Fixed Annuities: Maximize State Guaranty Coverage Limits

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A recent article by Scott Burns talked about investing in deferred fixed annuities with CD-like qualities, an example offered a 3% yield guaranteed for 5 years plus no surrender charges (similar to early withdrawal penalty) after 5 years. This is a better rate than current bank CDs offer, and annuities can grow tax-deferred for those saving for retirement (withdraw as early as age 59.5)*. After the 5 years, you roll the annuity over to another company if the new rate is no longer good enough. The catch? The annuities that have the best rates often don’t have the highest credit ratings.

A possible solution? Make sure you stay under the coverage limits of your state’s Life & Health Guaranty Association. From NOHLGA.com:

State life and health insurance guaranty associations are state entities (in all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) created to protect policyholders of an insolvent insurance company. All insurance companies (with limited exceptions) licensed to sell life or health insurance in a state must be members of that state’s guaranty association.

These are not federally-backed like FDIC insurance. Instead, all the member insurance companies agree to cover each other in cases of insolvency up to the policy limits. In order to be a licensed insurer, you need to maintain a certain level of financial stability. But just like banks, some insurers are stronger than others. So if you’re going to go over the limits, the standard advice is to go with a top credit rating from AM Best, Moody’s, or S&P. However, credit ratings can go down over time, and you may be holding these annuities for many years. Therefore, it’s still safest to stay under the limits.

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Creating Lifetime Income via AARP Immediate Annuity

While perusing through old magazines in the dentists office, I came across an ad for annuity with the usual headline “Get a monthly income check GUARANTEED for life”. I took a picture of the ad, the payout rates are below:

The specific product is a fixed immediate annuity where you pay them a lump sum and received regular monthly payments until you die. It is called the AARP Lifetime Income Program (guaranteed by New York Life and only endorsed by the AARP). There are two options to protect you in case of an early death – either a “cash refund” or “20-year guarantee” feature:

  • “Cash Refund”: if you die before your total payments equal your annuity purchase price, your beneficiary will be paid the difference.
  • “20 Year Guarantee”: if you die before 20 years has passed, your beneficiary will receive the remaining monthly payments during the 20-year guarantee period.

DIY Early Retirement Pension?

Since my wife and I don’t have any pensions to look forward to, one way to create our own pension is to buy a fixed immediate annuity. I used their quote calculator to see what I could get right now if I was 50 years old and with the 20-year minimum payout.

So with a lump sum of $100,000, I could get $445 a month for life. That works out to a 5.34% payout rate.

The “guarantee” for annuities are only good as long as the issuing insurance company stays in business, but many states have a guaranty association that provides an additional backstop. For example, in Florida the total annuity cash surrender protection per owner per member company is $100,000, and the maximum aggregate benefit for all insurance lines is $300,000. I am not a lawyer, but from what I read that means I can buy three $100,000 annuity policies from three different insurance companies, and have it all backed by the state if any or all of those insurers goes bust.

That means if we were both 50 years old right now (which we aren’t), both my wife and I could put $300,000 across different insurers and both get about $1,300 a month in lifetime that is about as safe as one can make it. Together, that’s a cap of $2,600 a month. I don’t want to annuitize our entire portfolio, but I imagine that it would relieve a lot of my stress if our basic needs could be met with a monthly annuity payment that doesn’t depend on the performance of the stock market.

Now, these numbers above do not adjust for inflation, and so will buy less and less goods each year. This is important, especially if I am going to be buying so early at age 50. Inflation-adjusted annuities are available but the payouts are significantly lower and I feel the competition is not as good. One alternative is to start small and ladder additional annuities as you age.

There are many of these types of annuities available out there. I’m not recommending this one in particular, I was just using it as a handy example for some rough number calculations. A good comparison site is ImmediateAnnuities.com.

Variable Annuity Fee Breakdown

Variable annuities (VAs) are deferred annuities that allow you to hold stocks and bonds inside their annuity wrapper. Since the investments are allowed to grow in a tax-deferred manner, it’s often marketed as “like a Roth IRA”. In reality, they usually only make sense for individuals only after they max out all available IRA and 401(k) options. Since we do this, I’ve been doing some more research into the area.

But even then, variable annuities might not make sense due to all the fees that are often included. A 2006 “Fee Factor” article [PDF] from Financial Planning magazine does a pretty good job outlining the many layers of fees that you might encounter. Here’s a summary graphic:

Fees can add up easily to well over 2% of assets annually, and after often hidden since consumers usually only see the net return. You’ll be purchasing some life insurance benefits along with it, but buying it separately via plain-vanilla term life insurance is often a better deal. Finally, there can also be hefty surrender charges if you take out money within the first several years. (The person who sells you the VA gets a commission, and the insurance company needs to earn that back through those annual charges over time.)

As with other financial products, it’s important to understand the different features, fee structures, and do comparison shopping.

