The World's Worst Investments

Scott Peterson |

We have shared other blogs with you that offer you some insight to the very temporary nature of a bear market as well as the illusion that equities are a dangerous place to invest. With these two blogs as a foundation, we would like to warn about certain types of investments that could really do serious damage to your retirement. These investments not only have horrendous track records, but they are almost exclusively purchased as a result of an emotional reaction to a short-term downturn of the stock market or as an emotional reaction to the mere possibility that the stock market will decline. As we have seen again and again, when emotions and investing combine, there is seldom a good outcome.

In our estimation the worst types of investments you can buy are precious metals and index annuities. You may be very familiar with these products because these industries are the predominate advertisers on the cable news networks. One can surmise, from the sheer volume of these industry’s advertisements, that they must be very successful. First, they are successful in convincing the unwary public of the virtues of fleeing the stock market and also in duping the public into buying their perennially underperforming products. Let’s take a closer look.

Precious Metals

The thinking is that if, for whatever reason, countries and their currencies cease to exist, then precious metals will be one of the few items that will hold value and preserve purchasing power. The question is, “To purchase what?”

If all the currencies of the world had no value, the world would be in utter chaos. Anarchy and revolution would rule. This has never happened on a large scale in the history of our world, so nobody has a credible idea of what a world without currency would look like. There would be no manufacturing, no food production, and no police or armies to protect us. There would be no commerce—that’s right, stores would be shuttered. Why would anybody choose to work if there was not a way to be paid for labor rendered?

So, even if your ounce of gold held its value, what could you buy with it?  Where? How? In our estimation, a homemade meal would be worth more than an ounce of gold, if you were fortunate enough to locate the food and a willing cook to put it together for you.

Doomsday predictions and conspiracy theories have never been a friend of the disciplined investor and at Peterson Wealth Advisors, we simply refuse to fan that flame. If, however, you are one of those who thinks that chaos and revolution are the destiny of our society, you might as well step away from the computer and get back to building your bunker. But before you go, we would like to share with you one important thought. The richest men in the world, from every generation, did not get that way by betting against the ingenuity and indomitable spirit of the human race to create a better life for itself. Successful investors have always been richly rewarded for their willingness to invest in the future. This generation is no exception. Today’s optimists, or those willing to invest a better tomorrow, are thriving.

For those of you who are not planning on living in a bunker, but are considering owning some gold, perhaps as an inflation hedge, let us share with you some facts.

First, although touted as an inflation beater, gold does not keep up with inflation. In 1980, the price of gold was $850 an ounce. The price started a decline over the next twenty years and bottomed out at less than $300 per ounce at the start of the new millennia. It then shot up during the first decade of the century, peaking at over $1,800 per ounce in 2018, and now has settled back to about $1,300 per ounce.

With all its volatility, gold has gone from $850 an ounce to $1,300 an ounce over thirty-seven years. That works out to be a rate of return of less than 1% per year. Meanwhile, the cost of goods and services, or inflation, grew by 3.1% annually. The price of gold does not keep up with inflation and no matter how many times the lie that “gold is an inflation fighter” is repeated on your cable news network doesn’t make the lie anymore true.

Precious metals are advertised as safe havens from the turmoil of the stock market, yet they are neither safe nor dependable. The price of gold, and other precious metals is extremely volatile. In fact, the price of precious metals has historically been more volatile than the stock market. It is hard to understand why anyone would want to own any investment that fluctuates wildly in price, never pays a dividend, has a dismal track record and can’t keep up with the inflation.

So, when well-known actors advertise that they buy gold because they are “good Americans concerned about the future,” please try to see through the deception. They tell you to buy gold because they are actors who get paid to tell you to buy gold.

Index Annuities

Index annuities are insurance products. They advertise that you can participate in some of the returns of the stock market in the good years but that you will not lose money in the years when the stock market retreats.

The sales pitch of these products is enticing, but the devil is in the details.  First, these products have caps or limits on how much they will pay when the stock market goes up. So, when the stock market goes up, earnings within these products are limited to the prevailing cap of the product. If the stock market goes up 10, 15, or even 30% in a given year, these products will pay to you only the prevailing market cap. In most instances, these caps can be changed by the insurance companies without warning. The consumer has no say. The prevailing market cap currently is 5%.

