Buyer’s Guide To Equity Indexed Annuities
Prepared by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners
This appendix to the Buyer’s Guide for Fixed Annuities will focus on equity-indexed annuities. Like other types of fixed deferred annuities, equity-indexed annuities provide for annuity income payments, death benefits and tax deferred accumulation. You should read the Buyer’s Guide for general information about those features and about provisions such as withdrawal and surrender charges.
WHAT ARE EQUITY-INDEXED ANNUITIES?
An equity-indexed annuity is a fixed annuity, either immediate or deferred, that earns interest or provides benefits that are linked to an external equity reference or an equity index. The value of the index might be tied to a stock or other equity index. One of the most commonly used indices is Standard & Poor’s 500 Composite Stock Price Index (the S&P 500), which is an equity index. The value of any index varies from day to day and is not predictable.
When you buy an equity-indexed annuity you own an insurance contract. You are not buying shares of any stock or index.
While immediate equity-indexed annuities may be available, this appendix will focus on deferred equity-indexed annuities.
HOW ARE THEY DIFFERENT FROM OTHER FIXED ANNUITIES?
An equity-indexed annuity is different from other fixed annuities because of the way it credits interest to your annuity’s value. Some fixed annuities only credit interest calculated at a rate set in the contract. Other fixed annuities also credit interest at rates set from time to time by the insurance company. Equity-indexed annuities credit interest using a formula based on changes in the index to which the annuity is linked. The formula decides how the additional interest, if any, is calculated and credited. How much additional interest you get and when you get it depends on the features of your particular annuity.
Your equity-indexed annuity, like other fixed annuities, also promises to pay a minimum interest rate. The rate that will be applied will not be less than this minimum guaranteed rate even if the index-linked interest rate is lower. The value of your annuity also will not drop below a guaranteed minimum. For example, many single premium contracts guarantee the minimum value will never be less than 90% of the premium paid, plus at least 3% in annual interest (less any partial withdrawals). The guaranteed value is the minimum amount available during a term for withdrawals, as well as for some annuitizations (see “Annuity Income Payments”) and death benefits. The insurance company will adjust the value of the annuity at the end of each term to reflect any index increases.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE EQUITY-INDEXED CONTRACT FEATURES?
Two features that have the greatest effect on the amount of additional interest that may be credited to an equity-indexed annuity are the indexing method and the participation rate. It is important to understand the features and how they work together. The following describes some other equity-indexed annuity features that affect the index-linked formula.
The indexing method means the approach used to measure the amount of change, if any, in the index. Some of the most common indexing methods, which are explained more fully later on, include annual reset (ratcheting), high-water mark and point-to-point.
The index term is the period over which index-linked interest is calculated; the interest is credited to your annuity at the end of a term. Terms are generally from one to ten years, with six or seven years being most common. Some annuities offer single terms while others offer multiple, consecutive terms. If your annuity has multiple terms, there will usually be a window at the end of each term, typically 30 days, during which you may withdraw your money without penalty. For installment premium annuities, the payment of each premium may begin a new term for that premium.
The participation rate decides how much of the increase in the index will be used to calculate index-linked interest. For example, if the calculated change in the index is 9% and the participation rate is 70%, the index-linked interest rate for your annuity will be 6.3% (9% x 70% = 6.3%). A company may set a different participation rate for newly issued annuities as often as each day. Therefore, the initial participation rate in your annuity will depend on when it is issued by the company. The company usually guarantees the participation rate for a specific period (from one year to the entire term). When that period is over, the company sets a new participation rate for the next period. Some annuities guarantee that the participation rate will never be set lower than a specified minimum or higher than a specified maximum.
Cap Rate or Cap
Some annuities may put an upper limit, or cap, on the index-linked interest rate. This is the maximum rate of interest the annuity will earn. In the example given above, if the contract has a 6% cap rate, 6%, and not 6.3%, would be credited. Not all annuities have a cap rate.
Floor on Equity Index-Linked Interest
The floor is the minimum index-linked interest rate you will earn. The most common floor is 0%. A 0% floor assures that even if the index decreases in value, the index-linked interest that you earn will be zero and not negative. As in the case of a cap, not all annuities have a stated floor on index-linked interest rates. But in all cases, your fixed annuity will have a minimum guaranteed value.
