There's been plenty of research on the topic since 1965, with no definitive resolution. Some recent studies tackle the problem from very different perspectives. While not written as advice to retirees, the studies do, as I read them, offer useful insights that can sharpen one's thinking about annuities. In this post, I'll explain the core idea from one study. In subsequent posts, I'll discuss additional studies and review what the new research may imply about whether and when a retiree may sensibly consider an annuity.
Health Shocks + Big Costs
To illustrate the idea, suppose you had purchased a lifetime annuity at age 65. It has paid you a steady stream of income for a few years, just as promised. When you bought the annuity, you had good information about your health. You knew that people with similar health had only a small chance of dying right away and maybe a 50% chance of dying in their 70's. But now, at age 72, you've gotten what Reichling and Smetters call a "health shock." While on vacation in a tropical paradise, you contracted a local disease that nearly did you in. You survived, after a long stay in the hospital, and your future health, alas, now looks bleak. To put a number on it, your chance of dying in your 70's is approaching 90%.
Making matters worse, you had no Medigap coverage, and you needed care from some pricey specialists. Consequently, you've withdrawn much more than planned from your retirement savings. Your personal wealth is much diminished.
The core idea articulated by Reichling and Smetters, supported by mathematics and by data, is that when both these events occur, a health shock that increases the risk of dying plus costs not easily covered by insurance or savings, then annuities become less attractive than holding bonds or other safe investments. Should you live in a world where the combination of such events is plausible, you would, according to Reichling and Smetters, be rational to avoid annuities.
Still, Annuities Work for Some
- You've already had a bad health shock. For you, the next shock would be if your health improves, or a medical miracle arrives in the nick of time, and you live longer than the few years you thought you had left. Or, as a less extreme case, your health may be weaker than average because of a chronic condition. Think about it. Wouldn't an annuity be helpful, just in case you find yourself greeting the sunrise far beyond what you pessimistically expect? That's essentially what Reichling and Smetters argue.
- Your savings and insurance are ample. You can afford to buy an annuity so generous that no health shock would devastate your finances. It might wreck your health, but you would remain financially secure. Alternatively, you may be so shrewd about health insurance and long-term care that you have sufficient coverage for all conceivable costs. Then, whether or not you ever suffer a health shock that actually triggers your insurance benefits, an annuity would be a sensible way to guarantee and stabilize your future income.
Your Options, Reconsidered
First, you would set aside some of your retirement savings as a reserve fund for uninsured medical costs. Or you would increase your insurance coverage for medical expenses and long-term care. Doing so would make you less vulnerable to the double-whammy of a health shock that reduces your longevity combined with uncovered costs that degrade your financial viability. To get started, read our article on reserve funds for retirees, and use our Retiree Reserves calculator.
Second, you would buy annuities only to the extent that, after setting aside some reserves or increasing your insurance, you still have ample savings. You would have to review your personal circumstances, perhaps in consultation with a financial professional who receives no compensation for selling annuities or possibly with sophisticated software like ESPlanner.
Aiming to set a benchmark, Reichling and Smetters presented a chart (their Figure 7) indicating that for a healthy 65-year-old, at least $500,000 in savings would be necessary before buying any annuity. With $1,000,000 in savings, the chart says that annuitizing half or more might be defensible. Smetters offered similar advice when interviewed by the New York Times. Given the level of savings available to most retirees, this advice would rule out annuities for a substantial majority.
You should, of course, make your own decisions and consult your own adviser. As one way to get a second opinion, Part 2 in this series reviews another recent study that took a different perspective. It examined the decision process that retirees may be using, perhaps unwisely, when they avoid annuities. You can also find a step-by-step process for evaluating annuities and insurance companies in our article on annuities for retirees, which was recently updated to incorporate ideas from this series of posts.