Second, these products have severe penalties if you liquidate your investment before the surrender period expires. Surrender periods are imposed because the insurance companies that create these products pay a large upfront commission to the insurance agent who sell these products. If an index annuity owner cancels their annuity before the surrender period expires, the insurance company can recoup the commission paid to the agent from the surrender charge assessed to the annuity owner. The surrender periods typically last seven to ten years. Surrender charges can run as high as 10% of the value of the annuity.

Third, index annuities don’t participate in the dividends of the underlying indexes they follow.  This is significant. Almost half of the returns of the S&P 500 can be attributed to the dividends of the companies that make up the S&P 500 index. So, if you choose to invest into the stock market via an equity index annuity, you automatically cut your profits in half by foregoing future dividend payments.

To better illustrate the absurdity of these products, let’s apply the same investment criteria used in an index annuity to a real-estate transaction.

The deal would go something like this: “We will take your money and invest it into a rental property. Your investment is guaranteed to never lose money, as long as you leave the money with us for at least ten years. If you liquidate prior to ten years, you will be subject to a surrender charge as high as 10% of your initial investment. Additionally, you will not receive any rental income stemming from your investment, but we will pay you a portion of the annual increase of the value of your property each year, and the amount we will pay you will be completely up to our discretion. Oh, and by the way, thank you for paying us an upfront commission of 7% of your purchase. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

Of course, nobody would agree to a real-estate deal like this! Why would we agree to similar terms with our other investments? There are hundreds of index annuities to choose from, and they all have variations on how they credit earnings and apply surrender charges. Even though all index annuities are different, they share a common trait. Index annuities are complicated products. Few owners of index annuities really understand how their annuities really work. People buy these products because they know that there is some type of guarantee associated with them. However, it is our belief that if the consumer really understood index annuities, they would never purchase one.

Before investing any money into an equity index annuity, do your homework and understand how these products are structured. The Securities and Exchange Commission has issued alerts to the public regarding the potential pitfalls of index annuities. The only advocates of index annuities that we come across are those companies that create them and the insurance agents who sell them.

What About the Guarantees?

The draw to these products is their guarantees. The only positive guarantee is that index annuities offer is that you won’t lose money when the stock market goes down. Since every market downturn is temporary, that isn’t much of a guarantee when you consider all that you lose by owning these products.

Owning an index annuity will certainly provide additional guarantees—undesirable guarantees.

Owning an Index Annuity Guarantees:

  • That you will never get stock market–like returns. Market caps ensure this will never happen.
  • That you will never be paid a dividend. Dividends historically account for almost half of the growth of the stock market.
  • That you will never be able to beat inflation over the long run by investing into their annuity, again thanks to market caps and no dividend payments.
  • That you just paid one of the highest commissions in the investment universe to the insurance salesman who sold you the annuity.
  • That the bulk of your money will be locked up inside one of these products for as long as a decade. Certainly, lump-sum distributions are available to you if you are willing to forfeit as much as 10% of your principal to access your money earlier than what is allowed by the annuity contract.

So, why are index annuities so prevalent? Unfortunately, they pay some of the highest commission of any product in the investment industry. Need we say more? Index annuities are sold by insurance agents, and for many agents, index annuities are the only product in their quiver that could loosely be called an “investment.”

Frightened, unwary investors purchase precious metals and index annuities because they fail to distinguish the difference between volatility and risk. Those who purchase these products have been duped by the emissaries of gloom that promote an irrational fear of equities, and fear is a powerful tool. A tool so powerful that the impressive weight of historical evidence manifesting the inflation-fighting power of equities is ignored and traded for the false promise that your money can “safely and dependably grow and beat inflation” while invested in precious metals and index annuities. Thankfully, knowledge is likewise a powerful tool and as you continue to investigate, you will become increasingly aware of the foolishness of owning precious metals and index annuities.

Scott M. Peterson is the founder and principal investment advisor of Peterson Wealth Advisors. Scott has specialized in financial management for retirees for over 30 years. Scott is a regular presenter at BYU’s Education Week and speaks often at other seminars regarding financial decision making at retirement. He also literally wrote the book on retirement income, Plan on Living: The Retiree’s Guide to Lasting Income & Enduring Wealth.

If you are getting close to retirement and will have at least $500,000 saved at retirement, click here to request a complimentary copy of Scott’s new book!