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Why Indexed Annuities are Worth a Fresh Look

Near-retirees have purchased indexed annuities (also called fixed indexed annuities or equity-indexed annuities) in relatively modest but nonetheless record numbers in the past year or so. The reason: the guaranteed lifetime withdrawal benefits (GLWB) of these products are now in some cases more generous than the GLWBs offered on variable annuities.

Why? Indexed annuities, which invest mainly in bonds, are less risky than variable annuities, which invest largely in stocks. Less risk means lower hedging costs for the insurer, which (generally speaking) enables the insurer to offer a higher lifetime payout rate. Testing one particular indexed annuity GLWB with the help of an online calculator, I seemed to be able to get an extra guaranteed $2,000 a year at age 70 (after a 10-year waiting period) than I could from a typical variable annuity GLWB. (Individual products and results will undoubtedly vary).

When I wrote Annuities for Dummies, indexed annuities did not yet have GLWBs. I did not recommend indexed annuities at the time, for several reasons. First, they were not easy to understand. Second, the past returns of apparently similar products varied so much that it seemed difficult to make an informed purchase. Third, some insurers paid huge commissions to agents, which implied a smaller share of the pie for the consumer. In a few headline-grabbing instances, the high commissions also appeared to incentivize high-pressure sales. Today, for near-retirees in need of guaranteed income (but who shy away from pure income annuities), indexed annuities might be worth a fresh look.

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