Can there really be no fees?
Cost of a Fixed Annuity
by Rick Kahler
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Annuities are popular investments; almost every new client I see has one. Part of any investment adviser's due diligence is to understand the history and intentions of the investments in a portfolio. When I ask why someone purchased an annuity, the most common responses are: "We didn't have to pay any fees or commissions." "There are no ongoing expenses." "All my money is working for me." "The principal is guaranteed."
Any time you read or hear "no fees," "no commissions," "no expenses," "free," or "guaranteed" used in conjunction with an investment, it's a red flag. All investments, including annuities, have costs associated with them. You need to ask some probing questions about those costs before proceeding.
Let's look at the costs for one popular type of annuity, the fixed annuity. This simply gives you a stated rate of return that often can change annually, similar to a bank certificate of deposit.
Suppose Investor A is sold a fixed annuity with a guaranteed return of 3.5%. Investor B invests her money in a plain vanilla portfolio of mutual funds holding 60% stocks and 40% bonds, which has a long-term projected return of 6%.
The insurance company selling the annuity must earn enough of a return on Investor A's money to cover their expenses, pay commissions, and return something to Investor A. There is no magic formula on how that's done. The insurance company invests the money in the same asset classes available to anyone. For the sake of this example, it's reasonable to assume the insurance company would hold the same 60/40 portfolio as Investor B.
The annuity incurs internal costs for administration, managing the money, insuring the return of principal, and commissions paid to salespeople. While these vary somewhat from company to company, a cost of 2.5% isn't unreasonable.
If the company earns 6% and deducts 1% to recoup the upfront commission paid to the salesperson, 1.0% for management costs, and 0.5% for administrative fees, they pay out the remainder as a "fixed" return of 3.5%. Investor A only sees that 3.5% fixed return. If Investor A wants out of the policy before the cost of the up-front commission is fully recovered (usually 4 to 15 years), he will also incur a "surrender penalty" that is approximately equal to the remaining amount of commission paid to the broker selling the policy.
Investor B's 60/40 portfolio will have the same 6% gross return as the insurance company's portfolio. If Investor B purchases index funds from a company like Vanguard, her costs could be as low as 0.10%, leaving her a return of 5.9%.
Suppose Investors A and B each accumulate $1 million in retirement funds. The difference between Investor A's guaranteed 3.5% return and Investor B's average and unguaranteed 5.9% return is potentially an extra $2,000 a month in retirement income. Guarantees come with a cost.
Given these numbers, you may wonder why anyone would purchase a fixed annuity. One reason is that many buyers don't have the confidence that they can invest the money wisely or the stomach to watch the portfolio's inevitable peaks and valleys. Another reason is that most buyers don't fully understand the costs.
Unlike stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, most annuities are sold, not bought. I have never had a new client who independently purchased a no-load annuity. The annuities I typically see were sold by someone who received a commission. Commissions are not inherently bad, but in most cases they do inherently create a conflict of interest.
There are always fees associated with any investment. In my experience, the less transparent those fees are, the higher they are.
Reviewed May 2017
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