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Indexed Annuity Hazards

Pitfalls of Purchasing an Indexed Annuity

Shopping for an index annuity may seem daunting for new investors because each contract has so many variables. On top of that, of all the annuity types, indexed annuities vary the greatest from insurer to insurer. But don't be deterred. A good index annuity can provide stock market-like growth with none of the risk.

Annuity Overview

Here are some common index annuity investment hazards:

As long as you keep these points in mind, you'll find a solid contract to preserve and grow your wealth:

  • Don't Invest Short-Term Although index annuities insure against loss of principal, early withdrawals may forfeit a large portion of the earnings.
  • Don't Invest Too Young Index annuity income withdrawals incur a 10% tax penalty when made prior to the age of 59.5.
  • Participation Rate A low participation rate means the insurance company takes a larger cut of the profits. Don't settle for less than 30%.
  • Rate Cap Some index annuities cap your maximum annual yield. "No-Cap" or high cap annuities are always preferred.
  • Annual Reset Provision Make sure your index annuity zeros out every year; this way your account balance can’t drop below its previous high.
  • Variable Administrative Fees Some index annuities charge an annual 1%-2% management fee. Look for the lowest fees and make sure they're fixed.
  • Partially-Guaranteed Terms The most important contract provisions — like the participation rate — ought to be fixed throughout the full contract term.
  • Know How Your Annuity Calculates Growth Some annuities calculate growth using a year-to-date method, others use annual averaging. Both have their pros and cons.

Investing Short-Term:

Index annuities are savings instruments especially well-suited as retirement accounts. The biggest index annuity investment mistake is not is not understanding their design. Investing money you need to make ends meet will increase the likelihood of early withdrawals, along with associated penalties.

Index annuities feature vesting schedules similar to that of 401(k) employer matching. You're allowed to withdrawal a certain amount penalty-free, but earnings on the withdrawn amount are reduced. This structure discourages investors from bailing on the insurance company during bear markets. In short, don’t invest in an index annuity if you’re uncomfortable with its vesting schedule.

Investing Too Early:

You should not be investing in any type of annuity prior to the age of 40. This goes back the core theme of annuities being retirement savings vehicles. Just like a 401(k) or IRA, an index annuity comes with disincentives for pre-retirement withdrawals.

In the case of annuities, the IRS assesses a 10% tax penalty on income withdrawals prior to the age of 59.5. The only way to avoid the 10% deduction is by waiting until retirement to start making withdrawals. If you have no intention of waiting, consider alternative investments like CDs or mutual funds.

Low Participation Rate:

The single most important factor of an index annuity contract is the participation rate — the portion of raw index growth that gets credited to your account. The higher this rate, the higher the effective annual yield. Participation rates vary from contract to contract, typically ranging from 20%-100%.

A rate of 20% is rather low and only advisable if the contract compensates with zero cap, a lenient vesting schedule, high minimum rate, or zero administrative costs.

Although a 20% participation can be favorable given other factors, don’t over-prioritize no-cap or high minimum rates. Because index annuities provide the greatest yield during years of moderate positive market growth, strive to capitalize on the average; leave the peaks and valleys for the insurance company.

Low Cap Rate:

Many index annuities cut off earning after a certain percentage. This contract provision is known as the "cap rate". Caps determine the maximum amount of growth your account can experience in a given year. Insurance companies used caps to counterbalance poor years with the tops of extremely good ones.

A common pitfall when shopping for index annuities is either getting stuck with a very low cap, or sacrificing more important factors (like participation rate) for an excessively high cap.

No Annual Reset:

Although point-to-point or high water mark crediting methods have their pros, it’s generally advisable to stick with an annually resetting index annuity. This provision – the annual reset – means that any growth experienced during the current year gets locked in, setting the baseline for next year’s calculation. With annual reset, if the S&P 500 goes red after a previously positive year, the previous year’s earnings never erode. Instead, the insurer is obligated to pay the minimum guaranteed rate. “Automatically secured earnings” is a feature of no other investment vehicle, so don’t pass it up.

Partially-Guaranteed Rates:

Read your contract carefully. Look for written guarantees on important provisions like the participation rate, minimum rate, and cap rate. Be wary of enticing introductory rates. Don’t assume that a 90% participation lasts for the full contract term unless it’s explicitly spelled out. In fact, a rate that high typically won’t.

When looking at two similar index annuities, compare apples to apples. For instance, a contract with a full-term guaranteed 70% participation is actually preferable to a 90% rate that’s only guaranteed for the first year. A partially-guaranteed rate isn’t a deal-breaker as long as the rate has a reasonable floor after the guarantee expires. Avoid contracts without floors.

Growth Calculations:

Understand exactly how your annuity calculates annual yield before signing the contract. As a rule of thumb, the insurance company credits an index annuity account per annum. This is different from a mutual fund or variable annuity, which can grow on a daily basis. With index annuities, as the anniversary date approaches, the insurance company will use one of two common ways to calculate the annual yield: 1) year-to-date, or 2) yearly average.

A year-to-date calculation simply takes the value of the S&P 500 (or whatever the index may be) at the previous anniversary date and subtracts it from the current. The percent difference equals the gross annual yield. Notice how the S&P’s ups and downs between these dates are irrelevant.

A yearly average calculation averages out the performance of the S&P 500 the anniversary dates. The gross annual yield equals monthly performance / 12. Notice that averaging reflects the month-to-month fluctuations of the index.

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