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What About Annuities?

Alicia Munnell, the director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, is a weekly contributor to “Encore.

The biggest problem with 401(k) plans is that people do not have enough money in them. Typical estimates of the median balances for people approaching retirement are under $100,000. The second biggest problem is that people have no idea how to draw down their $100,000.

Unlike traditional defined benefit plans that provide participants with steady benefits for as long as they live, 401(k) plans generally pay out benefits as lump sums. Lump-sum payments mean that retirees have to decide how much to withdraw each year. They face the risk of either spending too quickly and outliving their resources or spending too conservatively and consuming too little.

These risks could be eliminated through the purchase of annuities. Annuities are contracts offered by insurance companies that pay a stream of monthly payments in exchange for a premium. The annuity not only protects people from outliving their resources but also allows them to enjoy a higher level of consumption than they could provide on their own. The insurance company can provide this high guaranteed income because it pools the experience of a large group of people and pays benefits to those who live longer than expected out of the premiums paid by those who die early. That is, pooling creates a “mortality premium.”

The simplest annuity is the single-life, single-premium immediate annuity, which involves a one-time payment from the individual, and payments to the individual begin immediately. Other options are available. Annuities can cover both the husband and wife (joint and survivor), they can provide payments based on some underlying portfolio (inflation indexed or linked to stocks), or they can guarantee payments for a certain period, such as ten or twenty years. Or they can begin at a later date (deferred).

Economic theory suggests that people would be interested in buying annuities. Rational life-cycle consumers with no interest in leaving a bequest would always choose to annuitize 100 percent of their wealth. After all, they face a choice between a traditional investment with a market return or an annuity with a market return plus a “mortality premium.” The only cost to consumers is that the annuity payments stop at death. But if they place no value on wealth after death – that is, they have no bequest motive – the cost of the annuity is zero.

In fact, the market for annuities that are designed to protect against outliving one’s saving is tiny. Some of the reasons are irrational – people value piles of wealth more than flows of income and they simply don’t understand the advantages of the product. Other reasons are rational – people do care about leaving bequests; they already have a lot of annuitized wealth in the form of Social Security benefits, pension benefits, and the imputed rent from their house; they want cash to cover any large out-of-pocket health care expense; and the product is expensive for the average person because it is priced for the long lived and, being complicated, requires substantial marketing costs. Add to that list people’s concerns about the viability of insurance companies in the wake of the financial crisis, and the outlook for annuities is bleak.

Now some folks are starting to talk about a unique form of annuity – the Advanced Life Deferred Annuity (ALDA) – that might address many of people’s concerns about the traditional product. Next time!


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    • I have realized that of all varieties of insurance, health insurance coverage is the most controversial because of the struggle between the insurance policies company’s obligation to remain adrift and the customer’s need to have insurance. Insurance companies’ profits on well being plans are certainly low, thus some providers struggle to generate income. Thanks for the ideas you write about through this web site.

    • Fidelity is recommending that I get their Personal Retirement Annuity. The cost is .25% and it looks like there are a wide selection of Fidelity and other funds to choose from.

      My objective in doing it is to get more of my assets growing tax free. I am already maxing out my 401K and IRA. That said, I’ve read so many negative comments about Annuities that I don’t know what to do.

      Can anyone help me sort this out?

    • Annuity salesman are always out in full force when interest rates are low. You never see them when rates are high. Just sayin.

    • This is a very good article.

      Very few people give thought to how they will generate lifetime income from their lifetime savings.

      The comments about deferred annuities confuse the reader. Deferred indexed annuities do not have the same fees deferred variable annuities which appear to be the focus of the various comments.

      One’s net spendable money in retirement is not eaten up by a single cent with a rider on a Deferred income indexed annuity. That’s a far cry from the 3% to 4.5% often seen on deferred variable annuities.

    • Annuities make a lot of sense for people who would like to plan for their retirement however, most people just cannot reconcile the benefits with the loss of control of their money. Do a little research and find out how many retires with defined benefit pension plans who are offered a lump sum option forego that option and take the annuity instead? Or do a poll for those about to take social security benefits and ask them if given a choice to take your 25k per year social security benefit or a 350k lump sum how many would take the lump sum? There lies the problem.

About Encore

  • Encore examines the changing nature of retirement, from new rules and guidelines for financial security to the shifting identities and priorities of today’s retirees. The blog also explores news that affects retirement, from the Wall Street Journal Digital Network and around the web. Lead bloggers are reporter Catey Hill and senior editor Jeremy Olshan. Other contributors include The Wall Street Journal’s retirement columnists Glenn Ruffenach and Anne Tergesen; the Director for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Alicia Munnell; and the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, Michael Kitces, CFP.