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Insurance companies offering annuities are somewhat like Las Vegas casinos.
They never lose. It's a highly profitable part of the insurance business, and hardly any customers have a sufficient understanding of the rules of the game to play knowledgeably.
Annuities come in two varieties – Fixed and variable. A fixed annuity is somewhat like a CD in that the insurance company issuing the annuity agrees to pay a fixed rate to the investor. At the same time, the investment, along with associated profit or loss, is also the company's responsibility and right. The performance of the investment is not directly coupled to the returns the investor gets. The insurance company acts as a barrier between the index and the investor, minimizing the impact by siphoning off considerable profit and loss spikes while passing stable returns to the investor.
Variable annuities are merely pooled investment accounts thinly disguised as insurance products. The returns from variable annuities are directly related to asset performance, and if the invested stocks tank, the investor stands to lose. The difference is that the IRS confers tax-deferred status on all contributions and gains in variable annuities.
Because of the high-profit margins insurance companies expect from annuities, they offer their salesmen relatively higher commissions. This leads to some aggressive sales pitches resulting in customers being signed up without knowing what they are getting into. Secondly, administrative costs and annual fees eat up a considerable chunk of the net returns an annuity holder expects. Therefore, what you see is not always what you get. If an insurance company offers a fixed annuity with minimum guaranteed returns, it is almost certain that the costs will be deducted from the returns. It is advised to consult with your financial advisor regarding all the hidden costs and clauses of annuities before signing a contract.
The company has wide latitude in deciding the credited rate, and very few companies pay an across-the-board rate to all annuity holders. The actual amount the annuity is credited with each year is calculated based on complex factors, including the pool of bonds assigned to the annuity and the purchase date.
If the result is not what you expected, and the annuity is not generating the kind of returns you had in mind, getting out is even more difficult. The IRS charges a 10% penalty for early withdrawals. The issuing company may have its own rules and impose a fine of up to 8% to allow the transfer. Added to this is that annuity returns are tied to the performing index. Suppose you have a variable annuity and want to withdraw because of non-performance. In that case, it's safe to say that your situation is worse off than a stock trader stuck with junk bonds because not only do you have to bear the performance losses, but also the administrative charges and the IRS penalty. The situation is slightly better with fixed annuities since you only face the prospect of penalties and administrative expenses.
That said, annuities are still excellent investments for a specific set of investors. These include seniors looking for more returns than traditional investments offer but do not want the associated risk. Secondly, since annuities protect creditors, this may be a suitable savings tool for high-risk professionals such as physicians who face malpractice suits. Also to be considered is the fact that traders on the stock market might use annuities to reduce the tax burden.
The insurance company invests your funds in a bond portfolio, keeps a large portion of the returns, and distributes the remaining to the contract holder. To see significant returns, investors need to wait for the duration. Short-term gains are more likely to be accrued by directly investing in the market rather than going through an annuity. Annuities offer the hope of satisfactory returns only in the long term.
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