For the past 40 years, variable annuities have been on a rollercoaster, where the popularity of various features and benefits rise and fall as the contracts shift and adapt to the then-current environment. In the early years, variable annuities were popular for tax-deferred investing as top tax rates of the time were 70%, and remained popular in subsequent years as the burgeoning bull market made equity investing more appealing overall, even as tax rates declined. As the 2000s approached, variable annuity companies innovated, creating a wave of so-called “living benefit” riders that included GMIBs and GMWBs, to make variable annuities appealing to the coming onslaught of baby boomer retirees. Unfortunately, though, with the financial crisis, living benefit riders became far less appealing – old contracts forced annuity companies to raise reserves, and new contracts experienced a significant cost increase as annuity companies struggled to hedge and manage risk in a more volatile post-crisis environment.
As a result, annuity companies are now entering a new wave of innovation – where variable annuities are bolstered by more innovate active management and alternative investment strategies, and the annuity itself is used as a tax shelter for these rather tax-inefficient investments, at a drastically lower cost than the annuities of recent years. Whether this new line of investment-only variable annuity (IOVA) contracts will catch on remains to be seen, but the potential is for variable annuities to become a major part of portfolio design in the future – where the variable annuity becomes an asset location tool and clients can voluntarily choose how much of their most tax-inefficient investments will be sheltered by tax deferral.