Surviving the Variable: Navigating Variable Annuity Investments

In the realm of investing, the one constant is change. The financial market, with its dynamic and unpredictable nature, often resembles a stormy sea, with waves of volatility that can both intimidate and excite investors.

This capriciousness can be both a boon, offering opportunities for considerable gains, and a bane, presenting substantial risks. So, how does one sail these tumultuous waters with a sense of assurance?

Enter variable annuities. As their name suggests, these financial products offer variability, directly linking their performance to that of the market.

For those willing to brave the market's highs and lows, variable annuities serve as an intriguing vessel, allowing investors to potentially benefit from market upswings while providing some mechanisms for protection against the downsides.

In this guide, we'll delve deep into the world of variable annuities, demystifying their structure, and exploring strategies to harness their potential. Join us as we navigate these variable waters, seeking a path to financial security and growth.

Understanding Annuities

What are Annuities?

At its core, an annuity is a contract made with an insurance company. By making a lump-sum payment or a series of payments to the insurance company, the investor, in turn, receives periodic disbursements.

These payments can commence immediately or at a future date and are designed to provide a steady income stream, primarily during retirement.

Fixed vs. Variable Annuities

To truly grasp the allure of variable annuities, it's essential to understand their counterpart: fixed annuities.

Fixed Annuities: The cornerstone of a fixed annuity is predictability. When you invest in a fixed annuity, the insurance company guarantees both the rate of return on your account and the payout amount. It's akin to sailing in calm waters, where the path ahead is clear, and surprises are minimal.

Variable Annuities: Contrary to fixed annuities, variable annuities don't offer guaranteed returns. Instead, they allow investors to allocate their money among various investment options, typically mutual funds.

The rate of return on these investments, and consequently the amount of periodic payments the investor will receive, fluctuates based on the performance of the chosen investment options.

It's a journey through unpredictable waters, where the rewards can be significant, but so can the challenges.

The distinction between these two is paramount. While fixed annuities promise stability, variable annuities offer a chance at higher returns, albeit with increased risk.

For those with an appetite for risk and an eye on potentially higher rewards, variable annuities present an enticing option. However, they require a keen understanding of the market and a well-thought-out strategy to truly thrive.

What is a Variable Annuity?

Defining the Variable Annuity

A variable annuity is a unique contract between an investor and an insurance company. Under this agreement, the investor makes a lump-sum payment or series of payments.

In return, the insurer agrees to make periodic payments to the investor, either immediately or at a later date.

What differentiates variable annuities from their fixed counterparts is the nature of their investment component.

Structure of a Variable Annuity

At the heart of a variable annuity lies its sub-accounts. These sub-accounts are essentially pools of investor funds, functioning much like mutual funds.

They invest in a range of securities, from equities and bonds to money market instruments.

When an individual invests in a variable annuity, they have the liberty to allocate their investment among these various sub-accounts based on their risk tolerance, investment goals, and other personal factors.

Determining Returns on Investment

The returns on a variable annuity are inherently volatile, given that they are directly tied to the performance of the sub-accounts chosen by the investor.

If these investments do well, the value of the annuity increases, leading to potentially larger payouts during the annuitization phase.

Conversely, if the investments underperform, the annuity's value can decrease, impacting the eventual returns.

Two primary factors determine the return on a variable annuity:

Performance of Chosen Investments: The gains or losses of the underlying sub-accounts directly influence the value of the variable annuity.

Mortality and Expense Charges: Variable annuities often come with associated fees, which can impact overall returns.

The most common of these fees is the Mortality and Expense (M&E) charge, which is levied by the insurance company to guarantee the death benefit and cover other contract costs.

In essence, while the potential for higher returns makes variable annuities an attractive proposition for some, they are inherently more complex than fixed annuities.

Their returns are unpredictable, necessitating a deeper understanding of investment dynamics and a strategic approach to portfolio allocation.

Components of Variable Annuities

Investment Options: Separate Accounts or Sub-Accounts

The core of a variable annuity's investment component lies in its separate accounts or sub-accounts.

These sub-accounts operate akin to mutual funds:

Diversification: Just as mutual funds diversify their holdings across various assets, sub-accounts spread investments among different securities, which can range from equities and bonds to more specialized portfolios.

