Annuity - Good or Bad?


Annuity - What is an Annuity? Even the word "Annuity" can cause confusion.  I can think of it being used in at least 3 different ways:

1.  TSA or Tax Sheltered Annuity.  This is another name (old name) for 403(b) retirement plans.  Generally, you can ignore the word "Annuity" in this context and just make the best choices inside of your 403(b).  If you have one you may wish to read my post on 401(k)s.  Here is a link filled summary from Wikipedia....

A 403(b) plan is a U.S. tax-advantaged retirement savings plan available for public educationorganizations, some non-profit employers (only Internal Revenue Code501(c)(3) organizations), cooperative hospital service organizations, and self-employedministers in the United States. It has tax treatment similar to a 401(k) plan, especially after the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001.

Employee salary deferrals into a 403(b) plan are made before income tax is paid and allowed to grow tax-deferred until the money is taxed as income when withdrawn from the plan.

403(b) plans are also referred to as a tax-shelteredannuity although since 1974 they no longer are restricted to an annuity form and participants can also invest in mutual funds.

2.  An offer of a Lump Sum or an Annuity at retirement.  This can be a very complicated calculation.  There is a lot to consider and I strongly suggest you get help from a CPA or a Fee-Only financial advisor.  (Do not use an advisor that gets paid via a commission).

3.  An annuity that you willingly (or maybe under high sales pressure) choose to buy.  I am a big fan of the phrase, "Annuities are not bought, they're sold."   I have a VERY negative opinion of this type of Product.  I have previously discussed a similar product in this post.  That previous post gave a generic example based on actual products.  If you want to read about all the different "Types" of annuities you can read this post from Investopedia.

Some have complained that I have not looked at a really good Annuity.  Every time I ask for such an example the conversation seems to end.  I am still waiting to see a "good" annuity.  Anyone????

Recently, I was contacted by Nationwide Life Insurance.  They had a "NEW" annuity that will be the best one ever!  They seemed very excited so, I signed up for some webinars and collected information.  Below is my analysis of a very specific product "Nationwide New Heights Fixed Indexed Annuity".  If you want more information that is what is discussed below - contact me and I can give you much much more.

Nationwide New Heights Fixed Indexed Annuity

Generally, "Fixed" and "Indexed" are considered two different types of annuities.

You also need to know that if the insurance company goes broke - You man not get all of your money.

It’s important to remember that all protections and guarantees are subject to the claims-paying ability of Nationwide Life and Annuity Insurance Company.

The sales person is paid a 7% commission to sell this to you.  If you buy $100,000 they make $7,000!  NOTE:  I am not paid by any company to sell anything.  I am one of the few FEE-ONLY advisors that only get paid by clients.

CDSC - Contingent Deferred Sales Charge.  If you decide you don't want this product you pay a 10% penalty to get out in the first year.  This penalty is decreased by 1% for each year you own the annuity.

Taxes - People often think that you pay no taxes on an annuity - WRONG!  Here is what the Brochure says....

If you take withdrawals or surrender your contract you may be subject to federal and state ordinary income taxes. In addition to income tax, you may be subject to a 10% early withdrawal federal tax penalty if you take withdrawals or surrender your contract before age 59½. Nationwide does not offer tax advice.

Death - How much do your beneficiaries get?

In general, if you are the sole owner and annuitant, upon your death a death benefit will be payable to the beneficiaries named on your contract. The death benefit paid will be equal to the greater of the Balanced Allocation Value (BAV) or the surrender value.

Nationwide did send me a 15 page glossy brochure to read but, when I asked for a prospectus they said they don't have one.  They informed me that the law does not require them to make one for annuities - buyer beware.  I did find an old annuity from this same company that did have a prospectus but, I could not force myself to read all 184 pages.

Here is what the brochure says the product offers.....

