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How Safe is Your ‘Safe Money’?

With the equity markets setting record highs, many security conscious retirees and aspiring retirees are wisely repositioning a portion of their portfolios into “safer” types of investments in order to lock in some of their profits. It’s no secret that it’s difficult for these conservatively minded investors to find places to protect their principal while earning interest above money market funds. The choices are slim and many may be wondering, how safe is my safe money?

FAs & Insurance Companies

Fixed Annuities (FAs) meet two specific needs of retirees and aspiring retirees: the ability to create a “personal pension” and potential growth without risk of the markets. Like U.S. Treasuries, FAs come in a couple different flavors: Fixed Rate annuities (which offer a fixed interest rate much like a CD does) and Fixed Index annuities (which offer potentially higher interest than their fixed rate brethren because the interest you earn is based on stock index performance without any stock market risk). Because of the potential to earn significantly higher interest without added market risk many opt for Fixed Index annuities.

While many advisors and investors have varying strong opinions about fixed annuities, there’s one element everyone can agree on and that’s the “safety” of principal aspect of an FA. There are many moving parts to a fixed annuity, which can sometimes create a lot of confusion to even those in the know. The way your principal is protected by the insurance company who offers it can also be somewhat confusing because of all of the safety measures put into place to make good on the insurance company’s promises to you. Ultimately, the guarantees offered by a fixed annuity are based on the financial ability of the insurance company to make good on them.

Instead of federal regulation each individual state has an insurance department who’s responsible for enforcing strict regulations on insurance companies. One of the strictest, and most important requirements, is the “dollar for dollar reserve” requirement where the company must keep at least $1 in reserve for every $1 in guarantees they’ve made to contract owners. So, an insurance company must have in savings at least as much as it would take for every single fixed annuity owner to walk away with the current value and current value of future obligations of those contracts. (It’s important to note that banks and the federal government are not required to keep such reserves. A large bank is required to have only 10% in reserves or .10 for every $1 deposited). On an annual basis, state regulators verify the solvency of insurance companies with an “asset adequacy test.” Above and beyond the “dollar for dollar reserve,” insurance companies maintain surplus capital as extra padding in case of a financial catastrophe. This means that instead of having $1 in reserves for every $1 of promised benefits to fixed annuity owners they will maintain $1.05 or more in capital (.05 per dollar surplus, a solvency ratio of 105%).

Intended Use of FAs: Guaranteed income you cannot outlive and market-based potential growth without market risk.