The reason people buy annuities has much to do with fear, right?

No matter how much I preach the gospel of investing and offer up illustrations of how a certain portfolio works — and how other portfolios would work about as well — investment professionals will sell variable annuities and insurance professionals will sell fixed indexed annuities.   

If you are a fan of indexed investing (a method favored by Jack Bogle and the fund company he founded, Vanguard), you would have earned — had you invested in the S&P 500 from Jan. 1, 2000, through Dec. 31, 2012 — a negative rate of return of just under 2 percent. (That’s a cumulative 2 percent, not a yearly average, developed by me from Yahoo Finance’s S&P calculator.)

The point it this: taking $40,000 yearly from $1 million in SPY — the SPDR ETF that replicates the S&P — would have been a disaster during that time period. Even though one cannot tell exactly how much would be left — because of the sequence of returns — it is likely to be less than $520,000.

See also: Buy & hold vs. financial behavior: ‘Frontline’ asks the wrong questions

With an annuity, if one is dealing with a trusted, highly rated insurance company, the chances are good that the $40,000 may continue forever, no matter what. (Don’t get too excited about this concept; there is still risk. Highly rated insurers writing annuities have gone down the tubes before — you can probably even think of a few names. Please keep in mind that nothing is 100 percent certain.)  

My estimate is that, with a thoughtful mutual fund or stock (or mutual funds and stock combined) portfolio, one has a pretty good shot — maybe as much as 90 percent — that a $1 million fund at the start will provide around $800,000 of income over its first 12 or so years, and that it will perform adequately and provide inflation-matching yearly income for 30 years or more. This is assuming that one does not sell when others are fearful; in other words, assuming that one does not exhibit herd investing behavior.  

There are no guarantees, and the assumption is that the designer has some skill at portfolio building. If you think there have not been 20-year periods when the market (the S&P and/or the Dow) has returned modest average 3 percent or 4 percent yearly returns, think again; after inflation, the results are worse. A good place to examine bad periods, at least through 2007, is at this web site.

With an insured annuity — indexed or variable — the chances are probably in the 97 percent to 98 percent range that a $1 million deposit will provide $40,000 yearly for one or two lifetimes, assuming a starting age of around 65. In other words, 12 years will bring about $480,000 of income. Once one begins income with such an annuity, the chances of a step-up are pretty slim, pretty much vanishing after a year or two of income. In all cases, such an annuity for income should be compared with a fixed lifetime joint-and-survivor annuity. If the former is not likely to step-up, the latter may offer better lifetime income.  

Keep in mind, with any annuity, that the issuer, on average, does not get much into its own money. Most benefits are from investor cash. The issuer may not even need to worry about adding any of its own cash to the mix for 16 to 20 years, or even longer. In some ways, I could argue, the mutual fund/stock portfolio (assuming good design and good financial behavior) is safer for the long run, has a good chance of providing quite a bit more money, and has emergency funds available that may not be available with an annuity. 

A complete comparison of the odds and two or three ways to skin the long-term income cat would seem to be the ticket for each and every customer. 

The weather is cooling a bit, and we are moving into fall. School is back in session and with all that school brings. I hope you have a terrific week and never stop learning, okay?


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