Annuity Warming and Convenient Truths

Annuities solve two major household financial challenges: asset preservation and income in retirement.  And they often solve the problem at a lower cost to the consumer than capital market alternatives.  Consumers and advisors want a solution to these problems; most, however, reject annuities as a component of the solution.

Have we arrived, at last, at a tipping point?  Here’s more evidence that we may have:

An article in Barrons today is entitled “Special Report – Retirenment: With their steady income payments, annuities are suddenly hot.  Hot?  Hot?  Annuities?

This follows another positive article in the New York Times two weeks ago about the unique benefits of annuities.

A tipping point?  Are annuities now “in”?  As consumers read more and more positive press about annuities, advisors will find the annuity recommendation more appreciated than in the past.    Annuity manufacturers need to take full advantage of this thawing.

This annuity warming is a very convenient truth for the annuity industry!  Marketers and sales professionals must prepare to win their share now!

Opportunities and challenges in mobile payments

In recent weeks, we have seen mobile payment launches by Google and Square.  These follow the creation of the Isis joint venture by AT&T Mobile, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.  Many of the leading banks (including Bank of America, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank) are currently conducting mobile payment trials.  And a series of smaller players (e.g., Dwolla, Boku, Propay) have recently introduced mobile payment apps.

Mobile payments have the potential to capture to a significant share of spending in the coming years.  However, there are significant challenges to overcome in order to realize this potential.  These include:

  • Consumer privacy and security
  • Technological functionality and interoperability
  • Revenue-sharing among stakeholders: There are a diverse range of companies looking to gain a share of the emerging mobile payments market, including: banks; payment networks; payment processors; payment app providers; smartphone manufacturers; communications service providers; and merchants.  Each of these companies bring strengths and limitations to the table, and no one company can go it alone.  So, an effective and sustainable mobile payments model will need the involvement of multiple partners, each of whom will need to earn a return commensurate with their contribution.
  • Changing consumer behavior: Consumer spending patterns change over time, and consumers are moving away from paper-based payment methods and towards cards and electronic payments.  However, consumers’ payment usage patterns alter more gradually than many would expect (according to The Nilson Report, by 2015, checks will still account for 12% of consumer payment volume).  To encourage consumers to switch to mobile payments, marketers will need to:
    • Identify and target consumer segments with greatest interest in using mobile payments
    • Develop a value proposition and user experience for mobile payments
    • Determine which merchant categories would be most receptive to mobile payments
    • Identify which payment methods are most vulnerable to being dislodged by mobile payments, and clearly articulate mobile payments’ advantages to consumers and merchants
    • Create incentives to encourage first-time and repeat usage by consumers
  • Merchant acceptance: contactless payments have been around for some time, but fewer than 150,000 U.S. merchants can accept such payments, compared to the approx. 6 million merchants that can handle card transactions.  Many merchants will balk at the cost of equipping their point-of-sale terminals to accept mobile payments.  To overcome this, mobile payment stakeholders will need to:
    • Develop technology solutions that reduce the cost of mobile payment acceptance
    • Market the benefits of mobile payments to merchants, so that they are more willing to make the investment in mobile payment acceptance

The Retirement Income Conundrum

A day doesn’t seem to pass without a new, alarming headline about retirement in America.  I was reminded of this today when our head of research sent me this link about the decline in the “Retirement Optimism” index (perhaps an oxymoron these days)  And consistent with other research, retirees maintain a consistently higher level of optimism than non-retirees.

Despite this morose pre-retiree outlook about retirement, the study reports that about 3 in 4 have no formal plan for retirement.  Why are households unable to address such an important personal challenge and prepare for the days of retirement?  Well, there are many reasons for this, including:

1) The definition of retirement.  What’s retirement?  Has the norm ever been 15-20 years of golf, world travel, and endless vacations on a private yacht in the Aegean?  Maybe “retirement” is a more transitional period of life, when earned income declines, new expenses emerge (e.g. health), and guaranteed sources of income from accumulated financial assets are required to match consumption  liabilities.  So maybe “planning for retirement” is not exactly the caracature we all imagine.

2) Savings.  As we near completion of the transition from a defined benefit to a defined contribution work place, have households accepted responsibility for postponing consumption and saving for a time when they’ll need new sources of income?  This will require a cultural change in how households budget.

3) Investing.  How many consumers know how to build a retirement portfolio?  How many understand the benefits of an annuity and how to select the most appropriate product?  How many understand how to use capital market products to create a stream of guaranteed income?  The accumulation model alone based on risk and return just doesn’t solve the retirement problem yet the airwaves are filled with messaging that encourages this.

4) Advice.  Despite the dramatic increase in advisor clients requiring retirement income portfolios, there is still no acknowledged consensus on the best approach.  Moreover, compensation models based on AUM often conflict with what’s best for the client.  Systematic Withdrawal Plans, Annuities, Time Segmented Allocation Models, laddering with strips….or plain old risk and return…where’s the consensus and why isn’t there one?

5) Insurance.  To some degree, most consumers need income “insurance” in retirement.  Typically, insurance products are sold, not purchased.  Given this paradigm, the financial advisor is key – he/she needs to recommend the right product for the right purpose.    This brings us back to the point 4 – advice.  The financial intermediary is going to be key in helping households efficiently use their savings to create income for retirement.  Manufacturers of retirement income products are going have to educate financial advisors on the benefits of their product from an outcome point of view and when the advisor should incorporate them into their client portfolios and financial plans.