Economists think everyone should convert most of their retirement nest eggs into annuities and receive a stream of income that’s guaranteed for life. Very few people actually do that. They want to keep control and have the hope of achieving a higher return, even when they don’t invest aggressively or have a good investment track record. Justin Fox of Harvard Business Review takes a look at annuities and why people don’t buy them for retirement. He doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a good review of all the angles and has some good quotes and links.
The sustainability of Social Security is a topic for another day. When it comes to annuity puzzles, though, there’s one more factor worth mentioning. In the Palliser novels of Anthony Trollope, which have constituted most of my bedtime reading for the past month, there’s endless discussion of how much money people have. These 19th century fortunes, however, are almost always described in terms of the annual income they produce, not the lump sum.
Hardly anybody talks about investments that way now. Part of it is just that most of us expect to live from our jobs, not the inherited wealth still so crucial in Trollope’s world (and even more so in Jane Austen’s half a century earlier) — so whatever fortune we may have built or inherited isn’t expected to produce income just yet. But I also wonder if asset values have come to play such a big role in modern economic life that we’ve forgotten what those assets are for. In countless ways, financial discourse in the Western world in general and the U.S. in particular has shifted from a focus on income to a focus on assets or net worth.