Much as New Year’s Day prompts Americans to commit to achieving healthier lifestyles, the federal tax deadline is a perennial call to action to get their financial lives in order. As a consequence, many producers see an increase in client interest to get serious about retirement planning and to bring order to what can be a hodge-podge of investments.
One common strategy for giving clients more control over their investments is a rollover of existing 401(k) and other assets into an IRA. This is a positive step, in that it generally allows these clients to enjoy greater investment options and lower expenses. Producers are increasingly becoming aware of a complementary strategy that can help these clients solidify their plans for retirement income as well—the fixed index annuity.
This might seem hard to believe, given the historically low interest rates we saw in 2011. Despite a slight rise in the three-month LIBOR rate toward the end of the year, the rate spent most of the year in the sub 0.4 percent range. Such rates have made many interest rate-sensitive options, from money market accounts to certificates of deposit (CDs), much less attractive. Yet, as 2011 came to a close, LIMRA proclaimed that fixed index annuities were on track to enjoy a record-setting year, with 2011 third-quarter sales matching the record level of $8.7 billion set in the third quarter of 2010.
The fact is that, regardless of the economic climate, fixed index annuities provide a very likeable combination—upside potential and flexibility in allocating between fixed and indexed strategies—for clients seeking to build retirement income. Unlike traditional fixed annuities, a fixed index annuity provides owners with interest-crediting potential that’s connected to the performance of one or more benchmarks or market indices. The owner has the option of putting all or part of the annuity’s value in the index, with the fixed-interest component applying to anything remaining. The owner gets a credit if the index rises, yet enjoys principal protection if the index goes down. The owner can always reallocate between the fixed and index components of the product on the contract anniversary date.
Where will rates go?
Despite these core attractions, fixed index annuities can still represent a sales challenge for producers, due to the prospect of future rising interest rates. When interest rates have been this low for this long, producers and clients alike worry that rates will rise in the near future, which can make any range of interest rate-linked instruments seem less attractive.
Insurers understand this challenge and recently have launched new refinements to the fixed index annuity product to mitigate the effects that rising interest rates could have on performance. Several carriers have introduced interest rate-based crediting strategies that use a point on a published “swap curve” as the benchmark rate. ING recently launched a new interest-crediting strategy that bases credit on an increase, if any, in the three-month LIBOR. The strategy, available on some of the company’s fixed index annuities, credits interest to the consumer if the three-month LIBOR rises from one annuity anniversary to the next. Here’s how it works:
- If interest rates rise while a client’s funds are allocated to the interest rate benchmark strategy, he or she gets a credit, no matter how the equity markets might perform in a contract year.
- Should the benchmark rate drop during a contract year, the owner gets no credit, but his or her principal is protected.
- The annuity owner can mix things up, using the interest rate benchmark strategy in some years and not in others.
- Working with the producer, the owner can take advantage of the flexibility of the product to create a diversification strategy, varying the amounts in the product’s guaranteed rate, equity index and interest rate benchmark options.
Since the interest rate floor resets on every contract anniversary date, just as annuity index floors do, the client has the potential for new credits based on interest rate increases, regardless of the previous year’s ups or downs.