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Why Ken Fisher Is Wrong About Annuities

June 26th, 2017

Have you seen the ads from Fisher Investments offering a free report that explains why Ken Fisher hates annuities? For those unfamiliar with Ken Fisher, he is a well-known financial analyst. He owns his own money management firm, writes a monthly column for Forbes magazine, is the author of eleven books, and is on the 2016 Forbes 400 list of America’s wealthiest individuals. In other words, he certainly seems qualified to offer financial advice.

So why does Ken Fisher dislike annuities so much? His report is well-written, though fairly generic in nature. It accurately explains the basics of annuities, and provides some examples of what he hates most about them. His objections seem to center around the fees.

Fisher’s report compares the performance of a variable annuity with the returns generated by the underlying securities the annuity is comprised of, highlighting the impact of insurance-related fees on investment performance. This is a valid comparison, since variable annuities are intended to compete with marketable securities. Obviously, if variable annuity expenses are much higher (and they are), the returns will of course be lower. The report also contrasts index annuity performance against S&P 500 returns. This isn’t a valid comparison. Fixed index annuities have guaranteed minimum rates of return, and are not designed to compete with the stock market. A conservative bond index would be a far more reasonable benchmark.

Mr. Fisher is certainly correct when he points out the importance of minimizing investment expenses, and annuities typically aren’t low-cost investments. However, his report doesn’t highlight the real reason many investors use annuities: to get a guaranteed lifetime income they can’t outlive, regardless of market performance. You could invest cautiously on your own, but you risk burning through your nest egg if your portfolio performance is poor, or if you live well beyond your life expectancy.

In addition to the obvious financial security that comes with a guaranteed monthly income, payouts that never decrease no matter how much financial markets may fall can also yield valuable emotional and psychological benefits. A number of studies and surveys have shown that retirees with guaranteed income in the form of a pension or annuity tend to have a happier retirement than those who have no such guarantees.

Annuities aren’t growth products. They are transfer-of-risk investments. If you feel that you may be shouldering too much risk within your portfolio, taking some of that risk off the table might make sense – and it can make you a better investor. Knowing that your daily retirement needs are contractually taken care of can free you to focus solely on managing that part of your portfolio that still involves risk.

Too many investors tend to let their emotions drive their investment decisions. When prices are high, they’re happy to be in the market. However, when equity prices decline many investors panic and sell everything, effectively locking in their losses. By guaranteeing a lifetime income, annuities can save investors from the market’s emotional roller coaster.

Choosing a really good retirement income plan (a financial plan designed for retirement) can help investors determine the pros and cons of all of their investment options. Once investors understand the choices available to them, they can select the plan that best conforms to their desired financial outcome. This mitigates the emotional behavior that often drives very poor financial decisions.

Your retirement income plan shouldn’t be created by someone who earns his living via annuity sales, since that individual will obviously be biased in favor of selling you an annuity. Instead, your plan should be crafted after examining all of your options, explaining how the different alternatives will work, and showing you the kinds of returns you can expect from your various investment choices. Then, you can choose the option that best meets your needs, and that you feel the most comfortable with. That may or may not include an annuity.

There is no perfect investment that works well for everyone, all of the time. Annuities have some unique features that, under the right circumstances, may enhance your retirement security. Yes, an annuity will lower your returns. But it will also lower your risk. For many, an annuity is a worthwhile trade-off and a desirable investment.