Variable Annuities: Basic Tutorial and Performance Optimization
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|The word "variable," in regards to both annuities, and whole life insurance, refers to the ability of the policyholder to invest using mutual funds (called subaccounts) instead of being limited to the life insurance company's general fixed account.
This makes the (sub)account value(s) "vary" with the financial markets (in other words, go up and down), instead of remaining stable and growing very slowly, like bank accounts.
The vast majority of variable annuities (AKA VAs) are "bad" and should be avoided!
Annuities, and whole life insurance, come from the same place - the life insurance industry. So they suffer from the same enormous and ubiquitous problems.
So this page is about that.
If you don't own a VA now, then this page will help explain why you should just not do that.
If you already own a variable annuity, then this page will help inform you about what your options are, and how to get better investment performance while you're stuck.
First, if you don't already own a variable annuity, then you'll be much better off by staying as far away from them as possible.
Variable annuities have very few advantages.
One of them is purely for obtaining life insurance death benefits on an uninsurable person that will never use the money, and wishes to pass it onto heirs.
Thatís about it. The other advantages are too insignificant to list (and mostly have to do with needing a bell or whistle).
The list of major disadvantages far outweigh the very few minor advantages.
The biggest reason to avoid them is because variable annuities are by far the most expensive investment vehicles you can own.
The only other type of "investment product" that returns such poor investment performance; while sucking your money away like cancer running a vacuum cleaner - with their never ending parade of loads, commissions, fees, expenses, and charges - is whole life insurance.
For the rest of this page, all life insurance company loads, commissions, fees, expenses, and charges will just be referred to as "fees."
The average annual life-sucking fees of the ten most-popular VAs used in the (old) performance comparisons was 2.2%. This does not include subaccount internal management fees, nor their 12b-1 fees. So they could easily add up to be over 3.5% a year.
At 3%, this means if the markets are down, then you'll be down 3% more. If the markets are flat, then you'll be down 3%. If they are up 2% for the year, then you'll be down 1%. If they are up 6%, then you'll only make 3%.
So even in the best case scenario, for example if the markets are up 9%, then you'll only be up 6%. So even in the best case scenario, a third of your profits will be wasted by fees.
So you're giving around a third, and sometimes half or even all, of your investment returns away to the life insurance company, and usually receiving little-to-nothing in return.
With 21st century investment returns, you're giving half to all, of your total return away just in life insurance company fees. For example if you would have bought a VA on the first day of 2000, put 100% into the S&P 500, and then had fees of 3%, then you would have lost ~4% every year for ten years (because the S&P 500 lost 0.95% annually from 1/1/2000 to 12/13/2009).
Variable annuities have other huge problems as well: They're not standardized, liquid, nor uniform; and they have expensive bells and whistles (AKA insurance riders) that hardly anyone understands, are seldom used, fail when needed (because they don't perform as advertised when executed, because of the "fine print"), and are rarely worth the money (premiums) paid for them.
VAs also pay life insurance agents by far the most money in commissions per buck invested, compared to every other type of investment product a financial salesperson can sell today.
So VAs have by far the most incentive for abuse and to be oversold, just to maximize agents' short-term incomes.
This is why you're always hearing and reading about them. It's not because they're good for you in any way, shape, or form. That happens, but it's rare. It's because VAs are by far the most profitable investment vehicle to sell in the 21st century.
Variable insurance products were not the rage before loaded mutual fund commissions dropped from 8.5% to 5.5% (and the whole limited partnership industry evaporated because of tax changes from TRA '86).
Then a decade later, the Internet came on online, and then discount brokers popped up everywhere, making it so investors could easily just DIY (do it themselves).
In other words, the Internet and progress in general, made it so financial salespeople couldn't get rich anymore by using good 'ol mutual funds, starting in the late 20th century.
I know, because I was one of them, and that's one of the primary reasons I gave it up.
For example, in '88, when I sold $10,000 worth of mutual funds; after the BD ate half of my commissions, I made $425 before taxes. Then around 1990, more mutual fund families came online with lower loads. So the funds I was selling dropped their commission rates from 8.5% to 7.5% to remain competitive. So I only made $375 for selling the same deal. Then in '92, it was $325. In '96 it was down to $275.
