Bob Clark, a columnist for Investment Advisor magazine, recently said, "...the role of advisors is to protect their clients from the financial services industry". Many times the products pushed by the large financial service firms do more harm to investors than good. The "hot" product du jour is currently the Equity Index Annuity.
While the equity index Annuity itself is not an evil thing, the way they are presented to investors is many times misleading, and they are often pushed to be a much larger part of a portfolio than prudence would justify.
In brief, an equity index annuity, provides returns that a related to some stock market index. As such they can be viewed as an equity derivative (remember those?). Investors typically receive a return that is some portion of the return of an index like the S&P 500 (for example 90% of the point to point return of the price increase of the index, not including dividends), the average monthly return of the index over a predetermined period (again not including dividends), or the monthly gain of the index with a predetermined cap (often 2-3% per month cap). The big draw is that you receive a guarantee that your account will not have a negative return over some period of time. Often touted as "heads you win, tails you don't loose". On the face that sounds enticing. It is only if you kick the tires that problems become apparent.
First, like most annuities there is a long period of time where you a charged a surrender charge if you want or need to withdraw more funds than allowed in the contract (I have even seen instances where the surrender charge is applied to any withdrawal except in the case of annuitization).
Second, any gain from annuities is considered to be distributed first, and taxed as ordinary income (you do not get favorable dividend of capital gain rate when you file your taxes), and any distribution before age 59 1/2 could be subject to a 10% premature distribution tax penalty.
Worst of all the returns investors receive will likely not measure up to expectations. The pitfalls of monthly caps and averaging returns requires some contemplation to understand. Let's say you are credited with any market gains up to 2% each month. That means if the index you participate in goes up by 2% you are credited with the full 2%, if the index goes up 3%, sorry, you are still only credited with 2%. Okay, you say, that's not so bad, I can still earn a whopping 24% in a year! In theory yes, in practice, no. See sometimes, even in a very good year, markets will fall back some months. And you equity indexed annuity lets you participate fully in the monthly market drops, as long as the account moves no further than 0% in a year. If the index you participate in rises by 3% one month, the 1% the next month, but falls by 3% the following month, your account earns zero, nada, zilch. You were credited with 2% the first month, then 1% the second month, but got dinged for the full minus 3% in the third month.
It's all very confusing, and people hear what they want to hear. That is what the insurance companies and agents who sell equity index annuities are counting on. Heads the insurance company wins, tails, you lose.