Variable Annuities: Reading Between the Marketing Lines

Variable Annuities:
Reading Between the Marketing Lines

James W. Watkins, III, J.D., CFP®, AWMA®
CEO/Managing Member
InvestSense, LLC

“Variable annuities are one of the most overhyped, most oversold, and least understood investment products.” A popular investment industry saying is that “annuities are sold, not bought.”

Variable annuity salesmen use various sales pitches to convince investors to purchase a variable annuity. However, as is often the case, what is unsaid is often as important, if not more important, than what is said. This information gap can have serious financial consequences for investors.

For purposes of this article all references to variable annuities shall only refer to non-qualified variable annuities, those annuities that do not qualify for special treatment under the Internal Revenue Code.

Basic Structure of Annuities
Before analyzing some of the popular sales pitches used by variable annuity salesmen, it is important to understand the basic structure of a variable annuity. A variable annuity can be described as an insurance contract wrapped around mutual fund-like subaccounts. The presence of the insurance “wrapper” allows the variable annuity to provide tax-deferred growth.

Variable annuities typically charge two primary fees, an annual insurance fee and an annual subaccount management fee. The insurance fee usually consists of a mortality and expense (M & E) charge and an administrative fee. The combined typically runs in the range of 2-2.5% of the accumulated value of the variable annuity.

The M & E charge covers the guaranteed death benefit (GDB), which ensures that in the event that the owner of the variable annuity dies before annuitizing the variable annuity, his/her heirs will receive no less than the amount that the owner had invested in the variable annuity. The M & E charge also covers commission payments and general overhead expenses. The administrative fee covers various administrative expenses.

The subaccount management fee is charged for the professional management of a subaccount, much like the annual management fee charged by mutual funds. Subaccount management fees can vary depending on the type of account, with management fees typically falling within the 0.80-1.00% range.

The total annual fee charged on most variable annuities is approximately 3.3.5% of the overall value of the variable annuity. When compared to an average annual fee of 1% for actively managed mutual funds, 0.45% for passively managed mutual funds, and the typically low annual fees for exchange traded funds (ETFs), it is easy to see why the high fees and expenses associated with variable annuities are criticized, especially when their drag on long term performance is factored in.

Annuity Sales Pitches
So why do people continue to invest in variable annuities? Remember, annuities are sold, not bought. An analysis of some of the sales pitches used by variable annuity salesmen, in terms of what is said and what is unsaid, may prove helpful.

What’s said: “Variable annuities offer tax deferred growth.”
What’s unsaid: There are a number of investment accounts (e.g., 401(k) accounts, IRA accounts, Keogh accounts, SIMPLE accounts) that offer tax deferred growth without the high fees and expenses associated with variable annuities. Even investors in stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs can achieve virtual tax-deferred growth as long as they do not actively trade their accounts and they choose investments with low turnover rates (e.g., passively managed funds such as index funds and most ETFs) and low income pay-outs.

The value of the tax-deferred growth offered by variable annuities is reduced by the effect of the high fees and expenses associated with variable annuities. Various studies have been done comparing the cost of investing in variable annuities to the cost of investing in mutual funds. These studies have generally concluded that in most cases it takes a minimum of 15-20 years, in some cases over forty years, for the owner of a variable annuity to break-even from the fees and expenses of variable annuities. In some cases, the owner of the variable annuity may never break-even.

An article by Dr. William Reichenstein of Baylor University provides an excellent in-depth analysis of the effects of fees on the overall return realized by variable annuity and mutual fund investors. Among Dr. Reichenstein’s findings: (1) that costs have a significant effect on the overall effectiveness of an investment, (2) that low cost mutual funds and low cost annuities are the most effective investments for investors, and (3) that the typical variable annuity, with a fee of 2% or more and an annual contract fee of $20-$30, is the least effective investment for investors.1

The value of the tax-deferred growth offered by variable annuities is also reduced by the tax aspects of a variable annuity as compared to a mutual fund. Tax-deferred does not mean tax-free. Sooner or later, the variable annuity owner or his/her beneficiaries will have to pay income tax on the capital appreciation within the variable annuity. Mutual fund owners can often use the capital gains tax rates to reduce the taxes on their mutual funds. Variable annuity owners cannot use the capital gains tax rate, as disbursements from variable annuities are taxed as ordinary income, which usually results in more tax liability and less money for the variable annuity owner or his/her beneficiaries.

