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Build Your Own Annuity

Equity investing is risky, unless you have a real safety net. And I'm not talking about those ugly Equity Indexed Annuities, I'm suggesting building your own safety net annuity, bypassing the insurance company and creating far more tax-efficiency. Here's how you construct this portfolio, using $10,000 as an example.

CDs are the Foundation
Last week, I wrote about CDs to protect against a possible bond bubble. What's not to love about being paid more to take on less risk? Then, Jason Zweig, writer of the Intelligent Investor column for The Wall Street Journal, contacted me about using this strategy to build your own annuity, which he wrote about last Saturday in Downside Protection has its Downsides.

How it Works
Using Discover Bank's 3.25 percent APY 10 year CD, you could put $7,263 in the CD, and the remaining $2,737 in a low cost index fund such as Vanguard's Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTI). I arrived at the CD amount so that in ten years, the CD would be worth $10,000, or the total amount you started with. Thus, you will get your total amount back even if the S&P 500 theoretically closes at 0.00 points, should the US government still be in business.

The amount you ultimately earn depends upon the stock market return. For instance, another lost decade of flat stocks would still yield a 2.45 percent annual return, while a 10 percent annual market gain would earn 5.51% annually.

The real value of this strategy comes from the psychological impact of being able to stay in the stock market throughout all of this volatility, knowing that you will always get your money back, over the ten year period.

Three Annuity Bonuses
Every annuity salesperson knows that the bonuses are the clincher in getting the client to sign on the dotted line. Well the "build it yourself annuity" actually has three bonuses.

Bonus # 1 - Free interest rate option
By using CDs from institutions that have low early withdrawal penalties, one can pay that penalty and buy a new CD at the higher rate, should interest rates spike.

This could be the case if, for example, after two years the experts are proven right and we have a bond bubble where interest rates spike by three percent. Should this happen, you would make more money by paying the penalty and earning the extra three percent annually. Your returns now look as follows:

In this scenario, you get an annualized bonus return of between 1.16 percentage points and 2.03 percentage points. Not too shabby!

Bonus #2 - You pay less income taxes
As good as this deal is looking after bonus #1, it gets even better. Ordinary annuities are taxed at ordinary income. The "build it yourself annuity" has the dividends from VTI taxed at a lower rate (at least for now) and defers capital gains, which will be taxed at a lower rate.

The way to minimize taxes is to open the CD in your IRA account and put the VTI fund in your taxable account. In this way, you end up keeping more of the gain.

Bonus #3 - Free Death Benefit Rider
Finally, should you pass away during this ten year period, Uncle Sam will give you a free death benefit in the form of the step up basis on the VTI, thereby eliminating any taxes paid on the gain.

So where's the catch?
You may be thinking that this "build it yourself annuity" seems too good to be true. It's not, but there is one catch. It's not as easy to construct your own annuity as it is to be sold one.To be sold one, all that is required is to write out a check and sign a document saying you've read and fully understood the 373 page disclosure. Without that annuity salesperson driving the time-line and telling you this must be signed today, you have to overcome inertia, a powerful force, and set it up yourself.

Why this isn't too good to be true
Real Equity Indexed Annuities have high costs and commissions. The "build it yourself annuity" pays no commissions and has a weighted average expense ratio of 0.02% annually, approaching the US Government's Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) costs.

This strategy doesn't have the endorsement of the National Association of Fixed Annuities (NAFA), and I'm pretty sure no annuity salesperson will like it either. If these two non-endorsements don't clinch the deal, I don't know what will!

More on MoneyWatch
Four CDs that Protect Against the Bond Bubble
Cash - Another Hidden Brokerage Fee
A Bullish Prediction For Stocks

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