Indexed Annuities: The New Retirement Pensions?
By Sam Deleo
Tucker Advisors Senior Content Specialist/Editor
Defined-benefit plans. Those of us who are older might remember them better as “pensions,” but in 2021 they seem about as common as a rotary phone. (Sorry, but we don’t have time to explain what that is.)
Investopedia.com reported in a story last year that only 17% of U.S. private-sector workers still have access to pension plans. With many of the plans still in existence, employers have placed a freeze on funding them, which is often the beginning of the process to eliminate the plans altogether. In other words, the large majority of us can no longer rely on our employers to fund our retirement plans. We are on our own.
The Pros and Cons of the 401(k)
The most common replacement of the defined-benefit plan has been the defined-contribution plan, or, the 401(k). The 401(k) often offers a traditional pre-taxed account and a post-taxed Roth account, with both sourced in a blend of stock and bond options the employee must choose and maintain with the appropriate risk tolerance until retirement.
Some of us are lucky enough to work for employers that match a percentage of 401(k) contributions. However, in recent years, that benefit has also become rarer. Ultimately, it is up to the employee to secure their future income from the 401(k) choices they make. And as James McWhinney at Investopedia writes, that’s far from a certain outcome:
“After the money hits the account, it’s up to the employee to choose how it’s invested—typically from a menu of mutual funds—and the vagaries of the stock market to determine the ultimate outcome. Maybe the markets will go up, and maybe they won’t.”
The 401(k) plan does offer advantages over pensions for employees. For one, it can be a better instrument for growing retirement savings. Also, workers no longer need to worry about whether their employer can fund the pension or will declare bankruptcy to escape liability for it. But, without pensions, employees also can’t predict an exact monthly income for their retirement. In a 401(k), the income they plan on for retirement rises and dips with the market, and they must hope that none of the “dips” turn into downturns or crashes while they’re preparing to retire.
What Does an Indexed Annuity Do?
Even if market risk isn’t your thing, playing it safe has its own problems. With interest rates for bank accounts, CDs, money markets and even bonds lower than the current rate of inflation, workers will actually lose money year to year by investing in those savings instruments.
So, what is the most efficient tool for creating your own retirement pension? While there are more elaborate and hands-on approaches, more and more retirees are finding the solution is to fund an annuity with a portion of their 401(k).
“One user-friendly version of self-funded pensions is the indexed annuity,” said Tucker Financial President and CFP, Darren Petty. “It functions much like a ‘cash-balance pension plan,’ a defined benefit plan created by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974, except the annuity version is funded by the employee at or near retirement, usually with a portion of their 401(k) balance.”
An indexed annuity is an insurance vehicle that can guarantee a reliable monthly income over the lifetime of the policy holder, with the remaining balance payable to owner’s beneficiary(ies). The cash balance can grow at a stated interest rate, much like a bank CD, or it can have greater growth opportunity if the owner chooses an indexed option. This “links” the annuity cash value to a stock index like the S&P 500. When the market grows, the annuity cash value grows. When the market declines, the annuity doesn’t lose value because it isn’t directly invested into equities. To be fair, these annuities aren’t to be compared to a stock portfolio in terms of overall growth opportunity, but they can earn a respectable rate, all without market risk.
Why Are Corporations Moving Pensions into Annuities?
When you consider that indexed annuities de-risk principal and can guarantee a reliable monthly paycheck, it’s easy to understand why retirees are finding them to be attractive pension replacements. Even major corporations, such as GM, FedEx, DowDuPont, Lockheed, Molson Coors, Kimberley-Clark and others, have transferred their pension funds into annuities. These corporations understand that insurance firms act as the world’s risk managers and are better-equipped to manage long-term pension liabilities.
Critics of annuities claim they carry high fees, and this is particularly true of variable annuities, which have fees ranging from 2% to 5%. The lower-cost indexed annuity typically comes with a 1% or less annual fee, depending on the retiree’s deferral period (years until retirement). Others say you can make more money by investing in stocks. It is true that you might grow money faster in stocks or mutual funds, but creating your pension income at retirement is still the goal of this growth. Another common critique is that indexed annuities “tie up your money,” but in fact, most offer between 10% and 20% liquidity each year. “This (liquidity) is far more than you should ever access,” said Petty, “when you consider that all distributions are fully taxable if the annuity has been funded by 401(k) dollars.”