What’s said: “You don’t pay sales charges when you purchase a variable annuity, so all of your money goes to work for you, unlike mutual funds that charge front-end sales charges, and stocks and ETFs, which require an investor to pay brokerage commissions.”
What’s Unsaid: There are excellent no-load mutual funds that perform as well as, and often better than, variable annuity subaccounts. These no-load mutual funds usually charge annual management fees far less that those charged for variable annuity subaccounts, especially passively managed mutual funds such as index funds. Investors purchasing stocks and ETFs can use discount brokers to greatly reduce the amount of any brokerage commissions.

The statement that variable annuity owners pay no sales charges, while technically correct, can be somewhat misleading. Variable annuity salesmen do receive a commission for each variable annuity they sell, such commission usually being in the range of 6-7% of the total amount invested in the variable annuity. While a purchaser of a variable annuity is not directly assessed a front-end sales charge or a brokerage commission, the variable annuity owner does reimburse the insurance company for the commission that was paid. The primary source of such reimbursement is through the variable annuity’s various fees and charges, particularly the M & E charge.

To ensure that the cost of commissions paid is recovered, the insurance company typically imposes surrender charges on a variable annuity owner who tries to cash out of the variable annuity before the expiration of a certain period of time. The terms of these surrender charges vary, but a typical surrender charge schedule might provide for an initial surrender charge of 7% for withdrawals during the first year, decreasing 1% each year thereafter until the eighth year, when the surrender charges would end. There are some surrender charge schedules that charge a flat rate, such as 7%, over the entire surrender charge period.

One recent variable annuity innovation that has caused regulators a great deal of concern has been the so-called “bonus” annuities. These products have been marketed in such a way that the public may believe that they receive a free bonus, usually in the range of 3-4% of their investment, upon their purchase of the annuity. In truth, the insurance company sponsoring the bonus annuity simply increases the term and/or the amount of the surrender charges to recover the “bonus.” These bonus annuities continue to be the subject of much scrutiny due to their potential to mislead and deceive the public into thinking that they are receiving something that they really are not receiving.

Prospective annuity purchasers should always study the surrender charge schedule to minimize potential costs. Since surrender charge schedules often reflect the amount of commissions paid to the variable annuity salesman, an investor can compare the commission paid on a variable annuity (typically 6-7%) and the commission charged by front-end load mutual funds (typically 4-5%).

What’s said: “Variable annuities offer a guaranteed death benefit (GDB) that ensures that the variable annuity owner’s heirs will get no less than the amount of money that the variable annuity owner invested in the variable annuity.
What’s unsaid: Most variable annuities discontinue the GDB once the variable annuity owner reaches a certain age. Furthermore, a variable annuity owner also generally loses the GDB if the owner elects to annuitize the variable annuity in order to receive the guaranteed lifetime income benefits.

The value of the GDB itself is questionable. Variable annuities are intended to be long term investments. Given the long term historical performance of the stock market, it is highly unlikely that a variable annuity owner will need to use the GDB since, over the long term, the accumulated value of the variable annuity will probably exceed the amount of the GDB. Thus, the popular saying: ” a variable annuity owner needs the death benefit like a duck needs a paddle.”

In his article, Dr. Reichenstein refers to studies that have estimated that the GDB is worth approximately 0.087% or less2, although insurance companies currently impose M & E charges in the range to 1.25%-1.4% to cover their GDB liability.

Another interesting fact about the M & E charge is that while the GDB in most variable annuities only insures the variable annuity owner’s investment in the variable annuity, the principal, the M & E charge is calculated based upon the accumulated value of the of the variable annuity, which includes both the principal and all capital appreciation within the annuity. This practice, known as “inverse pricing,” seem to be clearly inequitable to the variable annuity owner who is forced to pay a higher amount of M & E charges as the value of the variable annuity increases, with no corresponding increase in the insurance company’s obligation to the variable annuity owner.

For an additional fee, some insurance companies do offer a benefit that steps-up the amount of the GDB to the overall value of the variable annuity on certain anniversary dates. Given the unlikely need to use the GDB, the value of yet another layer of cost is equally questionable.