This 35% pay cut in less than a decade was in addition to high cost of living inflation, and was totally beyond my control.
So I, and everyone else said, "If this keeps up, then I'll be working for minimum wage, so it's time to bag this deal and move on to something more profitable."
That something for me, was bagging being a commission-based product peddler altogether. But for the career peddler, the only options left that "paid anything," were annuities and whole life insurance. There were literally no other options, after limited partnerships went the way of the dinosaurs, and because stock trading commissions (AKA individual securities) were falling at the same rates.
Around 1998, the Internet provided free access to information, and then discount brokers made it so investors could use this information to do their own investment research, and then implement their own investment strategies at very low costs.
So when commission-based "financial planners" realized their incomes were being squeezed from all sides, just about the only product left that still "paid a decent buck" were VAs.
Fixed annuities paid well too (and still do), but investors wanted to participate in the stock, bond, and international markets via variable subaccounts, so that's what was sold.
Then 2012 tax law changes ended estate planning as a way for life insurance agents calling themselves financial planners, to team up with estate planning lawyers, to profit wildly like never before (and will never again too).
Then no other product has yet to come online that "pays anything."
So annuities and whole life are the only products today that pay a decent commission. This is the one and only reason why they are so highly recommended by financial advisers.
It's just as simple as that.
Other common problems with variable annuities are:
• Losing money and/or not making money in up markets, due to poor performance of the poorly-selected investment choices (called their "line-up" of variable subaccounts, which are just the choices of regular mutual funds wrapped up in a tax wrapper selected as the most profitable to sell by the good 'ol boys at the life insurance company).
• Lack of diversification opportunities because of the limited number of asset classes.
• Lack of investment choices within the limited asset classes.
• Very high internal fees.
• Lack of even rudimentary knowledge and/or support from the agent / life insurance company, on how to obtain decent investment performance from them.
• Being stuck in them because of paying the high initial fees to buy into them.
• Having to pay high surrender fees to liquidate them.
• Very high taxes to pay during the withdrawal phase to make up for the very much less than you think taxes on dividends and capital gains saved along the way.
• Contributions are not even tax-deductible, like they are with traditional IRAs and 401(k)s. So it sort of works like a Roth IRA, until you withdraw money from it. Then you have the huge drawback of a traditional IRA (because all withdrawals are taxed at ordinary income rates).
• If you sell it before you're 59½, then there are substantial tax penalties.
• There is no liquid market to sell them after you sign their contracts and pay.
• If you annuitize it, to spend the retirement income stream, the amount of income is so small that it's beyond pathetic.
• You're still stuck with MDIB / RMD / MD Rules (where the IRS forces you to withdraw money when you reach 70½, so it can recoup the insignificant taxes you've saved in the past).
The life insurance company basically just keeps a quarter to a third of your money, compared to intelligently investing your own money, for no better reason than they can, and because that's the foundation of their profit-generating business model.
Variable annuities are a tax-qualified product, meaning once you buy it, youíre basically totally stuck until youíre retired (age 59½). You canít sell it nor get income from it until then without severe taxes and penalties.
Then even if you chose to endure the taxes and penalties, you'd get dinged again with all of the usual life insurance company early surrender penalty fees (which could be as high as 10%).
So if you buy a variable annuity, realized you failed, and then want to get out of it soon after you buy it, over a third of your money could just vanish for no good reason.
Then if the markets go down, you're even further behind.
So no matter how you look at it, this is the investment vehicle that results in you being more "stuck" than just about any other. Even with whole life insurance, you can become unstuck by just stopping paying premiums, and then it will eventually die a natural death. Only the spider benefits from you being stuck like a fly in their web.
You can't just sell variable annuities. There is no liquid market of people buying or selling them. Only the life insurance company that sold the annuity to you can "buy it back." Then this takes a major legal war - where you'll have to find, hire, and deal with a law firm that does little-to-nothing but this type of work. Then they'll want a huge part of your settlement, which is usually limited to your original investment. Then these cases rarely win because they'd need to prove the agent wrongfully took advantage of someone unsuitable with "limited mental capacities," just to make a quick buck. That pretty much describes every annuity sale.
