In a crowd of average Joes and Janes, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows a lot about annuities, but you'll likely find plenty with a generally negative feeling about them.
That connotation may be well-deserved, yet in today's volatile investment climate annuities might represent a safe haven.
Tom Warschauer, professor of finance at San Diego State University, says, "The insurance industry has not done a very good job recommending products that specifically fit their clients' needs. They look at what they want to sell and find a place for them in everyone's portfolio."
One big issue has been the lack of transparency about charges embedded in annuity products,and since it's difficult to decipher those costs, "There's a lot of room for abuse," says Warschauer, who's also a professor of finance and director of the Center for the Study of Personal Financial Planning at the university.
Beth Almeida, executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security agrees. "The costs associated with the purchase of individual annuities eat away at the overall retirement nest egg. So a retiree may get a regular check, but their overall retirement income is diminished."
But in today's uncertain and volatile market, "Retirees and near-retirees are likely seeking safe haven," says Almeida. And Warschauer agrees, annuities "have some very valuable uses in retirement planning" in this economic climate.
During your working years return on investment is generally the primary focus. But in retirement, "The new ROI is 'reliability of income,'" says Robert E. Sollmann Jr., senior vice president of MetLife's Retirement Strategies Group.
"The painful lesson we are learning from today's market is that the conventional wisdom -- 'diversify' -- isn't cutting it. International, commodities, U.S. stocks are all down. The guarantees provided by annuities that can deliver regardless of market performance" are needed to balance a retirement plan, Sollomann says.
Think annuities may be worth a look? With so many annuity types, it's easy to get overwhelmed by possibilities. Here are some directions that experts say pre-retirees and retirees should consider.
Let's start with some basics definitions: Annuities are life insurance contracts sold by insurance companies, brokers and other financial institutions that provide a regular periodic payment to a policyholder for a specified period of time. They are paid for before retirement in exchange for lifetime payments after retirement and are intended to provide a regular level of retirement income to meet day-to-day living expenses.
They come in two general categories:
Fixed annuity. The insurance company guarantees the principal pays a minimum rate of interest. As long as the company is financially sound, money in a fixed annuity will grow -- and not drop -- in value. The growth in value or benefits paid may be fixed at a dollar amount, at an interest rate, or by a specified formula. The interest rate usually starts out as a fixed percentage and is adjusted annually.
Variable annuity. Your money is invested in a fund similar to a mutual fund -- but one open only to that insurance company's investors. The amount paid out depends on the performance of that fund.