Choice and Allocation: Investors have the flexibility to choose which sub-accounts they want to invest in, allowing for a personalized strategy based on individual risk tolerance, investment horizon, and financial goals.

As market conditions and personal priorities evolve, investors also have the option to switch their funds between different sub-accounts, though this may sometimes come with associated fees.

The Role of the General Account

Apart from the sub-accounts, insurance companies maintain a general account, which is pivotal in the functioning of variable annuities:

Safety and Guarantees: While sub-accounts bear market risks, the general account is more conservative, with its assets primarily invested in fixed-income securities.

This account backs the guarantees promised by the insurance company, including death benefits and any additional riders.

Determining Payouts: The general account often plays a role in determining minimum guaranteed payouts, even if the performance of the sub-accounts isn't up to the mark. However, for higher returns, the performance of the sub-accounts remains crucial.

Death Benefits and Living Benefits

One of the hallmarks of variable annuities is the variety of benefits they offer, ensuring both life cover and retirement income:

Death Benefits: If an investor dies before annuitizing their contract, variable annuities typically guarantee that beneficiaries will receive a specified amount usually at least the amount of the investor's original investment. Some contracts also offer enhanced death benefits for an extra charge.

Living Benefits: Over and above the death benefits, many variable annuities come with riders or options that provide living benefits.

These can include:

  • Guaranteed Minimum Income Benefits (GMIB): Ensuring a minimum level of annuity payments, regardless of the performance of the sub-account investments.
  • Guaranteed Minimum Withdrawal Benefits (GMWB): Allowing for withdrawals up to a certain limit, even if the investment underperforms.

In essence, the various components of variable annuities offer a blend of investment opportunity and insurance protection.

While they present the chance to earn higher returns through market participation, they also provide layers of safety nets, ensuring financial security for investors and their beneficiaries.

Pros of Investing in Variable Annuities

Potential for Higher Returns

One of the primary attractions of variable annuities is the opportunity they present for potentially higher returns.

Unlike fixed annuities that offer a guaranteed interest rate, variable annuities offer returns based on the performance of their underlying investments. This means:

Market Participation: Investors can benefit from the growth of the equity markets or other investment avenues, as their money is invested in sub-accounts that mirror mutual funds.

Customization: Since investors can choose which sub-accounts they want to invest in, they have the flexibility to tailor their investment strategy to their risk appetite and financial goals, possibly optimizing returns.

Tax Deferral Benefits

Variable annuities, like other annuity products, come with the advantage of tax-deferred growth:

Compounding Growth: Earnings from investments in variable annuities are not taxed until they are withdrawn. This means the investment grows on a tax-deferred basis, allowing the money to compound faster than in a taxable account.

Flexibility in Withdrawals: When withdrawals are made, typically during retirement when investors might be in a lower tax bracket, they might benefit from paying less tax on their annuity income.

Guaranteed Death Benefits

While variable annuities are primarily investment products, they don't neglect the insurance component:

Protection for Beneficiaries: Should the investor pass away before beginning to receive annuity payments, variable annuities typically guarantee that beneficiaries receive at least the amount of the original investment, if not more, depending on the contract terms and market performance.

Enhanced Benefits: Some variable annuities offer additional death benefit options, providing beneficiaries with greater amounts, though this might come with additional charges.

Opportunities for Additional Income Through Riders

For those looking to enhance their variable annuity contracts, riders offer an array of additional benefits:

Income Guarantees: Riders like the Guaranteed Minimum Income Benefit (GMIB) or the Guaranteed Minimum Withdrawal Benefit (GMWB) provide guaranteed income streams, regardless of market performance.

Long-term Care Riders: Some contracts may allow the addition of riders that provide benefits for long-term care, adding another layer of financial security in case of health-related uncertainties.

In summary, variable annuities blend the world of investment and insurance, offering both growth potential and guarantees. They provide an avenue for those looking to participate in the market, while also seeking certain assurances for their financial future.