What’s said: “Variable annuities can provide a lifetime stream of income, guaranteeing that you’ll never run out of money to live on.
What’s unsaid: To get the lifetime stream of income, the variable annuity owner generally has to annuitize the variable annuity. Upon annuitization, the variable annuity owner will receive a monthly payment, with the amount of the payment being based upon the owner’s age and the settlement option that was chosen. The decision to annuitize should only be made after consideration of all of the consequences of such a decision.

Upon annuitization, the variable annuity owner gives up control of the annuity’s assets. Even more important, depending on the settlement options offered by the insurance company and the settlement option chosen by the variable annuity owner, once the variable annuity is annuitized the insurance company, not the owner’s heirs, will receive any money left in the annuity when the owner dies. Some variable annuities may require the owner of a variable annuity to annuitize their annuity upon reaching a certain age. Prospective variable annuity purchasers should always check the terms of a variable annuity being considered to see if the annuity contains such forced annuitization language, as it could frustrate an investor’s estate plans.

Annuitization is, in essence, a gamble. The insurance company is hoping that the variable annuity owner dies before depleting all of the assets in the annuity, in which case the insurance company may receive the balance remaining in the annuity. The annuity owner, on the other hand, is gambling that they will live long enough to deplete the assets in their annuity.

What’s said: “You can roll money over from your 401(k) or other retirement account into an IRA and then purchase a variable annuity for such account. You’ll continue to receive tax deferred growth of your money and you’ll get the safety of the guaranteed death benefit.”
What’s unsaid: Qualified plans and IRAs already offer tax deferred growth. Consequently, purchasing a variable annuity within an IRA simply adds the high fees and expenses of the variable annuity without providing the investor with any meaningful additional benefits.

Many people work hard during their lifetime to accumulate funds not only for their retirement, but also to create an estate to leave to their heirs. Annuitization can result in an insurance company, not one’s heirs, inheriting the results of one’s hard work. While IRA owners must begin to take disbursements from an IRA once they reach a certain age, the balance remaining in the IRA at the owner’s death passes to their designated beneficiaries. There are also various ways to minimize the amount of the required disbursements from an IRA so that the IRA assets can benefit one’s children, grandchildren and beyond.

Placing a variable annuity within an IRA may result in a forced annuitization because of the required disbursements from an IRA at 70½ or because of language in the variable annuity requiring annuitization at a certain age or upon the occurrence of some event. Such a forced annuitization may result in consequences unintended, and undesired, by the IRA owner, including the owner’s heirs’ loss of their inheritance.

The questionable value of the GDB has already been discussed. The GDB is simply insurance. An investor who needs insurance and the GDB it provides should buy insurance, but through more cost effective options, such as term insurance.

What’s said: “You’ll have access to your money at all times since variable annuities typically allow an owner to withdraw up to 10% from their annuity annually, after the first year, without any penalty.”
What’s unsaid: The insurance company’s decision to waive any penalties does not change the fact that all withdrawals from a variable annuity result in tax consequences. Withdrawal of gains from variable annuities are taxed as ordinary income. Variable annuity owners cannot use the capital gains tax rates to reduce their tax liability. In addition, withdrawals made by an owner prior to reaching the age of 59½ are generally subject to a penalty tax equal to 10% of the amount withdrawn.

Many variable annuities allow an owner to withdraw more than 10% in a limited number of circumstances. In the event that unanticipated circumstances arise during the period that the variable annuity’s surrender charges are applicable, and such circumstances are not among those specified for allowing withdrawals beyond the insurance company’s annual allowance, the variable annuity owner may have to pay the applicable surrender charges in addition to the ordinary income and penalty taxes.

What’s said: “If you’re ever dissatisfied with the performance of your variable annuity, you can switch to another variable annuity without paying any taxes.”
What’s unsaid: Tax-free exchanges, known as “1035 exchanges,” present a number of issues. Both the NASD and the SEC have made questionable variable annuity sales tactics, including 1035 exchanges, a priority.

