With so much emphasis today on the guaranteed lifetime benefits offered by variable annuities (and the fiscal angst some carriers are currently feeling in funding those contractual obligations), it’s easy to forget that the original intent of the product was to provide a tax-deferral saving vehicle, reminds Jefferson National CEO Mitchell H. Caplan, below right.
“One of the real reasons for the introduction of annuities decades ago was about saving in a tax-deferred manner,” Caplan says. “It wasn’t necessarily in any meaningful way about how the industry has evolved, in my opinion, around death benefits and life benefits and guaranteed income. It was really about a way to try to encourage people to cost effectively save and plan for retirement.”
It should be pointed out that Jefferson National’s variable annuities (VAs) don’t offer lifetime income riders. Instead, their selling point is as a tax-deferred investment option for traditionally highly taxed assets beyond an IRA or 401(k), Caplan emphasizes. In 2012, Jefferson National sold $410 million worth of variable annuities, entirely through the fee-based advisor channel.
In light of recent VA benefit reductions, buy-back offers and even some carriers exiting the variable annuity line altogether, Caplan says it might be time for the VA industry to revert to its original purpose.
In his view, those living benefits have been “mispriced” and consequently are becoming a drag on carriers’ balance sheets as interest rates remain stubbornly low.
“We’ve been in an incredibly low interest rate environment for a very long time and it’s very hard for these companies to manage through the balance sheet risk. That is why you are seeing companies either exit or try to buy them out,” Caplan says.
Or carriers could do what Jefferson National has done and structure their VAs without any living benefit riders. Another company that has done just that is Sammons Retirement Solutions.
Back to basics
Stripped of living benefit options, such variable annuities may be leading the industry back to its original purpose of tax deferral, at least for a period of time, Caplan says. “What we have chosen to do is basically take it back to basics.”