New Marketing Trick: Short-term FDIC-Insured Bank CDs With Really High Rates

If you still read newspapers like me, you may have come across an advertisement like this one recently touting an abnormally high 3-month or 6-month CD rate in last Sunday’s issue:

According to Bankrate, the current national average for a 6-month certificate of deposit is 0.37% APY, with their top yield being 1.25% APY. Highly-advertised Ally Bank offers less. So how can a tiny local non-bank that you’ve never heard of beat the rates of even online banks by over 2 whole percentage points?

It turns out that this is the newest version of the “free show tickets for timeshare presentations” marketing ploy. In this case, you must go into the office of an life insurance agent and listen to their sales pitch before getting the bank CD. Allan Roth over at CBS Marketwatch visited one of these offices and wrote about it. These non-bank salespeople are supplementing bank CDs from other FDIC-insured banks with their own money to reach the advertised rate. Questionable? Yes. Scam? Well, maybe not.

How It Works…

  1. You respond to the newspaper ad, and the terms always require you to physically come over to their office.
  2. After dealing with varying levels of life insurance and/or annuities salesmanship, you maintain your desire to open the account.
  3. You write the check for the CD directly to an FDIC-insured bank, with which the sales office is not officially affiliated with. This CD has a realistic rate, say 1% APY or similar.
  4. After a week or two, enough to make sure your funds cleared, the insurance people will cut you a check which together with the bank’s interest, add up to the advertised APY (assuming they are still in business).

How Much Extra Interest?

But really how much money are they losing on this? If you buy a six-month CD with an annual percentage yield (APY) of 3.35% and commit $25,000, you’ll earn approximately $418. With a APY of 1.25%, that is $156. The difference is $262. That’s basically the “bonus” that they are paying to get you into the door.

The article by Roth was initially published more than 8 months ago, so that would suggest that this marketing ploy is working and the word is spreading amongst insurance salespeople. Now, I’m sure some people will call about the CD and either not have the $25k or otherwise decided not to go for it, so that improves their bottom line. I am pretty certain that their ad targets those with large cash balances looking for income-type investments, so that they can pitch annuities with seemingly safe and high yields.

Warnings

If you still want to invest in one of these bank CDs + incentives, you should be prepared to be presented with annuities that will actually seem to yield even more that their advertised 3-month CDs. They will be carefully packaged to look like a good deal. They will be described as “insured” and “safe” because they will be backed by an insurance company. The actual yields will be computed by a formula too complex for most math PhDs to fully understand.

Next, you should check if the extra interest is really worth it due to the fact that you’ll have to deal with paper checks. If you are writing a check from a bank account that isn’t earning interest, that is some lost days of interest right there. Since you’ll be receiving the CD funds as a check as well, that’s another few business days of potential lost interest. Use my handy Ultimate Rate Chaser Calculator to see your net interest boost.

Finally, you should be sure to only write the check to an FDIC-insured institution. You should interact with them directly to ensure safe transfer of funds and proper opening of account. Double-check the CD renewal guidelines, so you are not stuck rolling the CD over for another 3 months.

Here’s a list of other companies that I found offering similar ads. Some are pretty shady in my opinion, and pretend to be an elite broker supplying high-yield bank CDs. Others are actually pretty transparent about the fact that they are offering a carrot for you to listen to their pitch. If you know of any others, please leave a comment below, and I’ll add it to the list.

  • Sun Cities Financial Group (http://www.scfg.com)
  • First Fidelity Tax & Insurance (http://www.firstfidelityamerica.com)
  • American First Assurance (http://americanfirstassurance.com)
  • Integrifirst USA (http://integrifirstusa.com)

I personally wouldn’t trust any of these guys with a $9.99 cut-n-paste GoDaddy website and a rented office with any of my personal details.

Immediate Annuity Options & Trade-Offs

These days, everyone has a regained respect for stock market volatility. One way to maintain a more stable income in retirement is to take part of your nest egg and buy a single-premium immediate annuity (SPIA). With an SPIA, you pay a lump-sum upfront to an insurance company in exchange for a guaranteed stream of income payments for life. You’ll usually get a much higher income than from bonds or dividend-paying stocks. However, once you die, the payments stop and your upfront payment is gone.

How much income can you get?

The two main factors that affect your actual payout are your age and the current interest rate environment, but there are also additional options to consider. Here are a few of the biggies:

  • Single vs. joint life. Will the payments be guaranteed for only one life, or the longer of two lives? This is a popular option for couples living together.
  • Minimum guaranteed payout period. Some folks may hate the idea of losing your entire lump-sum in the event of an early death, or want a minimum payout amount. With this option, you can guarantee that payments will be made for a specific minimum period (i.e. 5 or 10 years) no matter what.
  • Inflation-adjusted payments. With this option, your monthly payments will increase or decrease by a certain percentage each year, as pegged to inflation. This will protect you from decreased purchasing power in the future due to inflation, but will significantly decrease your initial payout.

Below, the July issue of Money magazine included a nice graphic that helps show how each affect your possible payouts based on a $250,000 investment. Data is from ImmediateAnnuities.com, a handy site to get free quotes.