There are reports that 1035 exchanges account for a significant portion of annual variable annuity sales.3 Brokers and advisors like 1035 exchanges since they result in new commissions for the broker or the advisor. Variable annuity owners contemplating such an exchange should note that any 1035 exchange made while the existing variable annuity is subject to surrender charges will result in the owner having to pay such surrender charges. In addition, if the new variable annuity imposes surrender charges, those surrender charges begin anew. Consequently, prior to making a 1035 exchange, a variable annuity owner whose annuity is free of surrender charges should carefully consider the costs and the limitations that new surrender charges may create.

Generally speaking, a variable annuity owner should only consider making a 1035 exchange if (1) the existing annuity is not subject to any surrender charges, and (2) the existing variable annuity is being exchanged for a new annuity that has low or no surrender charges and lower fees and expenses than the existing variable annuity. Owners of variable annuities issues prior to 1982 should consult with a tax expert prior to making a 1035 exchange due to the special tax issues associated with such annuities.

What’s said: “If you’re ever dissatisfied with the performance of a subaccount in your variable annuity, you can switch to another subaccount without having to pay sales loads or taxes.”
What’s unsaid: While a mutual fund investor can choose from the entire universe of mutual funds, the variable annuity owner is limited to those subaccounts that are offered within the variable annuity.

Some variable annuities offer twenty or more subaccounts, while others may offer ten or less. In some cases, the insurance company sponsoring the variable annuity may limit all, or a majority, of the available subaccounts to their proprietary products. Quite often, these proprietary products have less than stellar performance records. It should also be noted that some variable annuities do impose a fee, usually in the range of $20-25 per switch, if the variable annuity owner exceeds a certain number of subaccount switches in a year.

What’s said: “The tax deferred growth offered by a variable annuity will allow you to pass more money on to your heirs.”
What’s unsaid: Variable annuities are terrible estate planning tools. If the variable annuity is ever annuitized, the variable annuity owner loses control of the annuity’s assets and, depending on the settlement options offered and chosen, the insurance company, not the owner’s heirs, may get any money remaining in the annuity when the owner dies.

If the variable annuity owner never annuitizes the annuity, then his/her heirs do receive the value of the variable annuity at the owner’s death. The beneficiaries of a variable annuity must pay income tax on the portion of the proceeds that represent the capital appreciation within the annuity. Such proceeds are taxed as ordinary income instead of capital gains, generally resulting in higher taxes and significantly less money for the owner’s beneficiaries.

Heirs receiving mutual funds, stocks, and ETFs as their inheritance pay no taxes due to the step-up in basis these investment products receive upon an owner’s death. The value of this estate planning benefit cannot be overstated, as it allows heirs to avoid the taxes associated with variable annuities and allows the owner to accomplish his/her goal, namely to pass more of the estate to his/her heirs.

Fixed Indexed/Equity Indexed Annuities
Much has been written about the advantages of investing in index funds. Index funds became even more popular during the bull market of the late 80’s and the 90’s, as indexes regularly reported annual double-digit gains. The annuity industry quickly responded by offering an index-based annuity, commonly referred to as fixed index annuities and/or equity indexed annuities. While equity indexed annuities are technically fixed, rather than variable, annuities, they merit discussion due to the fact that they are tied to an equity market index.

Some might say that the marketing of equity indexed annuities can mislead the public due to the severe restrictions placed on the indexed annuity owner’s ability to fully participate in an index’s gain. Most equity-indexed annuities limit, or “cap,” the owner’s annual gain to 10-12% regardless of the index’s actual gain. The owner’s ability to participate in the index’s gain is further restricted by the imposition of a “participation rate,” typically in the range of 70-80%. For example, if an investor owned an equity indexed annuity that capped the annuity owner’s annual gain at 10%, with a participation rate of 70%, the most that the annuity owner could earn for that year would be 7% (10% x .70), even if the index actually gained 30% that year.

Some equity-indexed annuities do offer downside protection by guaranteeing a minimum annual return, usually related to prevailing interest rates. Nevertheless, when an investor in an index based product is limited to a gain of 7% when the index itself shows a much larger gain, it is easy to understand why some investors may question the inherent value and fairness of the product.

Most annuities offer the owner a variety of additional benefits in exchange for additional fees. These benefits are offered in the form of additional contract provisions, or “riders.” The number of riders is too large to allow a complete discussion here. The prospective investor should analyze each rider offered to determine the true value of the benefit, if any, being offered and the effect of the additional fees.

