The last laugh

Once frowned on, variable annuities proved to be good investments over the last decade as stocks faltered

Feb 21, 2010 @ 12:01 am

By Darla Mercado

For most investors, not having access to their money is a drawback. But to Nancy Tipton, that's precisely what made a variable annuity so attractive. In 2003, when she invested $94,000 in an annuity with a living benefit, she was guaranteed a 7% annual rate as long as no withdrawals were made over a 10-year period. When she reaches that point — she has three years to go — her account will have doubled to $188,000, and she can start taking a 5% payout, based on either the protected value or the account value, whichever is higher. “For me, it was a very good savings program,” said Ms. Tipton, a retiree in her 60s. “I couldn't spend it, and I had to ignore that it existed.” Critics have long considered variable annuities pricey investments with expensive riders and high commissions. Low-cost mutual funds have been touted as a better alternative. But after the stock market damage of the last decade — the average U.S. equity mutual fund rose 1.7% in the last 10 years — those who bought variable annuities several years ago are looking like investment pros, especially if they bought their annuities at a time when the insurance industry was offering sweeter deals than it is now. At the beginning of the last decade, variable annuity sales took a plunge along with the stock market, falling from $137 billion in 2000 to $111 billion in 2001, according to data from industry group LIMRA. Being equity-based products, variable annuities often mirror the stock market, and jittery investors usually shy away from risk during rocky markets.
To protect investors from market downturns — and to spur sales — insurance companies introduced the first variable annuities with living benefits, including the 2002 release of the first annuity with a guaranteed return of principal, said Joseph Montminy, assistant vice president and annuity research director at LIMRA. The improved product had its intended effect, as sales rebounded modestly to $117 billion that year. Further enhancements followed, including the introduction of guaranteed lifetime withdrawals, which drove sales to record heights. Sales peaked in 2007 at $179 billion. The good news later turned bad for carriers when the market crash and recession in 2008 made it more costly for insurers to hedge the risk of their variable annuities. This led to increased product fees and a scaling-back of benefits through 2009, as well as the release of revamped and de-risked variable annuities last year and this year. The latest crop of variable annuities reduce risk for insurance companies by offering clients a more limited universe of investment choices, muzzling equity exposure and making less generous promises in living benefits. Whether they'll gain traction with advisers and clients is still up in the air. As a result, clients such as Ms. Tipton are among a lucky group of clients who purchased the once-reviled variable annuity in the market slump of the early 2000s and are now enjoying rich benefits that many new customers may not ever see. “The clients who bought back then have in-the-money benefits, so they're valuable,” said Bruce Ferris, head of sales and distribution for Prudential Financial Inc.'s annuities business. “If they bought a lifetime income stream and they're looking to draw down on it, that's a valuable source of income where other assets may have been depleted.”

Ms. Tipton and her adviser, Jim Saulnier, who manages $17 million, initially saw the annuity as a savings vehicle. She jokes about having a “small spending problem.”

“In my mind, the annuity isn't there,” Ms. Tipton said. “I've learned a lot by having it there but being unable to touch it, so I've curtailed my spending and budgeted better.” Her deposit into the annuity made up about 25% of her assets. In addition, she owns a variety of bond mutual funds and a small pension from her late husband's employer.

Because of Ms. Tipton's hesitation about putting all her funds in equities, Mr. Saulnier has kept the variable annuity allocated equally between stocks and bonds. Ms. Tipton was more concerned about having a way to take income later, rather than finding a way to ramp up equity exposure. The account value now stands at about $128,000.

Though Ms. Tipton said the most important feature of the annuity is the guaranteed income stream, Mr. Saulnier said it is the insurance portion of the product, which protects the account and future income from the risk of an investment loss early in the withdrawal phase.

With the guaranteed payout, the income will always keep coming — even if the account value falls to zero, he explained.

That attribute is really a safeguard against market crashes and longevity, the two threats plaguing clients in their 50s and 60s.

“You benefit from the deferral and building up the income base in the event of a market crash,” said Michael Black, an adviser at Michael Phillips Black Wealth Management, which oversees $100 million in assets. A number of his clients have benefited from locking in a high value when the markets were better, thus having access to a bigger income base.

“A big market drop or a long lifetime will dictate whether the insurance company pays; the company only pays when you run out of money,” he added. “This gives peace of mind to the investor and allows them to invest more aggressively.”

The chance to jump into equities while fencing in risk got James Huber, an 80-year-old investor, interested in a variable annuity. In 2005, Christopher J. Olsen, a financial adviser with Ameriprise Financial Inc. who manages $40 million in assets, exchanged Mr. Huber's old variable annuity for a RiverSource product with a death benefit. The $300,000 variable annuity was just one of several investments Mr. Huber owned; his other assets included mutual funds and a pension.

“I don't really need the annuity, so I set it up for my kids so that it can build up and I can leave them something,” Mr. Huber said. In this case, the client's children would receive the account's high water mark as a death benefit, Mr. Olsen said.

The exchange made sense because surrendering the variable annuity would trigger taxes, he said. Further, while the death benefit was not a primary driver of the exchange, it became more important as Mr. Huber aged and became harder to insure, the adviser said.

During the fall of 2008, Mr. Olsen ramped up the equities exposure in the variable annuity, placing the assets into a combination of emerging markets, mid-cap and small-cap funds. As of last October, the account has grown from $280,000 to $450,000.

Mr. Olsen and Mr. Huber have since pulled back slightly on their exposure to emerging markets, placing some of the gains into bond funds for added security. The variable annuity allowed Mr. Huber to get a little adventurous with his investments without having to worry about market declines' eating away what's being left to his heirs.

“For some older people, it's more of an estate-planning strategy as opposed to an investment. It's not about them, but rather a legacy for the kids,” Mr. Olsen said.

E-mail Darla Mercado at


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