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Indexed annuities: Look before you leap

Key takeaways

  • Indexed annuities are products designed to provide downside protection while still allowing some growth potential.
  • An annuity is only as good as the insurance company's ability to honor its commitment to you, so be sure to review the financial strength of the insurance company.
  • By imposing caps, participation rates, and spreads, the insurance company can reduce your upside in exchange for guarantees.1

Can you get principal protection and potential investment growth? That's what indexed annuities promise but it's important to understand how these products work before buying.

What is an indexed annuity?

An indexed annuity is a contract issued and guaranteed1 by an insurance company. They are not considered securities or regulated by the SEC or FINRA. Instead they are regulated by state insurance departments. You invest an amount of money (premium) in return for growth potential based on the returns of a linked market index (e.g. the S&P 500® Index); protection against negative returns of the same linked market index; and in some cases a guaranteed level of lifetime income through optional riders.

With more and more frequency, conversations about indexed annuities may also include a similar but different type of variable annuity that goes by the name buffer annuity, or RILA (registered index linked annuity). Read more: Buffer annuities: What to know.

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How is the potential investment return calculated?

One element of indexed annuities that is often misunderstood is the calculation of the investment return credited to your account. To determine how the insurance company calculates the return, it is important to understand how the index is tracked, as well as how much of the index return is credited to you.

Index tracking. The amount credited to your account depends, in part, on how much the index changes. Insurance companies use various methods to track changes in the index value over a defined time period. It is important to understand how the index is tracked, as it will have a direct impact on the return credited to you.

The amount an insurance company credits to you depends on a variety of factors (any of which can potentially be combined), such as:

  • Cap, which is an upper limit put on the return over a certain time period. For example, if the index returned 10% but the annuity had a cap of 3%, your account receives a maximum return of 3%. Many indexed annuities put a cap on the return.
  • Participation rate, which is the percentage of the index’s return the insurance company credits to the annuity. For example, if the market went up 8% and the annuity's participation rate was 80%, a 6.4% return (80% of the gain) would be credited. Many indexed annuities that have a participation rate also have a cap, which in this example would limit the credited return to 3% instead of 6.4%.
  • Spread/margin/asset fee, which is a percentage fee that may be subtracted from the gain in the index linked to the annuity. For example, if an index gained 6% and the spread fee was 2%, then the gain credited to the annuity would be 4%.
  • Bonus, which is a percentage of the first-year premiums received that is added to the contract value. Typically, the bonus amount plus any earnings on the bonus are subject to a vesting schedule that may be longer than the surrender charge period schedule.2, 3 Given the typical vesting schedule, the bonus may be entirely forfeited upon surrender in the first few contract years.
  • Riders, which are extra features, such as minimum lifetime guaranteed income, that can be added to the annuity for additional costs, further reducing the return credited to the account.

In addition, an often-overlooked point is that for the purposes of the insurance company calculation, an index return excludes dividends, so your return from an indexed annuity will also exclude dividend income. This is important because history indicates that dividends have been a strong component of equity returns over the course of time. For example, over the past 20 years, ending December 2021, the S&P 500 index has gained 7.38% annually without dividends and 9.52% with dividends.

How does a cap impact potential returns?

Let's consider the following chart, which uses a hypothetical indexed annuity with an annual cap of 3.5% on upside returns.

Over the 10 years ending December 2021, the S&P 500 average annual return was 16.63% (14.25% without dividends), while the indexed annuity returned only 2.79% annually—despite a guaranteed annual floor of 0%.

Taking a deeper dive, using the 10-year period ending December, 2021 as an example, the representative indexed annuity returned only a small portion of the positive US equity market returns.

"Investors may think they are investing in the market with an indexed annuity, but don't realize the actual return could be muted due to caps and participation rates," says Tim Gannon, a vice president of product management at Fidelity Investments Life Insurance Company.

How much do they cost?

Indexed annuities typically do not have an up-front sales charge, but there are often surrender fees if you need access to your money before the surrender period ends, and other hidden costs.

"Also, indexed annuities have hidden costs that are passed on to customers by the insurance company, by limiting potential returns through a participation rate, cap, or spread," notes Gannon. "That's why it is important to ask your agent to explicitly define how the product works, so you will know up front about any factors that could put a drag on your potential return."

Can you lose money?

The answer, in some cases, is "yes." If the market index linked to your annuity goes down and you receive no or minimal index-linked return, you could lose money on your initial investment if you withdraw assets before the surrender period is up.

"Your principal is protected if you hold the annuity through the surrender period, which could be 10 years or longer," says Tom Ewanich, a vice president and actuary at Fidelity Investments Life Insurance Company. "That’s why it is so important to have a plan and stick with it."

Does it fit your needs?

"No two indexed annuities may be alike, so be sure to do your homework to fully understand how they work in up and down markets," advises Gannon. Depending on what you are looking to address, it may be in your best interest to consider a different type of annuity or a combination of investment products.

For example, for principal protection and market participation, you may benefit from a strategy that invests a portion of your assets in a conservative investment, such as bonds, and the remaining portion of your assets in the stock market, for upside potential.5

For more information on strategies for protecting savings, read this Viewpoints article "Protecting yourself from fear of loss."

"A financial representative can help you build a comprehensive plan that takes into account your specific needs and objectives," says Gannon.

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This information is intended to be educational and is not tailored to the investment needs of any specific investor.

1. Guarantees are subject to the claims-paying ability of the issuing insurance company. 2. Vesting schedule: The schedule setting forth when a benefit is earned (e.g., 20% per year over 5 years). 3. Surrender charge period: Period of time in which a charge will be levied on an annuity upon cancellation (e.g., 7% 1-3 years, 5% 4-5 years, 1% 6-10 years). 4. Point-to-Point refers to a method for determining the change in the relevant index. This impacts the calculation of the amount of interest to be credited to the contract based on the change in the index. Annual point-to-point compares the change in the index at two discrete points in time - in this case the change from the 1st day of a given calendar year to the 1st day of the subsequent calendar year. Refer to the chart for a detailed example. 5. The conservative and variable investments could lose money, and the total ending balance of this type of investment strategy could be less than an indexed annuity's total ending balance.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The S&P 500 Index is a market capitalization–weighted index of 500 common stocks chosen for market size, liquidity, and industry group representation to represent U.S. equity performance. S&P 500 is a registered service mark of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC.

Indexes are unmanaged. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.

Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC, Member NYSE, SIPC, 900 Salem Street, Smithfield, RI 02917