One rider currently being offered is called an “enhanced death benefit” (EDB). The lack of a stepped-up basis for variable annuities is often an impediment to their purchase. In an effort to counter this disadvantage, the EDB pays an additional amount of money to the heirs in an attempt to mitigate the effect of the ordinary income tax that they must pay. The value of the EDB is very questionable due to the way that it is calculated and the fact that the EDB itself is also taxable. More often than not, the variable annuity owner will determine that the benefit offered by the rider simply does not justify the added cost of the rider.

Do variable annuities ever make sense? One situation where a variable annuity may make sense is where an investor wants tax deferred growth and they have maxed out all other tax-deferred growth options, such as 401(k)s and IRAs. Another situation where variable annuities may make sense is a situation where one’s profession and/or financial situation suggest a need for asset protection and the investor resides in a state that grants annuities protection against creditors.

Even then, an investor should only consider a variable annuity with low annual fees and little or no surrender charges, such as those offered by Vanguard, T. Rowe Price and TIAA-CREF, and only invest money that they can leave invested for a long time. Prospective annuity purchaser should remember Dr. Reichenstein’s findings that the typical variable annuity sold by variable annuity salesmen, with annual fees and expenses of approximately 2% and an annual contract fee, are always a poor investment choice.4 Investors should also look at the number and type of subaccounts offered within the variable annuity, the performance record of each subaccount, and the annual management fee charged by the subaccounts.

What options are available to investors who already own a variable annuity and are either dissatisfied with the performance of their annuity or question whether an annuity was a suitable investment for them? The question of suitability depends on various factors such as the investor’s age, investment objectives, financial needs, risk tolerance level, income, and need for liquidity. Suitability determinations are best handled by a truly objective source such as an attorney or a fee-only financial planner who has a background in annuities or securities compliance.

If a determination is made that the annuity was an unsuitable investment for the investor, the investor may choose to contact the broker and brokerage firm that sold them the annuity, as well as the insurance company that sponsors the annuity, and request that the variable annuity contract be rescinded and that their original investment be refunded in full. Given the current investigations by the NASD and the SEC into questionable annuity sales practices, the sanctions that have already been assessed in some cases, and pending legal actions involving the sale of annuities, investors with suitability questions should consider seeking a professional evaluation and objective advice regarding their situation to ensure that they are not exposing themselves to unnecessary financial losses due to unsuitable investments.

Variable annuity owners whose annuity was suitable, but who are dissatisfied with the costs and/or the performance of their annuity should consider exchanging their annuity for an annuity with lower costs, low or no surrender charges, and/or a better performance record once the surrender charge period on their present annuity expires. Annuity exchanges involving annuities that are still subject to surrender charges are generally discouraged due to the loss that would be created in having to pay the surrender charges.

Ethics and Fiduciary Issues
The marketing and sale of variable annuities continues to be a hot topic with regulators. By law, brokers are only supposed to recommend products that are suitable for an investor given their investment objectives, financial needs and overall investment profile. Investment advisors are required to put a client’s interests first and only recommend actions that are in a client’s best interests. Unfortunately, regulators continue to find far too many cases where the brokers and advisors have failed to honor these obligations and have engaged in predatory sales and marketing practices. In fact, annuity salesmen are sometimes taught to use such predatory tactics to induce an investor to purchase a variable annuity.5

As more and more variable annuity owners figure out the trap of annuitization, fewer variable annuity owners are annuitizing their contracts. This reduction in the annuitization rate has serious implications for the insurance industry, as it means that the amount of money that they receive from annuitized variable annuities could be significantly reduced. To prevent this loss, variable annuity owners should be alert to brokers and advisors urging more of their variable annuity clients to annuitize their variable annuities.

Given the fact that annuitization can frustrate a variable annuity owner’s estate plans and that there are other options available, such as systematic withdrawals, that enable variable annuity owners to tap into their variable annuity without forfeiting control of their annuity, a recommendation to annuitize may not be in a client’s best interests. In such circumstances, a recommendation to annuitize may well raise ethical questions and involve possible violations of securities laws/regulations.

