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Why Annuities Work Like a ‘License to Spend’ in Retirement

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In a new research paper, we analyze how the composition of wealth is related to spending in retirement using data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS).

We do this by looking at households with at least $100,000 in savings and compare how much money the households could be spending in retirement, based on existing guaranteed income sources and assuming financial assets are annuitized, versus how much they actually are spending.

We find strong evidence that households who hold more of their wealth in guaranteed income spend significantly more each year than retirees who hold a greater share of their wealth in investments.

A household with a generous pension and no savings will spend more than a retiree with enough savings to buy an annuity that provides the same income as the pension.

By holding household wealth constant, the analyses show that households are spending more not because they are wealthier (since financial assets can be converted to guaranteed income); rather it’s the form of the wealth they hold that impacts spending in retirement.

Marginal estimates suggest that investment assets generate about half of the amount of additional spending as an equal amount of wealth held in guaranteed income. In other words, retirees will spend twice as much each year in retirement if they shift investment assets into guaranteed income wealth.

In other words, every $1 of assets converted to guaranteed income will result in twice the equivalent spending compared to money left invested in a portfolio. The size of the effect is large enough that the explanation is likely a combination of behavioral and rational factors.

These findings have important implications for financial advisors and retirees.

While studies on optimal annuitization have generally focused on the economic benefits, shifting assets from savings to lifetime income can provide a retiree with the psychological benefit of being given “license to spend” accumulated savings.

The ability to gain greater enjoyment from savings is an important reason to consider funding guaranteed income from investments either through delayed Social Security claiming or by annuitizing a portion of retiree savings.

David Blanchett is managing director and head of retirement research at QMA, the quantitative equity and multi-asset solutions specialist of PGIM, the $1.5 trillion global investment management business of Prudential Financial.

Michael Finke, Ph.D., is a professor and Frank M. Engle Chair of Economic Security at the American College of Financial Services, where he leads the Wealth Management Certified Professional program.