1. A Return of Purchase Payment Guarantee to help protect your retirement savings 2. Unlimited growth potential

Return of Purchase Payment Guarantee - if you die or wait.  The brochure does have this footnote....

return of purchase payment guarantee: You will receive 100% of your purchase payment less sum of gross withdrawals in the following instances 1) you surrender your contract after the 10th contract anniversary, 2) when the death benefit is payable, or 3) on a full surrender on or after a long-term care event or terminal illness or injury event (please note: long-term care and terminal illness or injury may not be available in all states and long-term care may be referred to as confinement). [Emphasis added]

So, you can get the money back if you die, wait 10 years or get terminally ill.  Nice!  Don't forget, they take out the "sum of gross withdrawals".  Not sure what that includes.

While this is sold as a long-term plan and you can buy at any age, you cannot be an annuitant after the age 80.  I am not 100% sure what this means but I bet it is fully explained in the 100+ page contract.

annuitant: The person upon whom any life-contingent annuity payments depend and the person whose death triggers payment of the death benefit.

Unlimited growth potential - True but....

Now it gets really complicated.  This is heart of the product and the reason you MIGHT want to buy this thing.  It is also very confusing.

New Heights offers you multiple Balanced Allocation Strategy options, known as strategy options, all of which have the potential of strategy earnings. Strategy earnings are credited at the end of each strategy term, on withdrawals, when a full surrender is requested and when death benefits are payable.  Strategy options are a blend of an equity indexed component, declared rate component and strategy spread component. Since no limits are placed on your strategy earnings potential, you have the opportunity to receive potentially higher long-term accumulation based on the performance of the underlying index.

Was that clear? NO?  That's ok - they then go on to explain it....

In general, the strategy option works like this: • The equity indexed component is the equity indexed allocation, multiplied by the performance of the underlying indexes • The declared rate component reflects interest earned on the declared rate allocation, based on an interest rate (the declared rate) established by Nationwide Life and Annuity Insurance Company • These two are combined and the total amount over the strategy spread component is used to determine the strategy earnings, if any, at the end of the strategy term, on free withdrawals and upon death. Partial strategy earnings may be credited on withdrawals in excess of the available free withdrawal amount. If the strategy spread component is greater than the result of the other two components combined, no strategy earnings would be credited. Strategy earnings will never be less than zero

Let me try.

First, you get to pick one of three Strategies (A, B or C).  You only learn this if you get the Nationwide New Heights Fixed Indexed Annuity Rate Sheet.  It is NOT in the brochure.  How do you know which one is right for you?  Who knows, this shit is complicated and I'm just getting started.  I will not bore you with all of the details but I will select "Strategy Option A" for the rest of this discussion.

Strategy Option A
Strategy Option A

Option A has two parts:

1. 42% is in the "Declared rate allocation" - a.k.a. cash (this is the fixed part).  You get 0% return every year - so suck it!

2.  58% is in the "Equity indexed allocation".  This is the part that you get to enjoy the returns of the market - Kinda.  They keep 100% of the stock market dividends or about +2% per year - you get the rest. (Less fees of course)

Spread - This is a FEE you pay each year on the full amount of the Annuity (not just the Indexed part - cleaver eh).

Now, a specific example....

If you bought this annuity with $100,000 on Jan 1, 2014 this is the result you get in one year....

2014 the S&P total return is 13.69 %.  However, they keep all of the dividend payments so you get 11.39%.

But that is only applied to the 58% that is in the market.  You get $6,606.20.  The 42% in the "Declared rate" part gets 0%.  Don't forget, you must pay the "Spread" of 2.25% on the entire $100,000 for a total of $2,250.  You get a total of $4,356.20 ($6,606.20 - $2,250).

So, while the market is up 13.69% you make 4.36% - you just lost 9.33% or $9,334 (congratulations).

Let's look at what happened in 2013....

2013 the S&P total return is 32.39 %.  However, they keep all of the dividend payments so you get 29.60%.

But that is only applied to the 58% that is in the market.  You get $17,168.  The 42% in the "Declared rate" part gets 0%.   Don't forget, you must pay the "Spread" of 2.25% on the entire $100,000 for a total of $2,250.  You get a total of $14,918 ($17,168 - $2,250).

So, while the market is up 32.39% you make 14.92% - you just lost 17.47% or $17,470 (Yeah!).

