The current interest-rate environment and longevity are conspiring against would-be annuity purchasers, but that doesn't mean you should avoid the vehicle altogether.
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By Christine Benz | 01-24-13 | 06:00 AM | Email Article

Income-annuity sales have picked up in recent years, in part because payouts are generally much better than competing income-producing investments such as certificates of deposit and bonds. Because annuity purchasers pool their mortality risk with other annuity buyers--that is, their money stays in the annuity kitty even if they die prematurely--annuities are able to pay higher rates than investments that don't feature that same mortality risk pooling. Insurance companies and their actuaries know that at least some of the annuity purchasers will die early, so they're able to pay higher rates of interest to all of the annuity buyers from the get-go. 

Christine Benz is Morningstar's director of personal finance and author of 30-Minute Money Solutions: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing Your Finances and the Morningstar Guide to Mutual Funds: 5-Star Strategies for Success. Follow Christine on Twitter: @christine_benz and on Facebook.

Yet even though their payouts beat the competition, it's worth noting that fixed-annuity payments are low relative to historic norms. Annuity payouts have been depressed in part by increasing longevity: With payouts being spread over very long lives and few purchasers dying prematurely, that has the net effect of shrinking payouts for everyone in the annuity pool. There's also some evidence that those purchasing annuities tend to be healthier with the likelihood of living longer than the general population, which could serve to depress annuity payouts further.

Those factors are likely to be long-term headwinds for annuities. But the other factor depressing annuity payouts is apt to be more temporal: rock-bottom interest rates. For an immediate annuity, your payout will consist of just a few key elements: whatever interest rate the insurer can safely earn on your money as well as any mortality credits (the amount the insurer expects to be able to reallocate from those who die prematurely to those who survive), less the insurance company's fees. With interest rates on very safe investments barely breaking into the black, it's no wonder that annuity payouts have sunk, too.

The current rate environment argues against plowing a lot of one's assets into an immediate annuity all in one go, but that doesn't mean that investors should completely dismiss annuities (and the promise of lifetime income they provide) out of hand.

Here are four strategies for playing it smart with an immediate-annuity purchase.

1) Consider Your Need
Fixed immediate annuities will tend to make more sense for some retirees than others. Those who have a substantial share of their lifetime living expenses accounted for via pension income or Social Security will likely want to diversify into investments over which they exert a higher level of control and have the opportunity to earn a higher rate of return, such as stocks. Those who don't have a substantial source of guaranteed retirement income, meanwhile, will find greater utility from annuity products.

2) Be Patient
Although the negative effects of longevity are unlikely to go away soon, rising interest rates will eventually translate into higher annuity payouts. Don't expect substantially higher payouts right out of the box, particularly given that the still-shaky economy is apt to keep a damper on interest rates, and in turn annuity payouts, in the near term. But interest rates don't have much more room to move down, and it's worth noting that as recently as a decade ago, annuity rates were nearly double what they are today.

3) Build Your Own Ladder
One of the key attractions of sinking a lump sum into an annuity is the ability to receive a no-maintenance, pensionlike stream of income, which is particularly appealing for retirees who don't have the time or inclination to manage their portfolios on an ongoing basis. However, a slightly higher-maintenance strategy of laddering multiple annuities can help mitigate the risk of sinking a sizable share of your portfolio into an annuity at what in hindsight could turn out to be an inopportune time. If, for example, you were planning to put $200,000 into an annuity overall, you could invest $50,000 in four annuities during each of the next four years. Such a program, while not particularly simple or streamlined, would also have a beneficial side effect in that it would give you the opportunity to diversify your investments across different insurance companies, thereby offsetting the risk that an insurance company would have difficulty meeting its obligations.

4) Consider More Flexible Options
Throughout this article, I've been focusing on the simplest of annuity types--fixed-rate immediate annuities. These vehicles are typically the cheapest and most transparent in the annuity world, but they're also the most beholden to whatever interest-rate environment prevails at the time the purchaser signs the contract. It's worth noting, however, that the annuity universe includes many products with more bells and whistles, including some that address the current yield-starved climate by allowing for an interest-rate adjustment if and when interest rates head back up. Such products offer an appealing safeguard to those concerned about buying an annuity with interest rates as low as they are now, but the trade-off is that the initial payout on such an annuity would tend to be lower than the payout on an annuity without such a feature. A key rule to remember when shopping for annuities is that as you layer on safety features, such as survivor benefits and the ability to participate in higher payout rates in the future, you'll likely increase your costs and reduce your monthly payout, at least at the outset of your contract.

A version of this article appeared Dec. 13, 2012.

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