Ask The Experts: Money Matters

By Mike Miles

Variable annuities

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Q. I just retired from government service under CSRS and have left my Thrift Savings Plan alone. My financial adviser, whom I consider a friend, is telling me I need to roll my TSP over into a tax-deferred variable annuity that guarantees a 5 percent return on investment each year even when the market does poorly. He says because of this “guarantee,” I can choose a very aggressive growth portfolio, while not having to worry about the results.

He claims my TSP is not protected against losses. I knew that already, of course. It’s with a highly rated company. Fees are around 2 percent annually. I noticed you have a real problem with these kinds of investments. The market is due for a major correction. Why are you so against these annuities?

A. They are expensive insurance policies. Two percent is huge! You’re more likely to lose than to gain from investing in one of these things compared to a comparable investment strategy invested in the TSP. Ask your “friend” how much money he will make from your purchase, including commissions, bonuses, fringe benefits, etc. You are paying that compensation from your account, in addition to the insurance and other costs which are designed to make sure that the insurance company profits at your expense. You shouldn’t even think about investing in a variable annuity until you’ve read the prospectus and clearly understand exactly what you’re getting into.

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Transferring to a variable or fixed annuity

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Q. What would be the advantage or disadvantage to a retiree of transferring their TSP to a variable and/or fixed annuity? What are the issues to look for, if any?

A. The main disadvantage of variable and deferred annuities is their high cost. The main disadvantage of a fixed immediate annuity, in the current environment, is a low payout rate. I don’t know a universal advantage to a variable or deferred annuity. The advantage of an immediate fixed annuity is guaranteed income for life.

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Variable annuities

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Q. Why are variable annuities such a bad retirement option? I have seen this stated many times, but I’m still not sure why this is the case. On the other hand, I’ve almost never seen any investment outperform the TSP stock funds on a long term basis. I have rebuffed the efforts of my financial adviser (and many other advisers during lectures) to get me to roll over the TSP to “more flexible” IRA options.

A. Because they are expensive. Keep your money in the TSP. Your financial adviser is a salesperson who wants the big fat commissions you’ll pay through the annuity. Find a real financial adviser or go it alone. You’ll be better off.

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IRA?

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Q. I’m recently retired from the federal government. I have currently made no changes to my TSP, leaving everything in my account. Is it generally a good idea to leave your funds in the TSP or should I consider rolling it over to an IRA?

Also, what is your opinion of a variable annuity?

A. It is generally better to leave your money in the TSP as long as possible. It is the best retirement investment environment there is. In my experience, variable annuities are one of the WORST investment propositions you’ll find. Avoid them unless a trustworthy (competent and free of conflict of interest) analysis proves otherwise — something I have yet to see happen.

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