. Best Company and Standard & Poor’s Corporation.

The Comdex ranks insurers using a weighted average on a scale of 1 to 100, 100 being best. If an insurer has a Comdex rating of 85, for example, that means the Comdex has ranked its strength and solvency as superior to 85% of the insurance companies in the index. If you want to see the actual ranking/opinion of Moody’s or Best or another credit firm rather than an average, visit – this is the website of the Insurance Information Institute, a longstanding information source for media and the public about the insurance industry. Or find your state insurance department via

5. Inability to screen for your moral and social preferences. Most annuities have no choice for morally or socially conscious investors. Your investments may be supporting companies involved in abortion, pornography, embryonic stem cell research, gambling, tobacco, alcohol, or other issues important to you.

The Ugly

1. Surrender charges – If it’s not bad enough that your funds are tied up until age 59 ½, you also have to be careful because most insurance companies also charge a surrender fee (usually on a five to seven year scale). These fees often start at around 8% in the first year down to 0% in year seven. So, a $100,000 investment could cost you $8,000 (8%) in surrender fees if you take your money out in the first year. It will usually go down 1% per year until reaching 0% at the end of the surrender period.

2. Up-front commissions. Annuities are still primarily a commission-based product. They can pay commissions of 5% or more to the agent who sells them to you. That’s $5,000 or more in commissions for each $100,000! Don’t be afraid to ask about the commission he or she collects by selling you the annuity before you invest. Not that it always influences a recommendation, but you have to be careful as some agents are glorified salespeople looking for their next commission check.

3. Annual fees, administrative charges, mortality expenses, and other charges - With so many layers of fees, how will you make money? I have seen investors who have been in annuities for 10 years or more make very little money because of these high fees. It will affect your investment performance. These charges are often buried into the cost of your annuity. Reading a prospectus is often eye-opening!

As you can see, everything is not what it appears with an annuity. You need to read all of the fine print before investing a dime.

Five questions I would ask before investing include:

  • Where is your money going and what values are you supporting?
  • How much risk are you taking?
  • Is your money liquid and easily accessible?
  • What rate of return should you expect in this low rate environment?
  • How do you protect yourself from taxes and inflation?

If the investment you are considering doesn’t answer these five questions in a way that you feel satisfied, go with your gut instinct, and look elsewhere. Annuities are certainly not a fit for everyone!

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