Once upon a time, in the (somewhat mythical) past of traditional defined benefit pensions, your employer protected you from the risk of outliving your money in retirement, by acting, more or less, as an insurance company providing an annuity. With that benefit receding into the past, many experts have been hoping that Americans with 401(k) plans would avail themselves of annuities on their own, to give themselves the same sort of protection, and, indeed, the SECURE Act of 2019 made it easier for those plans to offer their participants an annuity choice, and, when surveyed, 73% of those participants said they would “consider” an annuity at retirement.
At the same time, though, Americans distrust annuities — in part because traditional deferred annuities had high fees and expenses and only made sense in an era predating IRAs and 401(k)s, when they were attractive solely due to the limited tax-advantaged options for retirement savings. But that’s not the only reason — annuities, quite frankly, aren’t cheap.
How do you quantify the value of an annuity? In one respect, it’s subjective and personal: do you judge yourself to be in good health, or does family history and your list of medications say that you’ll be one of those with the early deaths that longer-lived annuity-purchasers are counting on? Do you want to be sure you can maintain your standard of living throughout your retirement, or do you figure that you won’t really care one way or another if you have to cut down expenses once you’re among the “old-old”?
But measuring the value of annuities, generally speaking, does tell us whether consumers are getting a fair deal from their purchases, and here, a recent working paper by two economists, James Poterba and Adam Solomon, “Discount Rates, Mortality Projections, and Money’s Worth Calculations for US Individual Annuities,” lends some insight.
Here’s some good news: using the costs of actual annuities available for consumers to purchase in June 2020, and comparing them to bond rates which were similar to the investment portfolios those insurance companies hold, the authors calculated “money’s worth ratios” that show that, for annuities purchased immediately at retirement, the value of the annuities was between 92% – 94% (give-or-take, depending on type) of its cost. That means that the value of the insurance protection is a comparatively modest 6 – 8% of the total investment.
But there’s a catch — or, rather, two of them.
In the first place, the authors calculate their ratios based on a standard mortality table for annuity purchasers — which makes sense if the goal is to judge the “fairness” of an annuity for the healthy retirees most likely to purchase one. But this doesn’t tell us whether an annuity is a smart purchase for someone who thinks of themselves as being in comparatively poorer health, or with a spottier family health history, and folks in these categories would benefit considerably from analysis that’s targeted at them, that evaluates, realistically, whether annuities are the right call and whether their prediction of their life expectancy is likely to be right or wrong.
In the second place, the 92% – 94% money’s worth calculation is based on the typical investment portfolio of insurance companies, approximated by the returns of BBB-rated bonds. This measures whether the annuity is “fair” or not, in that “moral” sense of whether the perception that the company is “cheating” is customers is real (it’s not).
But these interest rates are very low. The authors, in addition to their calculations of “money’s worth,” back into the implied discount rate from the annuity costs themselves. For men aged 65, that interest rate is 2.16%; for women aged 65, 2.18%.
Now, imagine that you compare this annuity to an alternative plan of investing your money in the stock market, earning 7% annual returns, and believing you can predict your death date (or not really caring if you fall short or end up with leftover money for heirs). The cost of the protection offered by the annuity, the guarantee that you will never run out of money, and that you will not suffer from a market crash, is very expensive indeed — when you compare apples to oranges in this manner, the money’s worth ratio is, according to my very rough estimates, more like 60%, meaning that about 40% of your cash is spent to purchase the “insurance protection” of the annuity.
And, again, that’s not because insurance companies are cheating anyone; that’s solely because of the wide gap between corporate bond rates and expected returns when investing in the stock market— a gap which was particularly wide in the summer of 2020 when this study was competed, but remains nearly as wide now. As it stands, Moody’s Baa rates are in the 3% range; in the 2000s, they were in the 6% range, and in the 1990s, from 7% – 9%. Although this drop in bond rates is good news for American homebuyers because this marches in tandem with mortgage rates, it makes it far harder for retirees to manage their finances in ways that protect them from the risks that they face in their retirement.
Perhaps interest rates in general, and bond rates specifically, will increase as we leave our current economic challenges, but there’s no certainty, and as long as this gap between bond rates and expected stock market returns remains so substantial, retirees will be challenged to find any sort of safe investment that makes sense for them. Which means that what seems like a great benefit for Americans looking to borrow money — for mortgages, car loans, credit cards — can pit the elderly against the young in a generational “us vs. them” contest.
As always, you’re invited to comment at JaneTheActuary.com!
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