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The ins and outs of investing in fixed index annuities

With tongue halfway in cheek, those of us who expect to work until we die have this consolation: no need to sort through the many "financial products" aimed at helping us cover our needs to the very end.

With tongue halfway in cheek, those of us who expect to work until we die have this consolation: no need to sort through the many "financial products" aimed at helping us cover our needs to the very end.

But for those of us who plan to retire and have a nest egg stashed away, what's the best way to use it - and not lose it - to augment a pension or Social Security?

For risk-averse people five to 15 years away from retirement, many financial experts say, the closest thing to a strategy largely immune to the ups and downs of the stock market is to put a chunk of that nest egg into something called a fixed index annuity.

Phil Cannella, the public face of Valley Forge-based First Senior Financial Group, has built a cottage industry selling such annuities and others as "the Crash Proof Retirement System" via radio and free seminars, though some critics say his approach may not address individuals' needs. Cannella declined to be interviewed for this article.

Generally in an annuity, you set aside money over time for the promise that it will be paid back to you in increments over a period of retirement years, or even for life. About $200 billion in annuities are sold each year, according to Stan Haithcock, Florida-based operator of the annuity-centric website

One of many types of annuities, a fixed index annuity is a form of insurance, sold by an insurance company. The buyer turns over a lump sum of cash. The insurance company holds the money for a set time, often 10 years, and adds earnings to the original amount, based on the performance of a stock index. Lifetime payments to the buyer begin after the holding period ends.

On the plus side, fixed index annuities are designed to outperform low-earning certificates of deposit, earn returns that are not taxed until funds are paid out, and come with a guarantee not to lose money, even if the linked stock index declines.

On the caution side, earnings may be capped, so the annuity won't benefit from a big run-up in the stock market. An early withdrawal may bring big penalties. And critics say it's important to read the fine print, watch for hidden fees, and deal with a trusted agent and reputable insurance company.

Annual returns for index annuities from 2007 to 2012 averaged 3.27 percent, according to annuity research last year by Jack Merrion of Advantage Compedium Ltd. of St. Louis.

Based on that 3.27 percent rate, a couple, aged 70, expecting a $1,000-a-month payout from such an annuity would need to have accumulated just shy of $200,000, said Leah Brandt, a financial adviser and colleague of Haithcock.

To reach that goal at age 70, a 50-year-old would need to buy an annuity for about $105,000, Brandt said; a 60-year-old would need to put up $145,000.

Fixed index annuities are very popular, said John L. Olsen, a longtime financial adviser in St. Louis and, like Haithcock, an expert on annuities.

He noted: "2013 sales were at an all-time high."

Why? "For a lot of reasons . . . [including that] baby boomers are in their 60s and are scared," Olsen said.

Being attractive also makes fixed index annuities a target for scammers, financial experts said.

"It's the wild, wild West," said Haithcock.

It's not the product that's bad, Haithcock and other observers said - it's how those who sell the annuities represent them.

They might, for instance, forget to mention that the annuity purchaser could be penalized for pulling out money before the term ends, or that the insurance company might want to fiddle with market gains.

And even though annuities are considered insurance products, most salespeople try to sell them as investments, said Brandt.

The Securities and Exchange Commission tried to regulate fixed index annuities a few years ago, but the insurance industry fought hard and won, leaving regulation up to the states. That was a mistake, Haithcock said.

David Babbel, professor emeritus of insurance and risk management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said purchasers must understand that insurance companies are limited in the "upside potential that their products can provide by the current low interest-rate environment."

In other words, when interest rates are low, the maximum possible return will be lower.

Consumers need to be vigilant, Olsen and Haithcock said. Their recommendations: Make an adviser accountable, seek references, ask lots of questions, and get everything in writing.