Cons of Variable Annuities

Investment Risks and Market Exposure

Unlike fixed annuities that provide a guaranteed interest rate, variable annuities come with investment risks:

Market Volatility: Returns on variable annuities depend on the performance of the underlying investments, making them susceptible to market fluctuations. This means that there's a possibility the account value may decrease if the chosen investments underperform.

No Guarantees on Principal: Unlike some other types of annuities, the principal amount in variable annuities isn't guaranteed, and it's possible to lose the initial investment.

Fees: Mortality and Expense Risk Charges, Administrative Fees, and Fund Expenses

Variable annuities can be more expensive than other retirement vehicles due to various fees:

Mortality and Expense Risk Charges: This fee compensates the insurance company for insurance risks and guarantees provided within the annuity. It typically averages about 1.25% of the account value annually.

Administrative Fees: These are fees associated with record-keeping and other administrative expenses. They can be a flat account fee or a percentage of the account's value.

Fund Expenses: Since the investments within a variable annuity mirror mutual funds, there are inherent fund expenses that cover the management and operation of those funds.

Surrender Charges and Other Potential Penalties

Withdrawing funds from a variable annuity, especially within the early years of the contract, can come with a cost:

Surrender Charges: If you withdraw money from a variable annuity within a certain period after a purchase payment (often 6 to 8 years, but it can be longer), the insurance company may hit you with a surrender charge.

This is a type of sales charge or fee that starts high often around 7% to 8% of the amount withdrawn and reduces gradually each year.

Tax Penalties: If you take out money before the age of 59½, you may have to pay a 10% federal tax penalty on top of regular income tax.

Limitations on Withdrawals: Some variable annuities only allow a certain percentage to be withdrawn annually without incurring surrender charges.

In conclusion, while variable annuities offer the allure of potential growth through market participation, they are not without their drawbacks.

The fees associated with these products can be higher than other investment vehicles, and the market risk can pose a threat to one's principal.

It's crucial for potential investors to understand these complexities and weigh the pros and cons before diving into variable annuities.

Strategizing Variable Annuity Investments

Navigating the world of variable annuities requires a well-thought-out strategy. This ensures that the annuity aligns with individual financial goals while mitigating potential risks.

Diversifying Within Sub-Accounts

Just like in traditional investing, diversification is key when selecting sub-accounts in variable annuities:

Spread the Risk: Investing in a mix of equity, bond, and money market sub-accounts can help spread the risk. Diversifying among various asset classes and sectors can mitigate the impact of a poor-performing sector on the overall portfolio.

Consider Different Investment Styles: Within equity sub-accounts, for instance, there might be options to invest in value or growth stocks, large-cap or small-cap stocks, and domestic or international equities. Each has its own risk and return characteristics.

Assessing Risk Tolerance and Investment Horizons

Before deciding on the sub-accounts, consider:

Risk Appetite: Are you a conservative, moderate, or aggressive investor? Understanding this can guide your sub-account selection.

For instance, a conservative investor might lean more towards bond sub-accounts, while an aggressive investor might favor equity-based sub-accounts.

Investment Horizon: The time you expect to hold the annuity before making withdrawals can influence your strategy.

Those closer to retirement might adopt a more conservative stance compared to someone with decades ahead.

Rebalancing and Periodic Review

The importance of keeping an eye on your variable annuity cannot be stressed enough:

Regular Monitoring: The performance of sub-accounts can shift over time due to various factors like market movements, interest rate changes, or global events. Regularly monitor the performance against benchmarks and personal goals.

Rebalancing Act: If certain investments within the annuity outperform others, the portfolio might skew from its original asset allocation.

Rebalancing helps bring the allocation back to its original state, ensuring the portfolio remains in line with the desired risk level.

Stay Informed: It's essential to be aware of any changes or updates in the annuity contract. This includes understanding any fees, charges, or changes in terms that might be introduced.

In essence, strategizing variable annuity investments is a dynamic process. While the initial allocation is crucial, periodic reviews and adjustments ensure the annuity remains a valuable part of one's financial portfolio.

Comparing Variable Annuities to Other Investments

In the landscape of financial investments, variable annuities occupy a unique position. They blend features of insurance and investment, and as a result, can seem intricate.

Here, we'll delve into a comparison between variable annuities and some common investment vehicles, namely mutual funds and fixed annuities.

