Advice for a Retired Autoworker

This week, I start fielding questions directly from readers. Here's one from a retired automotive industry manager, who wonders what he should do with his 401(k) account.

Question: I retired from Chrysler 18 months ago. As a middle-level manager I have a pension. My 401(k) is managed by Merrill Lynch and has lost approximately 30 percent of its value in the past 11 months. My financial adviser at (a big bank) wants me to empty the 401(k) and distribute it between two accounts: One claims to provide a minimum of 5 percent gain per year, regardless of market movement; the other is similar to a managed 401(k). Not sure what to do, but I believe the market will bounce back eventually. Stay or go?

-- R.K., Clarkston, Mich.

Answer: I would ask some pointed questions before moving this money, R.K.

There can be good reasons for a retiree to move money out of a 401(k) plan into another type of retirement plan, but you first need to understand the implications of what you're doing.

Most importantly, you want to know exactly what you're buying and what these moves are going to cost you, both in the short term and over the long term. Ask the bank adviser what expenses are associated with the accounts being suggested. And make sure you understand how they work before deciding anything.

Looking for financial advice? Click here to send David your questions, and they might end up as a topic for his next column.

It sounds to me like that first account suggested by the bank adviser might be a variable annuity featuring some type of guarantee benefit.

The guarantee sounds nice, particularly during times like these, but it can be quite expensive in many cases and, frankly, not worth the cost.

I've seen variable annuities that carry total annual expense ratios well in excess of 3 percent when you include mortality and expense risk charges, administrative fees, the costs of the underlying investment funds and special features like a guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefit.

Fees and Risks

Also, be sure to inquire about surrender charges. Many variable annuities restrict your ability to pull money out if you need it. Typically, if you try to withdraw more than 10 percent of the account balance within the first few years, you will be hit with a surrender charge. This charge might start at 7 percent in the first year and then decline 1 percentage point a year until it reaches zero.

Finally, ask the bank adviser how much he and the bank would earn if you moved a portion of your 401(k) money into this variable annuity. The commission payouts on variable annuities can be lucrative to the seller.

Find out what the total annual expenses are for the plan being offered to you, and then ask yourself whether you want to pay that much for a 5 percent guarantee. Remember, there are five-year CDs out there that pay nearly 5 percent a year at zero cost. Of course, the potential upside is limited with a bank CD.

To learn more about variable annuities, check out an Investor Alert on the topic published by the Financial Regulatory Authority at www.finra.org/investors.

If the combination of guaranteed income and growth potential appeals to you, I'd suggest you look at buying a fixed, immediate annuity now or in the future with a portion of your retirement savings and then keep the rest to invest.

The older you are when you buy an annuity, the bigger the monthly payment will be.

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