Sales of equity indexed annuities (EIAs) have grown considerably in recent years. These products are positioned as simple investment vehicles that enable the investor to participate in market gains but offer protection from market losses. In reality, these are complex investments and because salespeople are paid large commissions for promoting these products, it’s difficult to get an objective opinion on whether they are right for you.
How Do Equity Indexed Annuities Work?
EIAs produce an investment return that is tied to a market index, most commonly the S&P 500. Each product has a minimum guaranteed return (currently, 1% is common) and a cap rate, which is the highest annual return the investment can generate (currently, 8% is common). Consequently, an EIA with these common parameters would generate the same return as the S&P 500 of that return was between 1% and 8%. If the S&P 500 produced an annual return of less than 1%, the EIA would guarantee 1%. Similarly, if the index produced a return greater than 8%, the annuity would be capped at an 8% return.
Further, EIAs have participation rates that commonly range from 70% to 100%. For instance, if the index increased in value by 10% during the year, an EIA with an 80% participation rate would produce an 8% return (80% of the index’s 10% return).Also, it is important to note that minimum guarantees, cap rates, and participation rates can change at the whim of the insurance company.
Other Important Factors
As mentioned previously, salespeople are handsomely compensated for selling EIAs. To protect the insurance firm from paying a large commission to a salesperson only to have the investor sell the annuity, these products have a surrender charge if the investors sells within a certain time frame, which can be as long as 10 years. This surrender penalty can be as much as 10%. Thus, liquidity is severely limited with these investments.
EIAs offer tax-deferral, meaning an investor doesn’t pay taxes on investment gains until the annuity is sold. This tax-deferral is similar to the benefit offered by a 401(k) or IRA. However, unlike investments in a 401(k) or IRA, investments in an EIA don’t reduce your current income or tax bill when the investment is made. For this reason, many financial planners encourage their clients to maximize contributions to other tax-deferred vehicles before considering an annuity.
It’s important to note that most EIAs only count equity index gains from market price changes, and exclude any gains from dividends. Since you’re not earning dividends, you won’t earn as much as if you invested directly in the market. For example, the S&P 500 earned 15.1% in 2010, but 2.3% of that return came from dividends which would not be included in an EIA.
Lastly, the guaranteed return on an EIA is only as good as the insurance company that gives it. While it is not a common occurrence that a life insurance company is unable to meet its obligations, it happens. Information about the financial strength of insurance companies can be found on the SEC’s website.
Suppose a 45 year old with a 40 year investment horizon was looking for an investment that offered impressive returns with relative safety. Would an EIA be a good choice? Let’s consider a $10,000 investment in three unique options: an investment in the S&P 500, an investment in a conservative diversified portfolio* consisting of 75% bonds and 25% stocks, and an investment in an equity indexed annuity tied to the S&P 500. For illustration purposes, let’s assume the annuity has extremely favorable conditions: a 100% participation rate, a 3% minimum guarantee, and a 10% cap rate. Further, let’s give the EIA the benefit of the doubt and assume it includes the portion of the S&P 500’s return due to dividends, which few EIAs do. All and all, this annuity is significantly more favorable than any real product you are likely to find. Since the investor intends to live another 40 years, let’s look at what would have happened to these three $10,000 investments during the last 40 years, starting in 1970.
As you would expect, the $10,000 investment in the S&P 500 grew the most over 40 years, to $495,551. However, this investment endured significant volatility, losing as much as -37% in one year. Clearly, this investment is too risky for an investor willing to endure only a small amount of risk. Alternatively, the $10,000 investment in the diversified 75% bond, 25% stock portfolio grew to $433,838 — still an impressive return. However, the largest loss this portfolio suffered in a calendar year was -6% (1974), which might be tolerable to an investor with a low risk tolerance. Finally, while the equity indexed annuity with unrealistically favorable terms never gained less than 3% per year, our $10,000 investment only grew to $195,479. What if we consider an EIA with more realistic terms: 100% participation rate, 1% guarantee, and an 8% cap rate? Our $10,000 investment would have grown to only $103,767. Clearly, when comparing an EIA to investing in a diversified portfolio with a conservative ratio of bonds to stocks, an investor benefited of accepting a small amount of volatility in their portfolio.
ity indexed annuity without full knowledge of the product? Annuities have a “30-day free look” that enables you to surrender the product free of charge within 30 days of signing the contract. If you recently purchased an EIA, speak to a fee-only financial planner immediately to ensure the product was right for you. If you decide the annuity wasn’t what you thought, a fee-only financial planner can help you exercise your free look provision and find an alternative investment that is more appropriate.