The nice part of the annuity is that if the market goes down next year by 12% (NOTE:  not a prediction just an example) you will make 0% and not lose money.  Sadly, you missed most of the upside for the last 6 years.  Here are the results of 2013-2015 (with the theoretical decrease of 12% in 2015 fyi... a loss this big happened only 4 times in the last 45 years).

S&P 500

















You are still behind by $12,172 in just 3 years.

Taxes - Yeah Right.  Info from Forbes...

...the tax deferral comes with a downside in that there’s a 10% penalty for withdrawals before age 59 1/2. That could be a problem if you need the money in an emergency, decide to invest it in something else, or want to retire early.

Another tax problem is that when you take withdrawals or annuitize it, the earnings are taxed as regular income.

But if you would have invested in a regular stock mutual fund, a lot of those earnings would have been taxed at the lower capital gains rate (currently 0-15%). You also give up the ability to use losses to offset other taxes.

The final tax problem doesn’t affect you but your heirs. When someone inherits the annuity, they’ll have to pay taxes on all the earnings that you haven’t paid taxes on during your lifetime. On the other hand, if that was a stock mutual fund, they may be eligible for a step up in cost basis, which could mean little or no taxable gain for your heirs.

Let's say you are less than 59.5 years old and you now want to spend 100% your money.  You get the following results...

Taxable account you paid Tax on the dividends each year for a loss of about 1% and now 15% capital gains (assume you are single tax filer with an income of $100,000) on the extra $32k.  Total tax around $6k (at most).  This is a rough guess, I am not a CPA.  So you get a net amount of about $126k

Annuity - you pay no tax in the dividends - you did not make any.  You pay no tax as you go - this is the biggest selling point of an Annuity.  However, when you take the money out you get a 7% penalty or about $8,400 (you were only in 3 years) another 10% penalty because you are not over 59.5 years old (loss of $11k).  The remaining amount of $400 you pay a 28% tax.  So you get a net amount of $100k for a 3 year loss of $26,000.

Let us say you are a long-term investor.  If you held the annuity for the last 24 years you would a value of $355,950. (This value is from the document I received from Nationwide)

If you invested in the S&P 500 you would have about $893,864 (I even took out estimated annual taxes).  Most people just pay the taxes and don't reduce their investments.  I am giving the annuity every break that I can. (If you don't remove taxes you would have $1,025,100 - Just sayin'.)

But wait it gets worse.....

After taxes you get:

$269884 from the annuity ($335,950 less 28% tax on the growth) or

$774,631 from the taxable account ($893,684 less 15% capital gains on your growth - you paid income tax along the way).

Remember if you leave this money to your heirs they pay no tax on the stocks.  So, you could leave them about $270k or $894k!

These are some of the reasons I don't like Annuities.

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For more information visit Polaris Financial Planning or

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NOTE: This post is part of an ongoing education series. This information is for educational purposes only. This information does not constitute investment advice. Please consult with your financial advisor before taking any action.

Top 5 Reasons to move that old 401(k) - NOW!

Photo via WTVR
Photo via WTVR

On of the questions I get asked most is, "What should I do with my old 401(k) or old 403(b)?"

Quick Answer - Move the money into an IRA - NOW! (read more below, if you want details)

A quick definition of 401(k) from Invetopedia....

A qualified plan established by employers to which eligible employees may make salary deferral (salary reduction) contributions on a post-tax and/or pretax basis. Employers offering a 401(k) plan may make matching or non-elective contributions to the plan on behalf of eligible employees and may also add a profit-sharing feature to the plan. Earnings accrue on a tax-deferred basis.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics say that the average person will have 11 different jobs between the age of 18 to 44.  That is a new job every 2.4 years.  When you move from one job to another you may leave behind an old 401(k).  I have had people come to me with many old 401(k)s and they don't know their options.

There are several things you can do with that old 401(K)

1.  leave the money in your former employer’s plan;

2.  roll over the money to your new employer’s plan, if the plan accepts transfers;

3.  roll over the money into an IRA;or

4.  take the cash value of your account.

If you take out the cash you will likely be subject to a 10% penalty and taxes on the amount you withdraw.  If you take $100,000 of that old 401(k) you will pay the $10,000 penalty plus federal income tax at your marginal rate which could be as high as 39.6% AND state income tax.  If you live in a high tax state you could lose more than half of the money.

