When in doubt, resort to the rule of thumb.
It isn’t the ideal way to make investment choices, but it is, unfortunately, what most people on the verge of retirement do, says Alessandro Previtero, an assistant professor of finance at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. Previtero’s research has shown that when faced with the choice between a lump sum and an annuity, individuals typically base their decision on stock market returns, and will more often than not opt for a lump sum if stock market returns have been good for the period preceding their retirement.
What’s most worrying for Previtero is that the relationship between stock market returns and annuities grows stronger with age, thereby indicting that older people tend to rely more on rules of thumb to make complicated decisions as they age. This is something, he says, that advisors have to take into account when they’re discussing lump sums versus annuities with their clients.
“If we try to put this into practice, an advisor needs to be very sensitive about stock market performance, and they have to speak openly with their clients about why they’re choosing to invest in equities, whether they’re choosing to do so because it is the right thing to do or because they see that the equity market is coming out of a positive trend,” Previtero says. “It’s very important for advisors to see what’s driving clients to choose lump sum or equities and to understand their underlying behavior. It’s even more important for advisors to pay attention to behavioral biases and potential mistakes that investors may make because if someone has made the wrong decision based on a rule of thumb, it can also mean that the relationship they have with their advisor can potentially sour.”
Granted, annuities are a complex beast, difficult to explain and understand, even in recent years, when there’s been a concerted effort by the retirement finance industry to shed greater light on them and clear them of their tainted past. Annuities experts believe that the evolution of the industry will engender different kinds of products that would allow retirees to take advantage of stock market upside, and that they would be more readily available in retirement plans.
Nevertheless, it is still important for advisors to have the dialog with their clients as to why or why not to choose an annuity, says Jeffrey Brown, William G. Karnes professor in the department of finance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of the Center for Business and Public Policy in the College of Business. The conversation, he says, has to begin with what a client wants in their retirement and introducing in that context the idea of guaranteed lifetime income.
Brown and other academics like Julie Agnew, associate professor of economics and finances at the College of William and Mary, have done extensive work in the area of framing, an approach that can perhaps help advisors give better direction to the annuities conversation and enable both themselves and their clients to better understand the reasons why they should or shouldn’t invest in annuities.
Brown conducted a survey in which he first presented annuities as an investment choice, the classic way in which they are almost always presented. He then changed things around by reframing annuities in a consumption-related framework.
“In half the sample, we described the product – which we didn’t name – by using terms like ‘investment’ and ‘returns,’ and in the other scenario, we talked about the amount of income that this product would yield,” Brown says. “In the first context, people thought annuities were inferior and only 20% said the product was a better choice compared to savings account. In the second scenario, though, after simply changing the terms of the discussion to words like ‘consume,’ ‘spend’ and so forth, 70% of the people in the survey preferred the annuity.”
The subtle change in wording, which resulted in people looking at annuities in terms of what they want to consume and spend in retirement, led to a total change in mindset.
“We’re doing more research on consumption-related frameworks because we think that if we take this a little further, we’d be part of a much-needed and fundamental rethinking in how we talk about retirement planning,” Brown says.
Framing the retirement conversationin a consumption-related context also leads onto other very important issues, such as inflation, long-term care, and whatever else people might need to maintain their standard of living. These elements are all part of a different conversation from the one that focuses on maximizing wealth, Brown says, and within that context advisors can help their clients to better see the benefits and downsides of the options they have, including whether to put their money in the stock market or in annuities, and to perhaps go beyond resorting to simple rules of thumb.