One sure sign of stock market volatility is a surge in ads touting the benefits of using annuities as retirement income. Many of these pitches are akin to fear-mongering and play on the worries many investors have about the stock market in a shaky economic situation.

Don't Buy Annuities Based on Fear

Some annuity salespeople use fear of the stock market to entice investors to buy the products they are selling. However, market corrections are a normal part of the investment cycle. An appropriately crafted investment portfolio should offer adequate cash or other low-risk, low-volatility investments to fund several years of cash flow needs without the retiree needing to dip into their stock portfolio.

It is incumbent upon financial advisors working with retirees to develop a plan to fund the client’s cash flow needs from all available retirement resources. These include withdrawals from tax-deferred retirement accounts, taxable accounts, pensions, and Social Security benefits, as well as an annuity if the product is appropriate for the investor.

Key Takeaways

  • Annuities can be useful financial vehicles for retirement, but experts do not recommend buying one to guard against potential stock market volatility.
  • There are insurance companies who hard sell annuities to customers without explaining the complexities of the products.
  • Annuities come in many forms, and a financial advisor may be able to help you figure out the best kind for your situation.
  • The SECURE Act of 2019 by the U.S. Congress listed rules that impacted annuities held within retirement accounts and employer-sponsored plans.

Considerations Before Buying

There is nothing wrong with annuities, but sometimes there is a problem with how they are advertised or sold. Before you buy an annuity, make sure you understand all of the fees related to the product.

Some variable annuities have ongoing annual expenses approaching 3%, which is high. If your annuity fees and costs are high, it affects your annuity payout.

Here are some things to consider before you purchase an annuity:

  • Annuity products often are issued as recurring monthly or quarterly payments or in a lump-sum distribution.
  • fixed annuity offering a substantially higher rate of interest than similar products should raise a red flag. Is the insurance company desperate to bring in premium dollars? Is the firm financially sound? The adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” applies here. 
  • Research the company you purchase an annuity from and know its financial viability. If something happens to the insurer, such as bankruptcy, it falls to the appropriate state department of insurance to cover you. There are generally limits on the amount guaranteed for annuities, so you will want to read the contract and make sure you understand all of the fine print.

Evaluate Surrender Penalties and Indexed Annuity Formulas

Annuities have underlying expenses called mortality and expense charges. This compensates the insurance company for the risks they bear should contract holders decide to annuitize because they have no control over how long the annuitant might live. 

Many annuities contain surrender charges that impose stiff penalties if you try to get out of the contract during the first few years. The surrender period can range from five-to-ten years or longer, depending upon the contract. Make sure you are aware of the length of the surrender period and the surrender charges.

Indexed annuities, often called equity-indexed annuities, offer limited upside participation in a stock market index like the S&P 500. They also provide downside protection in the form of some level of minimum guaranteed return. 

The sales pitches for indexed annuities vary from being a CD substitute to being a safe way to invest in the stock market. You must understand the underlying formulas determining your return and any factors that might cause a change in the formula. Check out FINRA’s Investor Alert on indexed annuities as well. 

Variable Annuities

Variable annuities generally have underlying sub-accounts that function like mutual funds. Living benefit riders have become a popular option or add-on to many contracts. A rider is an insurance policy or annuity provision that adds benefits to a policy or amends the terms to reduce or restrict coverage. If it's an added benefit, the rider will come with an additional fee.

Two popular riders are guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits (GMWBs) and guaranteed minimum income benefits (GMIBs). A GMWB rider guarantees the return of the premium paid into the contract, regardless of the underlying investments' performance, via a series of periodic withdrawals. A GMIB rider guarantees the right to annuitize the contract with a specified minimum income level regardless of the underlying investment performance.

Both types of riders entail added costs and require varying timeframes to be eligible for exercise and to recover the cost of the rider. These and similar contract options are significant items that will be pushed by annuity salespeople during times of stock market turmoil.

Dinner Seminars and Scare Tactic Ads

The typical dinner seminar pitch is given to baby boomers and seniors in a particular demographic. The session might be run by a local registered representative, an insurance agent selling annuities, or in conjunction with an estate planning attorney. Radio ads for annuities generally tout how their product is an alternative to the volatility and risk of stocks.

Rule Changes for Retirement Accounts

With the passage of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act in 2019 by the U.S. Congress, rules changes regarding retirement accounts went into effect in 2020. The new rules impact annuities held within retirement accounts and employer-sponsored plans, such as 401(k)s. Please note that the changes listed here are not a comprehensive listing of all of the laws that went into effect due to the SECURE Act.

Experts recommend consulting a financial professional for a thorough review of all of the rule changes that went into effect due to the SECURE Act.

Previously, the IRA "stretch provision" allowed non-spousal IRA beneficiaries to take only the required minimum distributions (RMDs) each year from an inherited IRA. Under the SECURE Act, the stretch provision was eliminated.

In 2020 and 2021, non-spousal beneficiaries who inherit an IRA must withdraw all of the funds from the IRA account within ten years following the original owner's passing. Inherited retirement accounts that contain annuity products as investments are not exempt from the ruling. However, there are exceptions to the 10-year withdrawal rule for spouses as well as other special situations.

If there's an annuity in your employer-sponsored retirement plan and you change jobs, the SECURE Act allows you to transfer the 401(k) annuity to your new employer's plan. It is important to note that changes were made regarding the legal liabilities or risks that insurance companies and annuity providers faced in years past. In other words, annuity owners may run into limitations when trying to sue an annuity provider if they default on the annuity payments.

The Bottom Line

Annuities of various types can be a viable part of a well-constructed retirement income strategy. This is where a qualified financial advisor (versus a product salesperson) can help. He or she can determine if an annuity is a good fit in a client's plan and help find the most cost-effective product instead of using salesperson scare tactics.