Another example of the variable annuity industry’s seeming indifference to the best interests of the client can be seen in stories and reports prepared or sponsored by the industry comparing investments in annuities to investments in mutual funds. Close analysis of such stories and reports usually reveal that the opinions are based on assumptions heavily favoring the annuities, such as assuming that investors will only invest in mutual funds with high fees and that the fund and/or the investor will generate substantial capital gains by heavily trading the fund/account. Without such assumptions, the chances that the variable annuity will outperform the mutual fund are greatly reduced. Inexperienced investors, however, may not be able to detect such biases.

Rarely, if ever, will you find an industry-prepared or industry-sponsored analysis comparing an investment in a variable annuity to an investment in a low cost mutual fund, particularly an index fund. The low annual fees and passive management associated with index funds virtually guarantee that the variable annuity will always lose out in such comparisons. Long-term owners of stocks and ETFs could also outperform variable annuities as well since the stocks and ETFs would not be burdened by high annual fees and annual capital gains. A failure to disclose such relevant information may also raise ethical questions, particularly if the broker or advisor has a fiduciary relationship with the client.

Such issues, combined with dubious practices such as recommending the purchase of variable annuities within qualified plans and IRAs, recommending unsuitable annuity exchanges, and “bonus” annuities, raise legitimate questions as to whether recommendations to purchase variable annuities are based on the client’s best interests or the fact that commissions paid for variable annuity sales are higher than most other investment options. Unfortunately, FINRA and SEC investigations have proven that far too often the motivating factor is the latter.

Regulators have limited resources to detect and address abusive variable annuity practices. Consequently, investors must assume greater responsibility for their investment decisions and be willing to stand up for their rights when they have been misled or have suffered financial losses due to unsuitable investment advice.

Variable annuities are simply not an effective investment choice for most investors due to the costs, restrictions and adverse tax aspects of the product, particularly when compared to other investment options such as mutual funds and ETFs. Variable annuities are an especially poor choice as estate planning tools, as the implications of annuitization, the lack of a stepped-up basis at the variable annuity owner’s death, and the unavailability of the capital gains tax to minimize taxes may actually prevent a variable annuity owner from effectively passing on his/her estate to his/her heirs.

Variable annuities are investment products that are complex and often misunderstood. The lack of available information and the multitude of options and riders usually offered in connection with variable annuities only serve to increase the confusion. Prospective variable annuity purchasers should carefully consider both what is said and what is unsaid in sales pitches for variable annuities before deciding to invest in such products. Investors who do decide to purchase a variable annuity should only consider those with low annual fees, low or no surrender charges, and an adequate number of quality subaccounts to allow them to realize the highest returns possible. Owners of variable annuities should use systematic withdrawals, rather than annuitization, to withdraw money from the variable annuity in order to ensure that the owner’s heirs, not the insurance company, receive the value of the variable annuity upon the owner’s death.

© 2002, 2013, 2021 InvestSense, LLC. All rights reserved.

This article is not designed or intended to provide legal, investment, or other professional advice since such advice always requires consideration of individual circumstances. If legal, investment, or other professional assistance is needed, the services of an attorney or other professional advisor should be sought.

1. W. Reichenstein, “Who Should Buy A Nonqualified Tax-Deferred Annuity,” Financial Services Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, (Spring 2002), p.30. (with permission)
2. Ibid.
3. J. Opdyke, Shifting Annuities May Help Brokers More Than Investors, Wall St. J., Feb. 16, 2001, at C1.
4. Reichenstein, at 30.
5. E. Schultz and J. Opdyke, Annuities 101: How to Sell to Senior Citizens, Wall St. J., July 2, 2002, at C1.

Recommended Reading

Dr. William Reichenstein, CFA, holds the Pat and Thomas R. Powers Chair in Investment Management at Baylor University. He has written a number of informative papers on the subject of variable annuities and personal investing. His research is available on the Internet at the Baylor University web site at reichenstein/ research.htm.

C.T. Geer, “The Great Annuity Rip-off,” Forbes, February 9, 1998.

J. Kalter, “Annuities: Just Say No,” Worth, July/August 1996.

National Association of Security Dealers, “NASD Investor Alert: Should You Exchange Your Variable Annuity?,” February 15, 2001, available on the Internet at

S. Burns, “Why Variable Annuities Are No Match For Index Funds,” available on the Internet at extra/

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