Indexed annuities are not for everyone, and they may not be for you. If you’re still well within your accumulation years, you can take greater amounts of risk in the market. For those who are, say, less than 40 years old and have the time to recover any potential loss from riskier market investments, it may be wise to wait before investing in an indexed annuity. And, if you are a very high-net-worth investor who does not require secure monthly income for retirement, an indexed annuity is likely superfluous.
But the recent trend toward indexed annuities as an alternative to other retirement income solutions is not an accident. People want the security of the old pension plan. They’re finding they can come very close to recreating that financial period of history with a carefully selected indexed annuity.
We spoke with Darren Petty a bit more in depth about what he sees as the similarities and differences between the old pension plan and today’s indexed annuity, as well as other possible methods of creating this kind of income.
Q: How can retirees most efficiently receive pension-like income throughout their retirement?
A: There are several options within just the categories that are appropriate for retirement income. You have dividend-paying stock portfolios, laddered-bond portfolios, rental income or annuities. Within these categories, we look at four main things: income, growth, liquidity and tax efficiency. So, within those four categories, the most efficient for those who don’t want to be tied to managing their investment constantly during their retirement is the self-funded annuity. It provides reliable income, respectable growth, sufficient liquidity and tax efficiency. The fifth, bonus aspect is that it requires no monitoring or maintenance. Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of dividend-paying stocks for retirement income? A: The advantage is that you can get stock growth and receive a monthly income when the sun is shining, so to speak, and the tide is high and all boats are floating. So, in an expansionary economy, they’re great. In a recessionary economy, the stock value goes down and its dividend often disappears. As Warren Buffet said, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”
Q: What are the pros and cons of annuities for retirement income?
A: Some of the cons are that they can’t compare to your stock portfolio. The growth potential can be disappointing if compared to a high-flying stock. They are also not 100% liquid. The advantages contrast the disadvantages. While your annuity will not experience outsized growth, the vehicle has no downside risk, which makes it appropriate for an income-producing asset where moderate gains that never experience a market loss are sufficient. Also, 100% liquidity is an insane request on a 100% tax-deferred vehicle.
Q: Can you talk about the key differences between employer pensions and self-funded annuities?
A: If you have an employer pension, the advantages are that you don’t have to allocate or manage the investment. Your retirement income is easy to calculate, and it’s a clear trajectory. In a 401(k), as we’ve discussed, it will be a bumpier ride but you’ll be able create your own pension that you own and control. And an indexed annuity will likely be a large part of that creation.
Q: How much of a retiree’s income should be “guaranteed,” i.e., how much of the 401(k) should be used to fund an annuity?
A: I think that is a very practical question for people. So, this should be a reverse-engineered calculation where you subtract Social Security benefits from your required annual retirement income, and fund an annuity to cover the difference. For example, if your goal is $100,000 in annual income, and $50,000 of that is in Social Security benefits, you would fund an annuity for the other $50,000. That may require anywhere from 40% to 70% of your 401(k), but that’s the purpose of 401(k)s, to fund retirements. Our approach is that we’re trying to leave as much outside the annuity as possible but still make sure that the client has zero lifestyle risk. That’s our goal, to keep as much of your investible assets out of the annuity while still securing your monthly retirement needs.
For decades now, the financial industry has presented indexed annuities as products. Some financial advisors used them in ways that did not maximize their advantages for the client. So, advisors themselves are somewhat to blame for indexed annuities only now receiving their due as powerful financial instruments when used the right way to fund retirements.
Determining the correct amount for your “annuity pension” is something a good financial advisor will help you with by providing a context for a comprehensive financial plan. The indexed annuity can play a crucial part in any financial portfolio that seeks a balance of growth and security. Even more exciting, when used the right way, indexed annuities can serve as a worthy substitute to the pension era that retirees once enjoyed.
For more information about indexed annuities or to receive a downloadable white paper on addressing annuity concerns, email Kyle.Savner@TuckerAdvisors.com or Jason.Demers@TuckerAdvisors.com.
– For Financial Professional Use Only. Insurance-only agents are not licensed to offer investment advice.