You don't want to leave the money behind in your old 401(k) and you don't want to move it to your new job.  401(k)s are a nice idea but they also have some serious problems.  While, you almost always want to collect the free match (if provided) from your employer you may not want to put in any extra money. ( I will do a post on this soon).

There are problems with 401(k)s:

1. Limited options

2.  High and expenses are higher

3.  No or poor advice

4.  Poor performance

5.  Loss of control (your company can change the plan without your consent)

You want to move the money out of that old 401(k) as soon as possible!  You have all of the problems listed above but you may have some additional problems with an old 401(k) if you wait.

You may move and lose contact with the old 401(k).

The company goes out of business and you have to find the old 401 (k).

This can add extra work and stress to get the money moved and it gets worse with time.  If you have an old 401(k) move it!

Listen to The Phil Ferguson show here....

iTunes link....

RSS feed to add to your favorite podcast player

Please like The Phil Ferguson Show Facebook page...

For more information visit Polaris Financial Planning or

send me an email:

NOTE: This post is part of an ongoing education series. This information is for educational purposes only. This information does not constitute investment advice. Please consult with your financial advisor before taking any action.

US Market Segment Analysis Ending 2014

NOTE: This post is part of an ongoing education series. This information is for educational purposes only. This information does not constitute investment advice. Please consult with your financial advisor before taking any action. For planning advice contact Polaris Financial Planning. Every year I take a long look at how different segments of the US stock market are doing.  Below is the historical performance of 6 US stock market segments.  This is one of the tools I use to create / balance investment portfolios.  This data is based on Vanguard Index Funds.  One must always remember - Past performance does not guarantee future results.

US Market Matrix as of 12/31/14

12-Month Return 3-Year Average 5-Year Average 10-Year Average
Large Growth Average 13.38 20.41 15.48 8.00
Large Value Average 13.48 20.15 14.96 7.30
Mid-Cap Growth Average 13.35 20.12 16.53 9.29*
Mid-Cap Value Average 13.84 21.94 17.04 9.46*
Small Growth Average 3.88 18.98 16.72 9.41
Small Value Average 10.39 21.31 16.39 8.32

* Based on index data provided at

For reference here is the returns for the total market index.

12-Month Return 3-Year Average 5-Year Average 10-Year Average
Total Stock Market Return 12.56 20.49 15.70 8.10

I use the top table as a contrarian indicator.  The better one of the segments has done and the longer it has exceeded the long term average, the less desirous it is.  Conversely, large under performance over a long period of time MAY indicate a buying opportunity within that given segment.  You can also use this as a guide to check the performance of your portfolio.  If the US stock segment of your investments have returned 7% per year for the last 5 years - you may have a problem.

All six US segments are UP over all time periods shown above.  You will also notice that except for the last 12 months, the results are fairly even.  I do not place much value on single year variations but the significant under performance of the Small Growth Segment in the last year is interesting.  Over the last 10 years the Large Value Average is trailing the other segments.  I see this as a very mild contraction indicator.  Based on just this table, I would be temped to slightly increase the weighting I give to that segment of the US Stock Market.

If you would like more information or specific advice on your portfolio please contact Polaris Financial Planning.

Stock Market Returns

Stock Market ReturnsNOTE: This post is part of an ongoing education series. This information is for educational purposes only. This information does not constitute investment advice. Please consult with your financial advisor before taking any action. For planning advice contact Polaris Financial Planning. I just had a reader contact me and ask me, "How much money should I have made in 2014?" They just got their annual statement from their broker and they made about 2.5% on their stock portfolio.

Like many things in investing - it depends. If you are in retirement you may want portfolio with a portion of your money in bonds. Such a portfolio generally has less volatility and lower long term returns. However, it can provide a higher level of certainty if you need to take money out in less than 10 years.

Stock Market Returns 2014

The Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund was up 12.43%.

The S&P 500 index (just large cap stocks) went up 11.54%. When you add back in the dividends the total is 13.69%.