So these cases rarely go anywhere. The legal system says that you should have "caveat emptored," while you had the chance (during the free-look period). You were asleep at the wheel when that happened; so you snooze, you lose.
In general, whenever there's a "contract" involved when it comes to investing, you should always just say no. Any form of a contract means little-to-no liquidity, they hold all of the cards, and the house's deck is stacked against you. They know you're too slow and stupid to learn how these products actually work during the free-look period, so once that's over, and you wise up and want to back out, they have a signed contract specifically stating that you cannot do that. That means you're stuck like a fly in their spider's web, totally at their mercy while they suck the life out of you little-by-little.
Variable annuities are marketed and sold primarily based on their tax deferral benefits. But after their fees, all of these tax deferral benefits are more than eaten away.
When calculating the math correctly, the tax deferral of a VA is only worth about 0.75% in annual returns. VA fees average three times that - before their poor investment performance.
All you'd need to do is look at this demo of the only financial software that accurately compares all of the different ways of investing, and see for yourself. It estimates the actual optimized after-fee performance of the most popular variable annuity at the time (2009). It also accounts for all of these tax benefits that don't add up to squat.
The bottom line is that out of the many methods of investing, the only method that gets worse performance than a VA is a very-low-yielding bank CD (and that assumes you're going to average over 8% in the equity markets). Then that's even after the VAs tax sheltering of dividends and capital gains.
After doing all of this, you'll see that you'll most likely have much more money in a well-allocated DIY portfolio of no-load mutual funds, than in most all variable annuities, even after the wonderful tax benefits of the VA.
A monkey randomly throwing darts at a spinning list of several non-qualified Vanguard index funds will more than likely outperform any variable annuity, even after their tax benefits.
The taxes saved on their growth (dividends and realized capital gains distributions) over the years is not nearly as significant as the industry leads people to believe. They only say this because it's the only sales gimmick left that tickles.
All investors need to do is realize 0.75% percent more in investment returns annually to make up for the tax-sheltering benefits of variable annuities. The math on this is on the tax wrapper information page.
To summarize, on the average diversified investment portfolio, annual dividend and capital gains taxes are around 0.3% in the 21st century. They were as high as 3% in the 20th century. That's why you're still being tickled with this more than two decades after these two tax rates substantially declined.
The industry thrives on you being "too busy" to know that you don't need to invest using tax-qualified wrappers, when the amount of those types of taxes are now 90% lower than when variable annuities first came onto the marketplace. So back in the good 'ol days, VAs and the other tax wrappers had their place, because the amount of taxes sheltered was much more than the taxes that would have been paid.
But that is not valid nor needed anymore, because all three tax rates (dividends, capital gains, and ordinary income) are now much lower. So much lower that the amount of ordinary income taxes paid on 100% of withdraws at age 60 (AKA the withdrawal phase), is many of times more than the dividend and capital gains taxes saved along the way (during the accumulation phase).
In other words, the value of variable annuity tax wrappers are now negative. For every tax dollar saved today, you'll have to spend dozens in taxes later.
This huge difference is because if you didn't buy the VA, and just DIY'd via a non-qualified discount brokerage account, then most of the money you'd withdraw to spend on living expenses in retirement will come from return of non-taxable basis. This is all taxed at ordinary income rates with a VA.
This is also because fixed income investments don't yield anything anymore, and realized capital gains distributions are also down to a mere pittance.
That's the short version. The long version is here.
So another bottom line is that VAs are just an obsolete product that's still being sold for no better reason than it still pays very high 20th century commission rates.
Then to compound this disaster, some people fall for the very worst thing one can do with their 401(k) plan, which is to roll it over into an annuity (of any kind), when they can escape this type of retirement plan's captivity.
Then the absolute worst thing you can do is annuitize this annuity.
All of this combined is like giving half of your money away to the life insurance company and getting little-to-nothing in return.
See the page on fixed annuities to see why you just canít win with these products either.
So, if you own a variable annuity or variable (universal) life insurance product (VUL), then you've probably been very disappointed. The longer you own it, the more disappointed you'll probably become.
If you suffer through all of this until age 60, and then want to start withdrawing from it, then the amount of monthly paycheck is usually about a third less than you expected.
This could be less than half of what you expected if you annuitize an annuity (trade the market value for a stream of guaranteed lifetime income).