In some annuities, the average of an index’s value is used rather than the actual value of the index on a specified date. The index averaging may occur at the beginning, the end, or throughout the entire term of the annuity.
Some annuities pay simple interest during an index term. That means index-linked interest is added to your original premium amount but does not compound during the term. Others pay compound interest during a term, which means that index-linked interest that has already been credited also earns interest in the future. In either case, however, the interest earned in one term is usually compounded in the next.
In some annuities, the index-linked interest rate is computed by subtracting a specific percentage from any calculated change in the index. This percentage, sometimes referred to as the “margin,” “spread,” or “administrative fee,” might be instead of, or in addition to, a participation rate. For example, if the calculated change in the index is 10%, your annuity might specify that 2.25 will be subtracted from the rate to determine the interest rate credited. In this example, the rate would be 7.75% (10% - 2.25 = 7.75%). In this example, the company subtracts the percentage only if the change in the index produces a positive interest rate.
Some annuities credit none of the index-linked interest or only part of it, if you take out all your money before the end of the term. The percentage that is vested, or credited, generally increases as the term comes closer to its end and is always 100% at the end of the term.
HOW DO THE COMMON INDEXING METHODS DIFFER?
Index-linked interest, if any, is determined each year by comparing the index value at the end of the contract year with the index value at the start of the contract year. Interest is added to your annuity each year during the term.
The index-linked interest, if any, is decided by looking at the index value at various points during the term, usually the annual anniversaries of the date you bought the annuity. The interest is based on the difference between the highest index value and the index value at the start of the term. Interest is added to your annuity at the end of the term.
The index-linked interest, if any, is determined by looking at the index value at various points during the term, usually the annual anniversaries of the date you bought the annuity. The interest is based on the difference between the index value at the end of the term and the lowest index value. Interest is added to your annuity at the end of the term.
The index-linked interest, if any, is based on the difference between the index value at the end of the term and the index value at the start of the term. Interest is added to your annuity at the end of the term.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE FEATURES AND TRADE-OFFS OF DIFFERENT INDEXING METHODS?
Generally, equity-indexed annuities offer preset combinations of features. You may have to make trade-offs to get features you want in an annuity. this means the annuity you choose may also have features you don’t want.
Annual Reset - Features
Since the interest earned is “locked in” annually and the index value is “reset” at the end of each year, future decreases in the index will not affect the interest you have already earned. Therefore, your annuity using the annual reset method may credit more interest than annuities using other methods when the index fluctuates up and down often during the term. This design is more likely than others to give you access to index-linked interest before the term ends.
Annual Reset – Trade-offs
Your annuity’s participation rate may change each year and generally will be lower than that of other indexing methods. Also an annual reset design may use a cap or averaging to limit the total amount of interest you might earn each year.
High-Water Mark – Features
Since interest is calculated using the highest value of the index on a contract anniversary during the term, this design may credit higher interest than some other designs if the index reaches a high point early or in the middle of the term, then drops off at the end of the term.
High-Water Mark – Trade-offs
Interest is not credited until the end of the term. In some annuities, if you surrender your annuity before the end of the term, you may not get index-linked interest for that term. In other annuities, you may receive index-linked interest, based on the highest anniversary value to date and the annuity’s vesting schedule. Also, contracts with this design may have a lower participation rate than annuities using other designs or may use a cap to limit the total amount of interest you might earn.
Low-Water Mark – Features
Since interest is calculated using the lowest value of the index prior to the end of the term, this design may credit higher interest than some other designs if the index reaches a low point early or in the middle of the term and then rises at the end of the term.
Low-Water Mark – Trade-offs
Interest is not credited until the end of the term. With some annuities, if you surrender your annuity before the end of the term, you may not get index-linked interest for that term. In other annuities, you may receive index-linked interest based on a comparison of the lowest anniversary value to date with the index value at surrender and the annuity’s vesting schedule. Also, contracts with this design may have a lower participation rate than annuities using other designs or may use a cap to limit the total amount of interest you might earn.
Point-to-Point – Features
Since interest cannot be calculated before the end of the term, use of this design may permit a higher participation rate than annuities using other designs.