The Vanguard Extended Market Fund (small and mid cap stocks) was up 7.42%


The reader that contacted me underperformed "The Total Market" by about 10% (2.5% vs. 12.43%) for 2014.

In 2014, large stocks did quite a bit better that small stock (13.69% vs. 7.42%) but the reverse is often true. Sadly, it is often difficult to find data on how "The Market" has performed over the long run. Thankfully, S&P 500 data is easy to get. Most of the data below is pulled from Wikipedia. Clearly, this is not the "total" market but over the long run results are very close to the total market.

Take a look at this year by year table and then continue to read, below the table.....

Year Total Annual Return Including Dividends
1970 4.01%
1971 14.31%
1972 18.98%
1973 −14.66%
1974 −26.47%
1975 37.20%
1976 23.84%
1977 −7.18%
1978 6.56%
1979 18.44%
1980 32.50%
1981 −4.92%
1982 21.55%
1983 22.56%
1984 6.27%
1985 31.73%
1986 18.67%
1987 5.25%
1988 16.61%
1989 31.69%
1990 −3.10%
1991 30.47%
1992 7.62%
1993 10.08%
1994 1.32%
1995 37.58%
1996 22.96%
1997 33.36%
1998 28.58%
1999 21.04%
2000 −9.10%
2001 −11.89%
2002 −22.10%
2003 28.68%
2004 10.88%
2005 4.91%
2006 15.79%
2007 5.49%
2008 −37.00%
2009 26.46%
2010 15.06%
2011 2.11%
2012 16.00%
2013 32.39%
2014 13.69%

You may have noticed that in the 45 years listed there are up years and down years. The worst year was 2008 (-37.00%) and the best year was 1995 (+37.58%). This volatility scares away many investors. I feel compelled to warn you, if you need money for a car, college tuition, a new home or some other expense, in the next couple of years - that money should not be in the stock market!

If you are a long term investor the results are Fantastic! The Compound Annual Growth Rate since 1970 is 10.47%. Only 9 of the 45 years are negative (20%). 36 of the years are up.

The way to dramatically reduce the volatility is to stay in the market for a longer period of time.

(NOTE: This is based on the historical data above. Remember, Past performance does not guarantee future results)

Years   performance range      80% range (cut top and bottom 10%)

1           +37.58% to -37.00%     +31.73% to -9.10%

5           +28.26 to -2.35%           +19.87% to -0.57%

10         +19.21 to -1.38%            +18.05% to +5.86%

15          +18.93 to +4.24%         +16.80% to +5.45%

20         +17.88 to +7.81%          +15.68% to +8.43%

25         +17.25 to +9.28%          +14.94% to +9.71%

Investing for just 5 years, the worst case is a loss of 2.35% and you have a 90% chance of doing better than -0.47% in total returns. When you look at the 10 year results the worst is -1.38% and there is a 90% chance that you will do better than +5.86%.

If you have any questions or want more information please feel free to contact me.

Socially Responsible Mutual Funds

Socially Responsible Mutual Funds

NOTE: This post is part of an ongoing education series. This information is for educational purposes only. This information does not constitute investment advice. Please consult with your financial advisor before taking any action. For planning advice contact Polaris Financial Planning.

What are Socially Responsible Mutual Funds? (also known as Socially Responsible Investing - SRI)

Socially Responsible Mutual Funds often invest in companies that pay attention to things like....



Human Rights


Product Safety

Or, they avoid companies that invest in....





I have been telling people for years that Socially Responsible Mutual Funds are a bad choice but, as a good skeptic, I have to double check. I have to make sure I just don't look for evidence that confirms my view I have to look for evidence that confronts my position and evaluate it. I begin with a Google search and found a very positive story about Socially Responsible mutual funds from Kiplinger.

The author tells us that it is a growing business.

In 1995, there were only 55 mutual funds that engaged in SRI, with $12 billion in assets. Now there are 493, with assets of $569 billion.

That is amazing growth but, is it an appeal to popularity. Maybe it is just the result of good marketing. I need to know more about how these funds work.

