Variable annuities: Buy them only if they fit

Staying Ahead

February 12, 1996|By Jane Bryant Quinn

NEW YORK -- Investors love a tax deferral, which accounts for the huge popularity of variable annuities. But you may shoot yourself in the foot if you buy them purely from tax-aversion. Because of their high costs, annuities may return less after-tax than you'd get from a comparable mutual fund.

On the surface, annuities sound like an easy choice. They're like mutual funds, but, because they're a type of insurance product, all your money grows tax-deferred. Your investment choices typically include stocks, bonds, balanced stock-and-bond portfolios and a fixed-income account.

Annuities are for long-term investors; you normally face an exit charge if you sell within five to seven years. There's also a 10 percent tax penalty on money withdrawn before age 59 1/2 . All withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income. So investors get no advantage from lower taxes on capital gains.

Here's a checklist, outlining who should do well with variable annuities (VAs). Buy them only if you can answer all of the following questions "yes":

* Have you put the maximum amount of money you're allowed into a tax-deferred retirement account?

These plans earn you more than a VA will, because you're investing money pretax. Commercial VAs are bought with your earnings after tax.

If your plan permits after-tax contributions, choose those over a VA, too. You'll pay less in annual expense.

* Will you invest your variable annuity in either stocks or high-yielding bonds? If not, the VA probably isn't worth it. You need a shot at high long-term returns to overcome the VA's high costs.

If you'd rather invest in high-quality bonds or money-market investments, choose mutual funds instead.

* Will you start young enough to make the tax-deferral pay? You typically have to hold a VA for 16 years or more for it to do better than straight, stock-owning mutual funds, according to calculations done by the Baltimore mutual-fund company T. Rowe Price.

If you buy at 55, for example, you shouldn't cash in until you're comfortably over 70. If you'll want the money at 65, you should buy your annuity in your late 40s.

T. Rowe Price sells lower-cost annuities (as do Janus in Denver, Scudder in Boston, Vanguard in Valley Forge, Pa., and the discount brokerage firm Charles Schwab, among others). With fewer expenses, your money builds up faster. Low-cost stock-owning annuities might beat comparable mutual funds after about 10 years. So look to these companies, if you're in your early 50s and plan to cash in at 65.

* Is your tax bracket high? If it's not, you might have to hold VAs for 20 years or more, to do better than mutual funds.

* Will you turn your annuity into an income for life? Most people don't. They cash out, pay the tax, and stash their money somewhere else. But your money stays tax-sheltered longer if you keep the annuity and draw out a regular income.

Payout annuities give you a fixed income for life. A "10 years certain" clause guarantees 10 years of payments -- either to you or to your heirs.

Alternatively, you can take regular payments over a fixed number of years. You pay more upfront taxes with this arrangement but it yields larger after-tax checks (with the caveat that the annuity runs dry, if you outlive your payment plan). Your heirs get any money you don't use.

* Is this investment for you rather than for your heirs? You get tax breaks on annuities but your beneficiaries don't.

When they sell, they'll owe higher taxes on VAs than they would have on comparable mutual funds. For a tax-deferred investment intended solely for heirs, consider a cash-value life insurance policy where all the proceeds pass tax free.

If you already have a variable annuity, don't let an insurance agent talk you into switching to a different one. You'll pay a commission, and in most cases you won't be better off.

You can write to Jane Bryant Quinn at: Newsweek, 444 Madison Ave., 18th floor, New York, N.Y. 10022.

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