Point-to-Point – Features
Since interest is not credited until the end of the term, typically six or seven years, you may not be able to get the index-linked interest until the end of the term.
WHAT IS THE IMPACT OF SOME OTHER EQUITY-INDEXED ANNUITY PRODUCT FEATURES?
Cap on Interest Earned
While a cap limits the amount of interest you might earn each year, annuities with this feature may have other product features you want, such as annual interest crediting or the ability to take partial withdrawals. Also, annuities that have a cap may have a higher participation rate.
Averaging at the beginning of a term protects you from buying your annuity at a high point, which would reduce the amount of interest you might earn. Averaging at the end of the term protects you against severe declines in the index and losing index-linked interest as a result. On the other hand, averaging may reduce the amount of index-linked interest you earn when the index rises either near the start or at the end of the term.
The participation rate may vary greatly from one annuity to another and from time to time within a particular annuity. Therefore, it is important for you to know how your annuity’s participation rate works with the indexing method. A high participation rate may be offset by other features, such as simple interest, averaging, or a point-to-point indexing method. On the other hand, an insurance company may offset a lower participation rate by also offering a feature such as an annual reset indexing method.
It is important for you to know whether your annuity pays compound or simple interest during a term. While you may earn less from an annuity that pays simple interest, it may have other features you want, such as a higher participation rate.
WHAT WILL IT COST ME TO TAKE MY MONEY OUT BEFORE THE END OF THE TERM?
In addition to the information discussed in this Buyer’s Guide about surrender and withdrawal charges and free withdrawals, there are additional considerations for equity-indexed annuities. Some annuities credit none of the index-linked interest or only part of it if you take out money before the end of the term. The percentage that is vested, or credited, generally increases as the term comes closer to its end and is always 100% at the end of the term.
ARE DIVIDENDS INCLUDED IN THE INDEX?
Depending on the index used, stock dividends may or may not be included in the index’s value. For example, the S&P 500 is a stock price index and only considers the prices of stocks. It does not recognize any dividends paid on those stocks.
HOW DO I KNOW IF AN EQUITY-INDEXED ANNUITY IS RIGHT FOR ME?
The questions listed below may help you decide which type of annuity, if any, meets your retirement planning and financial needs. You should consider what your goals are for the money you may put into the annuity. You need to think about how much risk you’re willing to take with the money. Ask yourself:
HOW DO I KNOW WHICH EQUITY-INDEXED ANNUITY IS BEST FOR ME?
- Am I interested in a variable annuity with the potential for higher earnings that are not guaranteed and willing to risk losing the principal?
- Is a guaranteed interest rate more important to me, with little or no risk of losing the principal? Or, am I somewhere in between these two extremes and willing to take some risks?
As with any other insurance product, you must carefully consider your own personal situation and how you feel about the choices available. No single annuity design may have all the features you want. It is important to understand the features and trade-offs available so you can choose the annuity that is right for you. Keep in mind that it may be misleading to compare one annuity to another unless you compare all the other features of each annuity. You must decide for yourself what combination of features makes the most sense for you. Also remember that it is not possible to predict the future behavior of an index.
QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD ASK YOUR AGENT OR THE COMPANY
You should ask the following questions about equity-indexed annuities in addition to the questions in the Buyer’s Guide to Fixed Deferred Annuities.
Final Points to Consider?
- How long is the term?
- What is the guaranteed minimum interest rate?
- What is the participation rate? For how long is the participation rate guaranteed?
- Is there a minimum participation rate?
- Does my contract have an interest rate cap? What is it?
- Is interest rate averaging used? How does it work?
- Is interest compounded during a term?
- Is there a margin, spread, or administrative fee? Is that in addition to or instead of a participation rate?
- What indexing method is used in my contract?
- What are the surrender charges or penalties if I want to end my contract early and take out all of my money?
- Can I get a partial withdrawal without paying charges or losing interest? Does my contract have vesting? If so, what is the rate of vesting?
Remember to read your annuity contract carefully when you receive it. Ask your agent or insurance company to explain anything you don’t understand. If you have a specific complaint or can’t get answers you need from the agent or company, contact your state insurance department.
Last Updated: 9/23/2012 10:05:00 PM