Variable Annuities vs. Mutual Funds

Structure and Purpose: While both variable annuities and mutual funds pool investor money to invest in a range of securities, they serve different purposes.

Mutual funds are primarily investment vehicles, while variable annuities offer a combination of investment and insurance features.

Tax Considerations: Earnings from mutual funds can be subject to annual taxes, depending on whether they're held in tax-advantaged accounts. Variable annuities, on the other hand, offer tax deferral on earnings until withdrawal.

Fees and Costs: Mutual funds have expense ratios, which can vary widely. Variable annuities come with their own set of fees, like mortality and expense risk charges, administrative fees, and sub-account expenses.

Withdrawal Implications: Redemptions from mutual funds are straightforward, but variable annuities might impose surrender charges if withdrawn before a certain period.

Variable Annuities vs. Fixed Annuities

Return Potential: Fixed annuities promise a guaranteed rate of return, offering certainty. Variable annuities, in contrast, offer the potential for higher returns based on market performance but come with increased risks.

Investment Choices: With fixed annuities, the insurance company determines where to invest the money.

Variable annuities offer sub-accounts, allowing investors some degree of choice in their investments.

Guarantees: Fixed annuities usually provide a guaranteed minimum interest rate. Variable annuities might offer some guarantees through riders, but the principal is subject to market risk.

Considerations When Evaluating the Suitability of Variable Annuities

Risk Tolerance: Those with a higher risk tolerance might find variable annuities appealing due to their potential for greater returns. Conversely, risk-averse individuals might lean towards fixed annuities or other conservative investments.

Investment Horizon: Variable annuities might be more suitable for those with a longer investment horizon, given the potential for market fluctuations in the short term.

Tax Situation: The tax-deferred growth offered by variable annuities can be an advantage for those in higher tax brackets or those looking for ways to minimize current tax liabilities.

Need for Flexibility: Consider the liquidity needs. If there's a possibility of needing funds in the short term, the potential surrender charges of variable annuities should be kept in mind.

In conclusion, while variable annuities present an enticing mix of potential growth and tax benefits, they're not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Comparing them with other investments, understanding the intricacies, and evaluating personal financial goals and circumstances are essential steps in determining their suitability.

The Importance of Riders

Riders in the Realm of Variable Annuities

A rider can be envisioned as an add-on or a supplementary contract to the main insurance or annuity agreement.

In the sphere of variable annuities, riders serve to amplify the basic contract, providing the policyholder with additional benefits, flexibilities, or guarantees.

Given the variable nature of these annuities, these riders can often act as safety nets, helping investors navigate the uncertain tides of market volatility.

Popular Riders: Navigating the Choices

Guaranteed Minimum Withdrawal Benefits (GMWB): This rider assures policyholders that they can annually withdraw a specific percentage of their investments, regardless of market performance.

Even if the market takes a downturn, or even if the account value drops to zero, the GMWB ensures a steady flow of income up to a specified limit.

Guaranteed Minimum Income Benefits (GMIB): Think of GMIB as a safety measure against poor market performance.

If, by the time you decide to annuitize your contract, the account value is less than the guaranteed amount due to market downturns, the GMIB ensures that the annuitization will consider the higher, guaranteed amount, ensuring more considerable periodic income.

Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) Riders: Tied to inflation rates, this rider ensures that the annuity income keeps pace with inflation, offering an increment in income periodically.

Death Benefit Riders: These riders guarantee that, upon the death of the annuitant, beneficiaries receive at least the amount initially invested, if not more, regardless of the account's current value.

Rider Costs vs. Benefits: The Balancing Act

Every rider, while presenting potential benefits, comes at a cost. These costs can be in the form of additional charges or higher fees. It's vital to:

Evaluate the Necessity: Does the rider align with your financial goals and concerns? For instance, if ensuring a steady income stream is paramount, a GMWB might be worth considering.

Consider the Cost Implications: It's crucial to understand all associated charges. Sometimes, the security offered by the rider might not justify its cost, especially if the probability of utilizing its benefits is low.

