It seems that banks are in annuity overdrive these days. Consumers are staring down CD rates as low as 0.50% wondering if there is something else out there. Bank salespeople are often quick to offer annuities. There are several types of annuities available, with the most popular being the variable annuity. The bank salespeople, often falsely referred to as financial advisors, make it sound as if these products are the best things since the Wright Brothers took flight. I say buyer beware.
The bank and its securities division are in business to make money. This is okay if the compensation among all the bank’s product offerings were the same, allowing for unbiased advice. This is not the case, however, as annuities provide the biggest payday to the bank and its sales force (6-7% average commission for the salesperson).
Annuities are costly because they are insurance-based products that have to make up the cost of what they are guaranteeing you. For example, many annuities guarantee that you will never lose principle, while at the same time allowing you to make money through separate accounts similar to mutual funds. The reality is, and a better explanation of this offer is, that your beneficiaries are guaranteed your principle upon your death, not you. This guarantee had little benefit during the financial crisis if you were at the doorstep of retirement.
According to Morningstar, the average expense of a variable annuity is 2.2%. If you invest $10,000 into an annuity and the market returns 8%, in 20 years you should have $30,882 including fees. If you instead invested in an index portfolio costing you 0.20%, you would have $44,498; that’s $13,616 more!
For younger investors, the annuity is pushed as a tax deferral investment program. A variable annuity will give you that at a cost. For those investors who are maxing out their 401k and IRAs and looking for tax sheltered retirement savings, I have determined that the best vehicle is a taxable, tax efficient portfolio. With the growing popularity of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), an investor can build a very tax friendly portfolio at an investment cost less than 0.30%.
Why do consumers fall for the annuity bait and switch? It comes down to the persuasion of the salesperson and the bank playing to the consumer’s fears of investing. Many bank-going consumers would probably never invest in the market at all, deeming it too risky. The annuity appears to have the safeguards that the consumer wants. Just remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. There are many alternatives to managing investment risk that will cost you one tenth of the average annuity. A fiduciary fee only advisor can help you explore these options.