This is because the life insurance company keeps a huge chunk of your money. This is because it's just part of their business model, and of course, because they legally can once you sign their policy contract and pay premiums.
The best thing to do is get a quote (AKA a ledger) to see how much of a monthly paycheck you can get from an annuitized annuity BEFORE you get locked into their deal for life. Then input this amount into our unique Annuity Calculator.
But most investors neglect to follow through on this minor detail. The ones that do, usually just say no after seeing the numbers (especially after seeing how inflation eats away at their paltry income payout over a decade or two, by using the above Annuity Income Calculator).
Most investors would rather suffer with all of these problems than liquidate and face substantial fees, penalties, and taxes.
With minimal paperwork you can transfer your VA into another variable investment product (with the same or different life insurance company).
But the best you can do there is 1035 Exchange it into something that's essentially the same thing, with just a little better investment performance (or maybe an expensive new slick feature that an agent may be tickling you with).
Then you may have to pay another huge initial sales load / commission again, and then endure another long period of not being able to withdraw money because of the surrender charges. If the investment performance is just a little better, then it could take a decade to recoup the initial commissions.
Of course, when you talk with your agent about any of this, they're just going to go into sales mode again, with blah blah blah broken record about all of the wonderful tax benefits and expensive slick features (riders that have hardly any real benefits relative to what's being touted, compared to what they cost in premiums).
Letting this situation fester for decades could lead to having less than half of the retirement paycheck you expected when you start withdrawing money from it to pay living expenses.
This is because the difference in long-term average investing returns (between VA & DIY) are usually much more than 2% (and all it takes is getting 2% less long-term, to cut your retirement paycheck in half).
Here is what we've seen after observing this fiasco for over three decades in the Real World:
• The #1 reason people can't reach their retirement goals is inadequate savings over the last decade before retirement.
• The second biggest reason is being stuck in poorly-performing life insurance company products for decades.
• The third is lack of asset class diversification (having too much money in one asset class, usually real estate).
• #4 s being done in by a major crisis - divorce, unemployment, uninsured death, jail, accident, injury, lawsuit, or not having adequate health, disability, or long-term care (AKA nursing home) insurance.
• #5 is being locked into a having a lifestyle that costs too much for no good reason.
Not buying a VA (or VUL) is the main financial disaster that you can easily choose whether or not to avoid. This is because you can realize you're failing with the other methods of failure, and then just stop doing that, and then start doing better things that fail less.
But once you sign any life insurance company contract, you are usually stuck with it for life with no hope of ever escaping.
So the second biggest reason people can't retire the way they expected, is because they got stuck using life insurance company products, that didn't perform nearly as well as expected. Even if they play out ďas expected,Ē then youíll still lose, compared to the many more efficient, modern methods of investing.
Then once your money is in the clutches of a life insurance company, there's usually little-to-no way out without taking a substantial loss in one way or another.
Then when it comes time to start withdrawing retirement income to spend on living expenses, it's usually around a third less than expected.
There is just no way you can win the money game with any form of annuity product, period.
Life insurance companies never had any good deals for investors (AKA their policyholders) in the past, they do not now, and they never will in the future.
It's just as simple to understand as that.
But don't despair! You are not stuck anymore. Finally, there's a way out!
The Answer: The better-performing flat-insurance fee variable annuity. In English, there is a truly no-load VA that you can get just by trading in your old one for a new one - for free.
Below is the same 15-asset class models funded with benchmark indices. This is the same asset allocation model as the actual VA model we recommend, but funded with benchmark indices (that can't be invested in). It just serves as a baseline to compare performance. Data is of the end of January '17:
Next, the actual returns for the 15-asset class variable annuity models we recommend (they don't need to be actual because their lineup hasn't changed for years):
Some life insurance companies are letting policyholders sign up for better deals where they can get access to most any mutual fund (subaccount). This solves both the problems with not being able to invest in an adequate number of asset classes needed to diversify, and also the problem of not being able to choose good mutual funds within these asset classes.
If and when you can do this, then you should 1035 exchange your VA in for one of these, and then just use a do-it-yourself (DIY) investing program, like our Model Portfolios.
So when advisors want you to exchange your annuity for one where they can trade (ETFs) in it, this is what they're talking about.