Seek Expert Advice: Given the complexities associated with riders, consulting a financial advisor can offer clarity. They can help evaluate the cost-benefit dynamics specific to your situation.

In summary, while riders can significantly augment the value proposition of variable annuities, they're not without their costs.

An informed decision, rooted in an understanding of personal needs and market dynamics, is crucial when considering these additions to the annuity contract.

Tax Implications of Variable Annuities

Tax-Deferral During the Accumulation Phase

At the heart of the allure of variable annuities is the tax-deferral feature during the accumulation phase.

This means that any gains or earnings from the investments within the annuity are not subject to tax until they are withdrawn.

This allows the investment to grow without the immediate drag of taxation, potentially leading to a larger accumulation over time compared to a similar taxable investment.

It's a feature that mirrors the benefits seen in many retirement accounts, and it can be especially attractive for those in higher tax brackets looking to reduce their current taxable income.

Withdrawal Considerations: Lump Sum vs. Annuitization

When the time comes to access the funds from a variable annuity, there are primarily two routes:

Lump Sum Withdrawal: Should you opt to take out a lump sum, any gains or earnings (above your initial investment) will be taxed as ordinary income.

It's crucial to remember that with variable annuities, earnings are withdrawn first, meaning the tax bill can be significant if there's been considerable growth.

Annuitization: By converting the annuity into a stream of periodic payments, the tax implication spreads out over time.

Each payment consists of a return of principal (non-taxable) and earnings (taxable). This method often results in a more manageable tax burden, especially if the annuitant is in a lower tax bracket during retirement.

Tax Penalties for Early Withdrawals

One of the caveats of variable annuities is the 10% federal tax penalty on withdrawals made before the age of 59½.

This is in addition to the regular income tax on the earnings. Moreover, many variable annuities also impose surrender charges for withdrawals made during the early years of the contract.

As such, it's paramount to consider the timing of withdrawals and be cognizant of the potential tax penalties, especially if early access to funds is anticipated.

Variable annuities, with their tax-deferral advantage, can be a strategic tool in retirement planning.

However, it's vital to understand the tax implications during the different phases of the annuity lifecycle.

Whether considering a lump sum withdrawal or annuitization, or even evaluating early withdrawal scenarios, having a clear grasp of the tax consequences will ensure that the annuity aligns with one's broader financial and retirement objectives.

Always consult with a tax professional or financial advisor to understand fully the implications specific to your situation.

Common Misconceptions about Variable Annuities

Dispelling Myths and Setting the Record Straight

Variable annuities, like many financial instruments, come with their share of myths and misunderstandings. To make an informed investment decision, it's essential to separate fact from fiction.

Here are some of the common misconceptions about variable annuities and the truths behind them:

  1. “Variable Annuities Always Provide Guaranteed Returns”
    • Truth: While some riders attached to variable annuities can offer certain guarantees, the core investment in a variable annuity is subject to market fluctuations. The value of the annuity can go up or down based on the performance of the sub-accounts chosen.
  2. “Variable Annuities are Just Like Mutual Funds”
    • Truth: Though variable annuities do invest in sub-accounts that resemble mutual funds, there are key differences, including tax treatment, fees, and the presence of insurance features like death benefits.
  3. “All Variable Annuities Come with High Fees”
    • Truth: While many variable annuities do have higher fees compared to other investment vehicles, especially when optional riders are chosen, not all variable annuities are created equal. Some may offer more competitive fee structures than others.
  4. “Once Invested, Money in Variable Annuities is Locked in Forever”
    • Truth: While early withdrawals can trigger surrender charges and tax penalties, they don't mean the money is entirely inaccessible. Furthermore, many annuities offer features that allow a certain percentage of withdrawals without penalties annually.
  5. “Variable Annuities are Only for Retirement”
    • Truth: While they are designed as long-term investment vehicles with tax advantages tailored for retirement, they can also serve other financial planning purposes, such as wealth transfer or long-term care funding.

How to Avoid Common Pitfalls

Educate Yourself: The first step to avoid pitfalls is to be informed. Understand the terms, fees, and features of any annuity product you're considering.

Seek Professional Guidance: Financial advisors can offer insight into how a variable annuity might fit into your broader financial plan, weighing the pros and cons relative to your goals.

