Equity Indexed Annuities

Overview: Very often, equity indexed annuities (EIAs) have significantly high surrender charges. For this and other reasons, we feel that it is not prudent for investors to purchase EIAs for their portfolios.

The typical EIA, often referred to as a fixed indexed annuity, has the following characteristics:

  • A link to a portion of the positive changes in an index (typically the S&P 500 Index)
  • Principal protection
  • Minimum guarantee, regardless of the performance of the index, sometimes as low as 0 percent
  • Tax-deferral on growth
  • Income options to meet specific needs
  • A death benefit often guaranteeing beneficiaries 100 percent of the initial premium

Individuals seem to find these characteristics irresistible. Second quarter 2012 indexed annuity sales were $8.7 billion compared with sales of $8.1 billion from the previous quarter.1

One explanation for the growth may be that individuals are generally more aware of the benefits and are not necessarily familiar with the potential downsides of this insurance product. That is, they might not understand exactly how EIAs work.

Several disadvantages are notable, including the following:

  • An EIA’s restrictions can significantly decrease expected returns.
  • Many EIAs have high surrender charges when compared to variable annuities, which are typically considered unfavorable for their surrender schedules.
  • The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) does not regulate EIAs, meaning the person selling them is not required to have a securities license, only an insurance license.
  • EIAs are tax inefficient for owners when withdrawing funds and to beneficiaries who inherit them.
  • Poor credit quality of an issuer could put an EIA’s potential returns at even greater risk.

Most of the fees associated with EIAs are hidden in the form of aggressive surrender schedules and limits on how much the product can grow. Often, the EIAs with the most attractive initial terms tend to be those with the highest penalties for withdrawing from the EIA. It is important to review different EIAs and study contract terms.

EIAs are the only market-based products that can be sold by someone who is not securities licensed. It has been estimated that insurance agents sell 95 percent of EIAs.2 Although the SEC has argued that EIAs are securities, and they should fall under SEC-regulatory supervision and control, currently the SEC is not able to stop unregistered agents from offering them.

The comments made in an October 2005 editorial in Investment News are still valid today: “We’ll still hear of cases in which an elderly couple transfer their million-dollar portfolio into an illiquid equity-indexed annuity that will ultimately give them a low single-digit return with a double-digit surrender charge.”3

Annuity Holders Rarely Receive Returns Comparable to the Index
In the case of EIAs, individuals should concentrate on the fine print. A typical EIA provides less than 100 percent of the index’s return. Several restrictions may even be layered on top of one another within a single annuity to decrease the expected returns, five of which are discussed here.

  1. Participation rates — According to the National Association of Securities Dealers, “A participation rate determines how much of the gain in the index will be credited to the annuity.”
  2. Annual cap — This is the maximum rate at which the EIA can be credited, which means that there is an upper limit on possible returns. For example, although the S&P 500 Index returned 26 percent in 2009, an annuity holder with an EIA capped at 4 percent would only have been credited for that lower amount, instead of receiving the actual gain of the index linked to the EIA.
  3. Changes in the index — Another method of keeping the payouts lower is to credit an annuity holder with the price-only change of the index, not with its total return. Thus, the return received from an S&P 500 Index fund will be greater than the change in the index by the amount of the dividends received.
  4. Spreads — Use of a margin called a spread can also reduce payouts. If this feature is part of an EIA, the return would be determined by subtracting a percentage from any gains made by the index. For example, if the index gained 9 percent, an EIA with a spread of 3 percent would receive 6 percent.
  5. Interest — The EIA may credit its return based on simple interest, instead of compound interest.

    According to the SEC, some EIAs allow the insurance company that issued the EIA to change the following features: 1) participation rates, 2) cap rates or 3) spread and margin fees, either annually or at the beginning of the next contract term. Some of these changes could adversely affect an annuity holder’s return.

Penalties for Early Withdrawal
EIAs can have significant early surrender charges. Often, annuity holders will be told that there are no fees. In the case of EIAs, there are likely no fees because commissions and surrender penalties are so high (even higher than variable annuities). Some insurance companies may not credit investors with index-linked interest if they do not hold the contract to maturity. It is also important to note that EIAs (as annuities) are generally subject to a 10 percent tax penalty on any withdrawals before annuity holders reach the age of 59 ½.

Tax Inefficiency
While EIAs and other annuities do provide the benefit of tax deferral, all withdrawals are taxed at ordinary income tax rates. Thus, when individuals invest in EIAs, they are converting what would otherwise be capital gains into income that will be taxed at ordinary income tax rates. Given that for most there is a disparity in rates between ordinary income and capital gains taxes, unless individuals expect to be in a low tax bracket when withdrawing, this is a distinct disadvantage.

For beneficiaries, there is another potential tax inefficiency. When beneficiaries inherit mutual funds, they receive a step-up in cost basis, which reduces their capital gains tax. However, when inheriting an EIA, beneficiaries must take all the growth in the annuity as taxable ordinary income.

In the end, these products consistently deliver fixed-income-like returns even in today’s low-yield environment. What does an annuity holder get in return for giving up so much? Individuals considering EIAs should speak to an advisor before purchasing them. It is highly likely that another investment vehicle — without the various restrictions and many drawbacks typically associated with EIAs — would be more appropriate.

  1. Sheryl J. Moore, Second Quarter 2012 Indexed Insurance Sales. AnnuitySpecs.com, August 22, 2012.
  2. Joan Warner, EIAs: Behind the Hype. Financial Planning, October 2005.
  3. On Your Own with the Indexed Annuity Mess. Investment News, October 17, 2005.

This material is derived from sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy and the opinions based thereon are not guaranteed. The content of this publication is for general information only and is not intended to serve as specific financial, accounting or tax advice. To be distributed only by a Registered Investment Advisor firm. Copyright © 2012, The BAM ALLIANCE.