Not only is this recommended VA not going to suck your life away with an endless parade of useless fees, but it's one of the very few variable annuities with both enough asset classes, and good-performing subaccounts needed to realize good low-risk long-term investment performance.
This is the only way to avoid the devastating triple-whammy of variable annuities: High costs, poor investment performance, and being stuck.
This vendor's variable annuity can solve all of these main problems at the same time.
It's the only VA that has 0% M&E Risk fees, 0% Administrative charges, 0% Distribution charges, and 0% for Insurance Expenses. So most all of your money is always working for you.
This variable annuity product has no front-end loads so you'll pay no commissions / sales charges / loads to buy it initially. Then there are no redemption fees, so you can withdraw money at any time without paying any commissions / loads / sales charges.
It has 374 subaccount choices, which results in having more than twice the number of asset classes than most variable annuities.
This also results in having access to more subaccounts that have good performance - both because of having more choices, and because it's also the VA that does the best job at selecting subaccount managers for their line-up.
It only charges ~$20 a month regardless of how much money you have in it. Most all VAs charge a percentage of assets, so you're paying more than this monthly with most variable annuities, if you have more than $15,000 invested.
You can take any existing variable annuity, and then do a 1035 tax-free exchange to trade your old obsolete annuity in for this high-tech no-load annuity.
It's a variable product that will suit your needs better, will obtain better investment performance, all with NO front- or back-end loads or commissions.
That's right, other than the $20 a month fee, it's totally free.
You also do not need to involve an agent to make the transfer. Just call the company's toll-free number and they have a free transfer service (unless you're in NY or NC).
This allows you to make a critical change without paying any taxes, fees, or sales charges to buy the new product.
If there are no surrender fees on your existing product, then you could get a much better-performing product without paying any sales commissions / front-end loads, back-end loads, or taxes. All it takes is a few phone calls and filling out a few forms.
Why you've never heard about this before should be obvious - no life insurance company or agent is getting rich selling them. So they really don't want you to know about it. Only Fee-Based investment advisors use them, because the only way they get paid is via their investment management fees.
So if you're a Fee-Based financial advisor, you can make good money advising people on what to do with their VAs - whether you are insurance / Finra licensed or not.
If you know enough people with variable annuities, then this could open up a whole new world of easy business. How?
Advisors not licensed to sell VAs can partner up with someone in the same state that is, and then you can use a legal way of getting them to pay you for it (e.g., finder's fees, referral fees, fee-sharing, etc., it depends on the state).
The VA carrier will do the free 1035 exchange, and then advisers are able to charge investment management fees for using investing tools like Portfolio Models or by using Comprehensive Asset Allocation Software to manage money like you'd do for the rest of your client accounts.
Usually there are five barriers to escaping the life insurance company's perfected and flawless spider's web, once they've tangled you up:
1) The initial fees / loads / charges / commissions you've paid to get into a product.
2) The back-end redemption fees / loads / charges / commissions you'd have to pay if you liquidated it before a certain amount of time goes by.
3) The initial fees / loads / charges / commissions paid on the new product, if you 1035 Exchange into a better-performing version of the same thing.
4) Paying income taxes and/or the premature distribution tax penalties if you sell or withdraw money before age 59½ (if you sell units and donít exchange it).
5) Putting up with the paperwork, sales pitches, and whining the old life insurance agent and company will put you through when they find out you want to fire them.
Once you pay the initial load (barrier #1), that money just vanishes anyway, so it's gone whether you stay or make the switch. So barrier #1 is something psychological that you'd just need to "get over" in order to move forward.
Barrier #5 usually doesn't cost you any money and only lasts a few minutes.
This method of sales load-free and tax-free exchange eliminates the losses due to barriers #3 and #4. This is because you don't pay any initial front-end loads / commissions when buying the better product.
Then because it's a 1035 Exchange, you're exchanging it for a similar product, and not liquidating; so you don't pay any taxes or penalties on the transaction at all.
The new VA will probably have much better long-term investment performance than the vast majority of other variable annuities.
So even if you did have to pay a redemption fee to escape the old VA (barrier #2), the improved investment performance (using asset allocation techniques) of the new VA usually makes up for that in a few years.