Unfortunately, There is also a serious problem in defining what can be bought in Socially Responsible mutual funds. Each fund is different and has different rules. Some say you can't buy stock in Apple because in uses kids in low income countries others say you should by Apple because it helps people in low income countries. I found this in the Kiplinger story....

Lately, some of the largest SRI funds have been straying from their dogma and injecting more subjective judgment into their decision-making. Or maybe they’re just hedging their bets. For instance, the Web site of Domini Social Equity (DSEFX), founded in 1991, contains this disclaimer: “Domini may determine that a security is eligible for investment even if a corporation’s profile reflects a mixture of positive and negative social and environmental characteristics.”

Huh? So, they can invest in anything? What is the point. You may find another fund that invests in what you wanc but, they can change later - after they have your money. You cannot control what they buy.

The Kiplinger's story featured a few of the best Socially Responsible Mutual Funds (and ETFs) and looked at their results. Unfortunately, they used different time periods (sometimes 5 years sometimes 15 years) when looking at the different options and I did not like that they kept comparing results to the S&P 500 index. The S&P 500 is only large companies and for the last 10 years it has slightly lagged the whole market. I think a better comparison is the Wilshire 5000 index.

Some of the funds Kiplinger mentioned have loads (an extra fee you pay to buy) of around 5% and one required an initial investment of $1,000,000. (note: Kiplinger did not reduce returns to account for the load.)

Let's look at their first example....

Consider iShares MSCI USA ESG Select Index (symbol KLD), an exchange-traded fund

that tracks an index of companies that it says follow high “environmental, social and governance” standards. Over the past five years, the fund returned an annualized 2.3%, compared with 1.7% for Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index.

I realized that this story was published in May of 2012 (2.5 years ago) and those 5 years included the horrible year of 2008. I was curious, how did this investment do since then? From June 1, 2012 to Oct 29, 2014 KLD returned 44.43% and the S&P 500 Index returned 52.64% (NOTE the Wilshire 5000 was up 53.03%). KLD under performed by more than 8% - ouch. Remember what they always say, "Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results".

I decided to take a bigger look and found a good basket of Socially Responsible mutual funds. I used the site to help me find some of these funds. I only wanted to look at funds that had a 10 year track record (ending June 30, 2014) and invested just in the US stock market. Here is what I found....

Fund Name 10 Year Average

TIAA-CREF Social Choice Equity Fund


Calvert Social Index


Domini Social Equity


Walden Equity


Ariel Funds


Dreyfus Third Century C


Green Century Equity


Legg - Mason Social Aware C


Parnassus Fund


Sentinal Sustainable Core A


Vanguard FTSE Social Index


Walden Social Equity Fund


The overall performance of these funds was 6.90% per year. The Wilshire 5000 was 8.50% per year. The under performance is about 1.6% per year. This is about the same result for mutual funds as a whole. This is one of the many reasons I recommend Index Funds. You may have noticed that one fund (Parnassus) did better than the market. 1 out of 12! There is no reason to think this is anything but chance.

Why do these funds do so poorly? An important factor is costs....(via Investopedia)

Socially responsible mutual funds tend to have higher fees than regular funds. These higher fees can be attributed to the additional ethical research that mutual fund managers must undertake. In addition, socially responsible funds tend to be managed by smaller mutual fund companies and the assets under management are relatively small.

The final problem with Socially Responsible Mutual Funds is that you are not actually helping.

Let me explain....

When you (or the mutual fund) buy a stock, you buy it from someone that already owns the stock. NO money goes to the company. This does not apply to IPOs (Initial Public Offerings). With an IPO the money goes directly to the company but, the IPO price is set in advance and any increase in demand does not directly benefit the company (unless the company can't sell all of the shares). You could argue that the increased demand in a specific (socially responsible) stock could increase the price and provide a benefit to the CEO or other big investors. This is also unlikely because there are other investors that will sell shares if they think the stock's price has gone up beyond the perceived value of the company.

In summary we have these problems...

1) You can't know for sure if the funds do (or will do) what you want.

2) You will likely under perform the market by 1.6%

3) You are not actually doing any good.

The solution....

Invest in index funds and take 1.6% out each year and give it to the charity of your choice! You will have control over the money and you will know that you are making a difference. Everybody wins!