Review Regularly: Financial needs and market conditions change. Periodically review your variable annuity, especially the chosen sub-accounts, to ensure they remain aligned with your objectives.

Beware of “Too Good to Be True”: If a variable annuity offers benefits that seem disproportionately generous, there may be high fees or other catches. Always read the fine print.

Understand the Costs: Be clear about all associated fees, including mortality and expense charges, administrative fees, sub-account expenses, and costs for any added riders.

In conclusion, while variable annuities can be complex, they can also be a valuable tool in a diversified financial portfolio.

By understanding their nuances and dispelling common myths, investors can harness their potential benefits while being aware of their associated costs and risks.

Tips for Potential Variable Annuity Investors

Doing Thorough Due Diligence

Before diving into the world of variable annuities, it's paramount that investors do their homework.

Research the Insurance Company: Start by looking into the financial strength and reputation of the insurance company offering the variable annuity. Companies with higher financial ratings are generally considered more stable and likely to meet their future obligations.

Understand the Investment Options: Dive deep into the sub-accounts or separate accounts available within the annuity. Review their past performance, though it's crucial to remember that past performance is not indicative of future results.

Clarify Fee Structures: Fully understand all associated fees, including mortality and expense risk charges, administrative fees, underlying fund expenses, and any additional charges for riders.

The Significance of Reading the Prospectus

The prospectus is a detailed document that provides comprehensive information about the variable annuity.

In-depth Details: The prospectus will outline everything from investment options and potential risks to the fee structure and specific features of the annuity.

Legal Obligations: The details in the prospectus are legally binding. Insurance companies are obligated to honor the terms as they are laid out in this document.

Updates and Changes: Annuities might have updated prospectuses from time to time, especially if there are significant changes to the product or its offerings. Ensure you have the most recent version and keep an eye out for any updates.

Consulting with Financial Advisors

Navigating the complexities of variable annuities can be challenging. Therefore, seeking guidance from professionals can be invaluable.

Personalized Advice: A financial advisor can assess your individual financial situation, goals, and risk tolerance to determine if a variable annuity aligns with your objectives.

Ongoing Management: Investing in a variable annuity isn't a one-time event. Financial advisors can assist in periodically reviewing your annuity's performance, suggesting any necessary changes, and ensuring it remains consistent with your financial goals.

Understanding the Fine Print: Advisors can help break down complex terms and conditions, ensuring you grasp all aspects of the variable annuity contract.

Avoiding Conflicts of Interest: If consulting with an advisor, ensure they have a fiduciary duty or are obligated to act in your best interest. Be wary of commissions or incentives that might influence their recommendations.

While variable annuities offer potential growth and other advantages, they are not without complexities.

Prospective investors should be proactive, and informed, and ideally seek expert guidance to make the most of their investment.


Navigating the financial landscape can often feel like steering through a labyrinth, especially when it comes to instruments as intricate as variable annuities.

Through our exploration, we've unraveled the complexities these products carry, from their market-tied potentials to the inherent risks and associated fees.

Variable annuities offer an enticing blend of potential growth and tax benefits, yet they come with a unique set of challenges.

Their value proposition can be immensely beneficial for some investors, especially when used strategically as part of a diversified portfolio. However, diving in without a thorough understanding can lead to unforeseen pitfalls.

For those contemplating this investment avenue, it's crucial to approach the decision with clarity and foresight.

Rather than being swayed solely by glossy brochures or aggressive sales pitches, making informed choices should be paramount.

And remember, as with any investment tied to the market's ebb and flow, the goal is not just to navigate its currents but to ride them successfully.

Furthermore, the financial world and our personal situations are in a state of constant flux. The investment that seems perfect today might not be as fitting tomorrow.

This dynamic nature underscores the importance of periodic reviews and adjustments. By regularly revisiting one's financial strategy and ensuring it aligns with evolving market scenarios and personal milestones, one can not only survive the variables but thrive amidst them.

In closing, variable annuities are neither a panacea nor a pitfall. They are simply tools in the vast financial toolbox. Using them effectively requires knowledge, strategy, and, most importantly, a clear vision of one's financial aspirations.