This method is a win-win-win-win-lose proposition.
You win because it didn't cost you any taxes or front-end load commissions to get the better lower-risk investment performance. You'll get lower risk because it has enough asset classes for you to perform asset allocation strategies.
We win because you've won and you'll tell others.
If there's an advisor involved, then they'll win because of the increased business.
Our recommended life insurance company wins because of the increased business.
The only loser is the life insurance company / agent / and subaccount managers with the obsolete inferior VA that you escaped from.
Donít feel bad for them because they've more than likely told you several huge lies (AKA errors and omissions) to dupe you into signing their contracts in the first place.
How to Use Asset Allocation Techniques to Reduce Risk and Increase Investment Returns with Variable Annuities
You can also keep your obsolete variable annuity or variable life insurance product, and then use asset allocation modeling techniques to optimize its performance, using only the existing subaccount choices that you're stuck with.
This is the only way to squeeze something good out of something bad, if you're set on keeping it.
These concepts are the same as the asset allocation models discussed on
the Model Portfolios page.
It just uses the existing limited number of variable subaccounts to fund a smaller number of asset classes. There's nothing else whatsoever anyone can do about this. Youíre totally stuck in every way no matter what you do. Some life insurance companies say they have a system that uses asset allocation strategies with their variable products. But everyone we've seen was so pathetic and wrong that it didn't do much good. This is because they usually just use it to steer money into the subaccount managers that are on a temporary hot streak (AKA "chasing hot funds," so you'll always be buying high and selling low). Or the fund family is kicking back money to the life insurance company. Or their relationship is new, and the life company wants to send the mutual fund family as much new business as possible during the honeymoon phase, so they won't get buyer's remorse, and back out of their selling agreement. Whatever the reason, it's usually not good for you. How to perform this asset allocation process yourself is described in more detail in the
free Money eBook. Then the newfangled method of trying to do something about this mess is called
target-date investing. Read why this is a very flawed investment strategy that should be avoided too. Now there's no reason for any investor to be stuck in horrible variable annuities. This is a wonderful no-brainer win-win-win-win scenario for everyone except the old VA company. All it takes is a couple phone calls, a few forms, and everyone's life changes for the better. Here's the shortest bottom line on all forms of annuities (and all forms of whole life insurance): If you work in the life insurance business, either as an agent or an employee of a life company, or hold life insurance company stock; then annuities and whole life insurance are the greatest inventions since the wheel. This is because they pay by far the most in immediate commissions of any financial product available today, making them by far the most profitable part of the life insurance company business model. But if you're an investor, then not so much. Just "do the math" and you'll see in a New York minute.
It just uses the existing limited number of variable subaccounts to fund a smaller number of asset classes.
There's nothing else whatsoever anyone can do about this. Youíre totally stuck in every way no matter what you do.
Some life insurance companies say they have a system that uses asset allocation strategies with their variable products. But everyone we've seen was so pathetic and wrong that it didn't do much good.
This is because they usually just use it to steer money into the subaccount managers that are on a temporary hot streak (AKA "chasing hot funds," so you'll always be buying high and selling low). Or the fund family is kicking back money to the life insurance company. Or their relationship is new, and the life company wants to send the mutual fund family as much new business as possible during the honeymoon phase, so they won't get buyer's remorse, and back out of their selling agreement. Whatever the reason, it's usually not good for you.
How to perform this asset allocation process yourself is described in more detail in the free Money eBook.
Then the newfangled method of trying to do something about this mess is called target-date investing. Read why this is a very flawed investment strategy that should be avoided too.
Now there's no reason for any investor to be stuck in horrible variable annuities. This is a wonderful no-brainer win-win-win-win scenario for everyone except the old VA company.
All it takes is a couple phone calls, a few forms, and everyone's life changes for the better.
Here's the shortest bottom line on all forms of annuities (and all forms of whole life insurance):
If you work in the life insurance business, either as an agent or an employee of a life company, or hold life insurance company stock; then annuities and whole life insurance are the greatest inventions since the wheel.
This is because they pay by far the most in immediate commissions of any financial product available today, making them by far the most profitable part of the life insurance company business model.
But if you're an investor, then not so much.
Just "do the math" and you'll see in a New York minute.
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