Annuity products have grown more sophisticated over the years to meet the demands of today's more sophisticated investors.
Just as mutual funds grew in popularity as an alternative to certificates of deposit, the variable annuity was developed as an alternative to the fixed annuity. Variable annuities offer potentially higher returns than fixed annuities. Of course, there is a risk of loss as well. So, deciding which annuity product to invest in often comes down to deciding how much risk you are willing to take.
Fixed Annuities Provide Certain Guarantees
When you purchase a fixed annuity, the issuer guarantees that you will earn a minimum interest rate during the accumulation phase and that your premium payments will be returned to you. If you annuitize the contract (i.e., take a lifetime or other distribution payout option), the issuer guarantees the periodic benefit amount you will receive during the distribution phase. (Guarantees are subject to the claims-paying ability of the issuing insurance company.) The interest rates earned during the accumulation phase will reflect current fixed income rates, changing periodically. During the distribution phase, the payment is based on the prevailing interest rates at the start of the distribution phase, and then remains constant. This fixed payment may lose purchasing power over time due to inflation. Consequently, many investors are hesitant to lock in a fixed annuity payout rate.
Variable Annuities Focus on Growth Opportunities
When you purchase a variable annuity, the annuity issuer offers you a choice of investment options in what are known as sub-accounts. The issuer may offer many different types of asset classes such as stock, bond, and money market funds. The issuer of a variable annuity does not guarantee or project any rate of return on the underlying investment portfolio. Instead, the return on your annuity investment depends entirely on the performance of the investments that you select. Your return may be greater than or less than that of a fixed annuity. However, if you die before you begin receiving annuity distributions, your heirs will receive at least as much as the total of your premium payments, regardless of the annuity value.
If you elect to annuitize and receive periodic distributions from your variable annuity, you can choose to receive either a fixed payout (like with a fixed annuity as previously discussed), a variable payout, or a combination of the two. If you select a variable payout, then the amount of each payment will depend on the performance of your investment portfolio. If the portfolio increases in value, then your payments will increase as well. Most annuity issuers offer a third option that allows you to lock in a minimum fixed payment every month, with the possibility of an additional variable payment based on the performance of your investment portfolio. By allowing your principal to remain in investment accounts during the distribution phase, you have the continued opportunity to benefit from rates of return that are higher than what would have been received with a fixed annuity. But remember, you also run the risk that your payout could be lower if your investment choices do not perform well.
Effectiveness of the two Annuities
First, make sure that an annuity is appropriate for you. Annuities are long-term savings vehicles used primarily for retirement. There are many advantages to annuities, but there are drawbacks, too. These include a 10 percent tax penalty on earnings distributed before age 59½, and the fact that all earnings are taxed at ordinary rather than capital gains rates. If an annuity is right for you, then the choice between fixed and variable annuities will depend on your situation and preferences.
Usually, choosing between the two comes down to your risk tolerance and the amount of control you want over investment decisions. With a fixed annuity, there is little risk. You know what you're going to get out of the annuity. However, the growth potential of a fixed annuity is limited. A variable annuity, on the other hand, has a much greater potential for growth (although with this growth potential, there is a greater potential for loss). You also have the opportunity to make the investment decisions that will impact the growth of your annuity. How much risk you can comfortably accept, and your ability to manage your investment, will help you choose between a fixed and a variable annuity.
Note: Annuity withdrawals and distributions prior to age 59½ may be subject to a 10% federal tax penalty unless an exception applies.
Note: Variable annuities are long-term investments suitable for retirement funding and are subject to market fluctuations and investment risk, including the possibility of loss of principal. Variable annuities contain fees and charges including, but not limited to, mortality and expense risk charges, sales and surrender (early withdrawal) charges, administrative fees, and charges for optional benefits and riders.
Note: Variable annuities are sold by prospectus. You should consider the investment objectives, risk, charges, and expenses carefully before investing. The prospectus, which contains this and other information about the variable annuity, can be obtained from the insurance company issuing the variable annuity, or from your financial professional. You should read the prospectus carefully before you invest.
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