In the US there are over one million licensed insurance agents/brokers. Many of them are trying to sell you an annuity (specifically a fixed index annuity). Why is that? Why does it make sense for brokers to sell them? Why does it make sense for insurance companies to try to sell them? In this post, we’ll examine the reasons and economics behind this industry.
What is an annuity?
An annuity is an insurance contract to save, tax deferred, for retirement or to generate regular income payments. Annuities typically have two phases: an accumulation phase and a withdrawal phase. During the accumulation phase you put money into an annuity and it grows, either according to a fixed interest rate (called a fixed deferred annuity), or linked to the stock market (through either a fixed index annuity or a variable annuity). During the withdrawal phase you can either choose to withdraw the money in a lump sum, or you can convert it to a monthly income that is guaranteed for the rest of your life (often called an immediate annuity).
Do annuities make sense for customers?
In many cases they can make sense. Often consumers who are over the age of 50 are worried about their long-term financial stability and are looking for guarantees against certain risks. One such risk might be that they run out of income later in life. Another risk might be that their wealth is in investments that might lose money. Consumers are aware that stock markets can crash like they did in 2008, 1987, or even 1929. In many cases, an annuity may be a good solution to be protected from those risks. However, there are many cases where it does not make sense. If someone is over the age of 80, they should not be buying an annuity that pays them income in 20 years. If someone is 50 but does not have money they can have grow without needing to touch it, an annuity is a bad fit, because annuities tend to have high withdrawal charges.
How does the agent get paid?
Agents get paid a commission for selling annuities. The magnitude of the commission often depends on the term of the policy that you are taking out. If it is a long term, the commission tends to be higher. And certain products pay higher commissions. For example, a MYGA, which is the insurance industry’s version of a certificate of deposit (CD), pays commissions of about 1% to 2% of the amount of money you put in. A fixed index annuity pays a commission of about 5% to 10%.
From the insurance broker’s point of view, they are constantly trying to find new clients to sell annuities to. The obvious way to maximize their earnings is to sell as much of the higher-commission product as possible. It’s almost as much work to sell a low-commission product as a high-commission product, and the payoff is 5 to 10 times as large.
This incentive creates behaviors that might not be in the best interest of the customer. You may be a good fit for the MYGA, but the broker is highly incentivized to try to up-sell you a fixed index annuity or some other high-commission product. This can mean that a broker might gloss over some of the downsides to the products. But why are insurance companies incentivising brokers the way they are? Why do they, for example, want you to buy a fixed index annuity rather than a multi-year guaranteed annuity?
How does the insurance carrier get paid?
Let’s look at the economics of a simple product such as a MYGA. When the insurance company sells you a MYGA, you give them money and they promise to give you a fixed rate of return over a period of time. They take your money, invest it in bonds, and share the return up to what they promised you. They need to give you enough return that you’ll find the rate enticing relative to alternatives (more than a bank CD, for example). They also need to pay the agent a commission of 1% to 2% of your money. When all is said and done, there just isn’t as much left over in profit from the product. The insurer could buy riskier bonds that pay a higher rate of interest, but then this might affect the insurer’s ratings and thus their reputation with customers. Because of the simplicity of the product, the standardization of it, and the availability of clear alternatives, there just aren’t that many ways the insurer can hide a huge fat profit margin.
Most fixed index annuities are different in that they are extremely complicated. So complicated, in fact, that it’s not obvious to a customer how they should compare one fixed index annuity to another.
There are many more variables the insurer can play with: the index on which the fixed index annuity is based, the exact formula used to credit interest, and more. It’s not obvious to the customer what the fair price is for the annuity, and there isn’t an easy way for consumers to compare and contrast them. This makes it easier for the insurer to hide a large profit margin in the product.
But because the products are now more complicated, they require a broker/agent to sell them to people. It’s hard to imagine a consumer who would look at a fixed index annuity on their own and decide that they fully understand the product and should buy it. To get brokers excited about selling the products, the carriers need to pay them a large commission. That is how the industry ends up with extremely complex products that are sold by a highly commissioned sales force. We think the main loser in this arrangement is the customer, who is giving up higher potential growth of their money.