The prevailing tack for selling annuities is the same type of shifty pitch on which every Ponzi scheme is premised, top money manager Ken Fisher contends, in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.
Indeed, for two years now the outspoken investor’s ubiquitous print and online ads have trumpeted: “I Hate Annuities…and So Should You!” Fisher particularly hates variable annuities, which “should not be legal as they currently exist,” he says.
What Fisher likes about annuities is his annuity conversion program, which buys folks out of their annuity surrender fees if they become long-term clients. The penalties incurred to liquidate are amortized against quarterly advisory fees.
The chairman, CEO and founder of Fisher Investments, managing $65 billion in client assets, has been Forbes’ “Portfolio Strategy” columnist for more than 30 years and is the author of 10 financial books, including four New York Times bestsellers. In the early 1970s, he developed the price-to-sales ratio.
More recently, Fisher has been incensed over what he calls too-good-to-be-true promises made by annuity salespeople. They mislead customers to believe they’re buying a smooth, high return on a “safe” investment, but what they in fact receive in income stream is a return of their capital, Fisher maintains. On top of that, folks fail to read their lengthy, complicated annuity contracts.
Fisher kicked off his buyout program in 2012, a year before he launched the “I Hate Annuities…” ad campaign. He now has 15 annuity conversion counselors and plans are to expand the team.
In 2016, 37 years after founding his firm, Fisher — who turns 65 on Nov. 29 — is scheduled to step away from day-to-day management. He will remain chairman and co-chief investment officer, which means no change in his investment responsibilities.
ThinkAdvisor chatted with Fisher by phone earlier this month. Also on the line was Fred Strame, program manager of the annuity evaluation team. The renowned Fisher, speaking from his Camas, Washington, headquarters, talked annuities — “magical words,” lying, steep VA commissions — as well as a “fiduciary standard lite”; and he graded the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Here are highlights from the interview:
ThinkAdvisor: Your ads are headlined “I Hate Annuities…And So Should You!” What’s your beef with annuities?
Ken Fisher: It’s very rare that the customer understands the long, convoluted annuity contract, where magical words are used that have nothing to do with what the contract actually does. And almost always, anything that can be done with an annuity can be done a better way.
What “magical words”?
Promises like “guaranteed income, guaranteed principal, guaranteed return on investment.” They’re used in the sales process, too. Salespeople rattle off whatever it is that they know is a lie or that they believe to be true but isn’t. If this were in my industry, it would be completely illegal. I’m obligated to operate under the fiduciary standard.
If the fiduciary standard, under Dodd-Frank, is imposed on Series 7 registered representatives, how might that change the annuity industry?
If it’s a hard fiduciary standard, it would kill the sales of annuities by commissioned salespeople. I know that a huge percentage of your readers won’t like anything I say, including all the people that are stockbrokers that call themselves advisors and all the people that say, “I only sell variable annuities when they’re appropriate” — and then get a huge amount of their total net income out of variable annuities. I’m not appealing to your reader base, and I understand that. Why are annuity commissions high?
As a general rule, the higher the commission — in any category — the harder it is to sell with full disclosure and honest information. Annuities are sold as safety of principal and high return on investment. But the notion that you’re getting a high return on your investment is a lie. You’re getting a return of your capital. If it’s too good to be true, you know it isn’t.
Why is it “a lie”?
This is the way every Ponzi scheme has ever been predicated — selling something too good to be true and having the customer go for the comfort of the too-good-to be-true. Ponzi schemes’ promised returns are at a level that you can get only with lots of variability and volatility. Annuity salespeople tell consumers that they’ll get a smooth, high return on their annuities. You show me a great investor who hasn’t had a lot of variability in their return, and I’ll show you somebody that hasn’t existed.
If you think that stocks and bonds won’t do well, you can’t put money into principal underlying securities, pay a fee and somehow do a lot better than the principal underlying securities.
But people feel secure and comfortable buying an annuity.
People feel good when they smoke cigarettes, too. The consumer wants all upside and not have to worry. They want that comfort – the notion that they’re getting a nice, smooth, safe [promised] “13 percent a year” forever. That’s taking advantage of a weakness on the part of the consumer.
What are your thoughts about variable annuities?
They should not be legal as they currently exist. But the power of the insurance industry in lobbying won’t allow that to change — anytime in my career stand, for sure. The commissions that go to the salespeople are at such nosebleed levels that this is a tremendous market.
What about immediate annuities and indexed annuities?
What I think about immediate annuities is what I think about indexed annuities. The entirety of the annuity world has a huge amount of complexities. A lot of annuities are sold where somebody thinks they’re getting “X” but what they’re really getting has nothing to do with any letter of the alphabet. The annuity world is like looking at a matrix with various flavors: You get indexed annuities that are variable. You get immediate annuities that are variable. You get immediate annuities that aren’t variable.
But you wrote in your Forbes column of December 15, 2014: “Some fixed types [of annuities] are OK.” To which were you alluding?
A simple annuity that doesn’t act very differently from what you think you’d get when you’re buying a bond — a low return on investment and a simple return of your capital that’s clearly disclosed — of which there are not many because that’s not where the money is.
I get the feeling that you don’t agree with Harold Evensky, chairman of Evensky & Katz/Foldes Financial — and known as “The Father of Financial Planning” — when he told me in a March 2015 interview: “The single most important investing vehicle of the next 10 years is going to be the immediate annuity.”
