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What’s so wrong with an Annuity?

The continued unwillingness of people to make provision for their retirement continues to be a source of concern to policy makers. Much of the debate as to how to encourage retirement saving has centred on tax breaks and product design and the obligation to purchase an annuity is frequently cited as one of the reasons people do not contribute to registered pension schemes. Indeed the Tories have now promised to end compulsory annuity purchase if they get into power and presumably, should this happen, pension providers will be flooded with new applications. But are annuities really that bad?

The main objections to annuities are that they are inflexible, poor value if you die prematurely, and rates are poor. True, they are inflexible in that once you select the features of your annuity you cannot change them. Yes they are poor value if you are short lived but conversely they are good value if you are long lived. But are rates really poor? And if so, what are they poor in comparison to?

Certainly annuity rates have fallen significantly since their peak in 1990 so are they poor value on a historic basis? No not really. In 1990 interest rates hit 14% and inflation was running at around 7% per annum. While this was very bad news for borrowers it was good news for savers. Today savers are lucky to get a 3% return on their cash. Furthermore, in the last 20 years we have seen life expectancy increase further.

A 60 year old man in good health can currently expect to receive an annuity rate of just over 6%. This is for a level annuity with a 10 year guarantee. When considering equity based investments an assumed rate of growth of 7% is generally used. This might lead one to conclude that annuities are poor value since the annuitant only receives what might reasonably be expected as an investment return, while the capital itself is sacrificed.

The key point though is that an annuity carries no investment risk. Buying a level annuity involves exposure to inflationary risk, life company solvency risk and mortality risk, but not investment risk.

To assess whether paying into a pension and then buying an annuity, is worthwhile we need to look at a similar risk alternative.

Case Study

Let us consider the case of Owen Michaels who is nearing retirement. Owen is aged 50, earns a salary of £40,000 and is in good health.
Let us assume that rather than invest into a pension fund Owen chooses to use Cash ISAs as his retirement funding vehicle. This means he is free to draw money out without restriction and without tax liability.

ISA contributions of £400 per month are made from net salary for the next 10 years. After 10 years, the value of his ISA portfolio (assuming a 3% growth rate net of charges) stands at £55,896.

If contributions of £400 a month had been made to a personal pension fund, tax relief of 20% would have been received and at the end of 10 years (again assuming a 3% net growth rate) Owen’s pension fund would be worth £69,870. From this amount, he could take tax free cash of £17,467 and a net income of £2,527 would be generated via the annuity. From the tax free cash let us assume that £631 a year were withdrawn (25% of the net annuity rate) giving a total annual income of £3,158.

If Owen were to draw £3,158 each year from his ISA portfolio, and assuming a continued net growth rate of 3% per annum, the ISA portfolio would be exhausted after 23 years. Coincidentally, the average life expectancy for a 60 year old male is now just over 23 years.

Clearly if Owen does not survive the 23 years the decision to save via ISAs would have been vindicated but, if he had gone down the pension route and taken tax free cash his beneficiaries would still have access to the residual tax free cash and remember, the annuity rate used had a 10 year guarantee so the minimum return would be £25,270 (£2,527 for 10 years). After 10 years Owen’s ISA is worth £35,642 but the pension residual tax free cash would be worth £15,339, so the worst case scenario is a loss of £20,303 when compared to the ISA route.

So when viewed against a similar risk alternative, annuity purchase continues to stack up reasonably well. The real benefit it offers is as an insurance against longevity and if it were viewed as insurance rather than investment it might get a better press. Like any insurance it is good value if you claim (live beyond average life expectancy) and poor value if you don’t claim (die prematurely).

Pensions are intended as a vehicle to providing income in retirement. As a mechanism for turning capital into an income stream which is guaranteed for life, annuities are perfect. Certainly there are more flexible alternatives and it is possible that in future these alternatives will be available beyond age 75 but for those unwilling to accept investment risk annuity purchase continues to be the most appropriate option and still has much going for it.