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Business & Real Estate

Congressional Budget Office paper says don’t buy annuities

A working paper recently published by Felix Reichling of the Congressional Budget Office and Kent Smetters of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School concludes that most people should not buy annuities. This is a controversial finding bound to spark significant debate within the financial services community.

The annuity model is simple: You give up a portion of your savings to an insurance company in exchange for a guaranteed stream of payments for the remainder of your life. Gil Weinreich, editor-in-chief of ThinkAdvisor, an online and print publication family for financial advisers, interviewed Smetters to find out why he believes that’s not a good idea. He quoted Smetters as stating, “The average American should probably not annuitize any of their wealth.”

Smetters explained that it is in fact uninsured health-care shocks – the most common being disability while working or the need for long-term care while retired – that impact the usefulness of annuities more than anything else.

Here’s the logic: Suppose that you are retired and develop a medical condition requiring long-term care, for which you are not insured. If you had previously purchased an annuity, it would not be much help, because you now have the need for a lot more income than the annuity had been designed to produce. You could sell your annuity – there is a secondary market for this – but because of your medical condition, your expected longevity is reduced. As a result, the amount of cash you can get for the annuity will be lower, because its value is based on the expectation of its future cash flows. That’s just the opposite of what you need during such a situation.

Smetters went so far as to recommend that younger people actually “short” annuities.

“You can get a negative annuity by buying life insurance,” he said. “It is well known … that whereas an annuity pays me for living, life insurance pays me for dying. What happens when I get sick is that my life insurance increases in value. You can cash that out and get protection against uninsured expenses.”

Is there anyone who would benefit from an annuity? According to Smetters, “those who should buy annuities have already incurred health costs or are quite elderly.” Insurance companies can afford to offer such people annuities with larger monthly or yearly payments because there’s a higher likelihood they’ll die sooner.

Most advisers think of annuities as low-risk investments. But as Smetters pointed out, they are actually higher risk because they fail at exactly the times you need them the most: during health-care crises. The better alternative, he said, is long-term care insurance for older people and disability insurance for younger people.

I believe that annuities – particularly single-premium immediate annuities – can be a valuable part of a well-diversified investment portfolio. But Smetters and Reichling suggest that they should be used sparingly until you reach an age where the payments become significant.

To read the CBO working paper, visit cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44374_MortalityProbabilities-Reichling_2_0.pdf.

Artie Green, a Los Altos resident, is a Certified Financial Planner and professional investment adviser. For more information, call (408) 747-1222.

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