Right. I don’t agree. Let’s get back to the fiduciary standard issue. If it turns out to be a watered-down version, how will that affect the annuity market?
I fear that if the commissioned salesperson must [only] disclose that they’re getting a commission, it will be a form of “fiduciary standard lite” and buried in some other disclosure. The customer will never see it. Part of the [industry] would love to be able to say, “We operate under the fiduciary standard just like [RIAs] do”; but they want [their] fiduciary standard to be a different fiduciary standard.
What’s more likely: a hard standard or a “lite” standard?
Not hard because the lobbying money is all lined up on the side of the broker-dealer world. In Washington, most of the time money talks and a lack of money walks.
Nowadays many Series 7 advisors are also RIAs. Is that a plus for investors?
The customer doesn’t understand what any of that is: [FAs] have an RIA hat, and then they can take that hat off, put the other hat on, put the third hat on, put the 15th hat on. One of my bitch points is the lack of transparency that comes from the obfuscation and stealing of the English language by the broker-dealer world to their benefit and at the expense of the consumer. That’s why [brokers] get away with calling themselves “advisors.”
What do you mean by “get away with”?
Most people that call themselves “financial advisor” use [the term] illegally. Series 7 registered salespeople are not supposed to call themselves advisors, but they do it all the time and against the word of the law. The media, FINRA and the [Securities and Exchange Commission] should all be ashamed of themselves because they’ve allowed this for so long.
What precipitated “stealing” the language, as you call it?
At the center of it all was allowing what we today call FINRA to oversee broker-dealers. FINRA opened the door.
When FINRA succeeded the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), was more power conferred upon it?
Not particularly. But that was another step in the process of co-opting the English language because FINRA is not the financial industry regulatory authority, if you assume the totality of the financial industry. They are a small subset — the broker-dealer part. But consumers hear the words, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, and they presume this is the government and that it oversees everything about finance.
Is FINRA carrying out its mission as a self-regulatory organization?
Through takeovers during the last 40 years, the money is all with a few big broker-dealers. It’s a very tight little world that isn’t very far removed from an oligopoly in that 20 firms at the top have all the money; and they can pretty well signal to one another what they do and what they don’t do. That operates pretty well through FINRA.
So who’s watching out for the consumer?
It’s up to consumers to protect themselves — that same consumer who has an unfailing desire for comfort over reality. How does your annuity conversion program work?
Our people talk with investors about the annuities they have versus what they think they have. That commonly leads to our having a discussion with them and the annuity company’s [service] people. They learn that what they heard from the salesperson who sold them the annuity is almost never true.
Fred Strame: Lots of folks we’ve met with that own variable annuities gleefully explain that they have a 5 percent guaranteed return. Variable, by definition, is variable — there is no guaranteed return.
Do investors believe it when you give clarification about the various annuities?
Fisher: At the very moment that we say, “This product doesn’t do what you think it does, and we can prove it to you,” they don’t believe it.
What’s the reaction after that?
For the most part, they’re pretty appalled. So they blow up at the person who sold it to them, who tells them the exact same things they told them before. And that further infuriates them.
What action, if any, do they take?
Some want to get out, some just want to be ostriches and bury their heads in the sand and try to forget about it. You could whack them on the rear end as much as you want, but they’ll still keep their heads in the sand.
What’s your next step should the investor be amenable?
We go through a process and put together a proposal.
And you amortize their annuity surrender charges against your advisory fees?
Yes, we’re making a presumption about how [long] these accounts will remain in tenure. Relative to normal accounts, we assume it will be about the same and that they’ll be clients for a long time. But if they’re not, then [the surrender cost] gets clawed back against them when they depart.
Strame: We may rebate some of our fees when they join us to offset the surrender penalty that they incurred. That’s dependent upon other variables such as how much money they’re hiring us [to manage].
How well do the “I Hate Annuities…” ads pull?
Fisher: Well enough to keep us running them. About one in five of people who respond become clients. That’s a small percentage because most people don’t want to go there. They’ll say, “Maybe most annuities are bad, but my advisor who put me in mine wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t in my best interest.”
But that usually isn’t the case, you maintain.
Right. There are salespeople who know they’re rippin’ and dippin’ the customer. They don’t care because they’re thinking, “I’m getting my commission, and I’m gone.” I’ve met some who said, “I used to sell variable annuities, and I knew exactly what I was doing when I was lying to people.” What about the rest of the sales folks?
I’ve met lots of variable annuity salespeople who believe that what they’re saying is 100 percent the truth, and they don’t know that what they’re saying isn’t correct. They believe in their heart that they’re doing the best thing for their customers, but they don’t understand what the contract is.
What’s the future of annuities over the next 10 years?
I hope the world of variables will be [made] illegal. They should be, but they won’t be.
What can FINRA do about it?
I believe that FINRA itself warns about the risks of annuities. But FINRA does a good job of serving the broker-dealer world. We went through the financial crisis, and you don’t see FINRA leading the charge for financial services integrity. You don’t see FINRA slapping on penalties. FINRA has not done a great job leading the charge because – and I may be wrong – FINRA is overwhelmingly run by the big broker-dealer firms.