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For years, many retirees were content to act as their own pension managers, a complex task that involves making a nest egg last a lifetime. Now, reeling from the stock-market meltdown, many are calling it quits -- and buying annuities to do the job for them.
In recent months, sales of plain-vanilla immediate annuities -- essentially insurance contracts that convert a lump-sum payment into lifelong payouts -- have hit an all-time high.
Thats a big change from a few years ago. Then, the hot products were variable annuities whose value fluctuates with an underlying investment portfolio. Many purchase these products with riders that protect against stock-market losses and guarantee a minimum paycheck for life.
Annuities in general have never been popular with many financial advisers. For the most part, the products dont offer the potential for outsized gains. And once you hand over your money to an insurer, you either cant get it back or can do so only by forfeiting at least some of the guarantee youve paid for. Variable annuities, in particular, can be ridiculously complex and loaded with fees and hidden traps.
But for those grappling with investment losses, annuities today have an undeniable appeal. At first glance, they offer a way to restore some financial security to what are supposed to be your golden years. There is even evidence that retirees with regular paychecks are happier than those who rely exclusively on 401(k)s to supplement their Social Security. The latter "are more prone to depression due to concern about running out of money," says Stan Panis, a director in Sherman Oaks, Calif., for Advanced Analytical Consulting Group of Wayland, Mass., and author of a study about annuities and retirement satisfaction.
The problem: While many investors have a general idea of what an annuity is, few understand the strategies available for making these products a part of their holdings. You have to figure out how much to buy, whether to put your money to work immediately or gradually, and how to invest what remains.
The immediate annuity is relatively straightforward: It allows you to convert a payment into monthly, quarterly or annual income for life. Most immediate annuities are fixed, which simply means they pay an amount thats established at the outset.
Typically, immediate annuities provide a significantly higher level of sustainable income than youd be able to produce from your investment portfolio, assuming you stick to the convention of withdrawing no more than 4% of your nest egg per year. For example, a 65-year-old man who buys an immediate annuity today will receive some 8.4% a year of the amount he invested in the annuity.
The extra income is the result of the requirement that you surrender your principal to the insurer. Each payment consists not just of interest, but also of a portion of your principal, prorated over your remaining life expectancy. The payments are guaranteed to continue for the rest of your life. But when you die, they stop -- regardless of whether youve recouped the amount you paid for the annuity.
If you are willing to settle for a lower income, you can buy features designed to overcome some of the drawbacks of a traditional annuity. With one, for instance, your heirs will receive a set number of years of income if you dont live to collect it. (First, though, check whether buying a life-insurance policy would be cheaper.) Another raises payments by 2% or more annually to keep up with inflation -- a key feature, given the way inflation can erode purchasing power.
How much should you put into an annuity? If Social Security plus any pension you receive wont cover your monthly budget, many economists recommend buying an annuity for an amount that bridges the gap.
But if youre worried about leaving something for your heirs, Jim Otar, a financial planner in Thornhill, Ontario, recommends this approach: Annuitize just enough to meet your income needs -- in conjunction with the 4% annual withdrawals from your investment portfolio that most investment advisers consider prudent.
Consider a 65-year-old man with $1 million of investments who anticipates spending $60,000 a year, in addition to Social Security. That amounts to 6% of his $1 million -- a level that exceeds the recommended 4% withdrawal level. To not risk depleting that nest egg, the man would have to pare spending to $40,000 a year, indexed to inflation. Alternatively, he could put about $720,000 into an immediate annuity that would produce some $60,000 a year for life.
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