Prudential has the right to change the terms. In Steve’s case, a line on Page 66 of the prospectus, says this, “We may apply certain limitations, restrictions, and/or underwriting standards as a condition of our issuance of an Annuity and/or acceptance of Purchase Payments.”
Translated, that means that Prudential is permitted to do what it is doing.
Annuity experts said that Prudential was likely to be in the first wave of many companies to prohibit additional purchases of annuities with guarantees in the 6 to 8 percent range.
“These products were sold, not bought,” said Ronald J. Garutti Jr., a certified financial planner with Newroads Financial Group. “You could make it sound like the greatest thing since sliced bread if you didn’t go into the underlying what ifs. In this guy’s case, it was, ‘Now we let you fund money, in the future we may not.’ ”
Mr. Ferris of Prudential said that the decision to suspend future contributions was driven by the desire to protect current annuity holders and that the short time frame to make additional contributions was part of that. “If we allowed people to add large amounts to these contracts, it puts at risk our ability to insure and manage our liabilities,” he said.
I called Steve’s adviser, Eric L. Lyon at National Securities Corp in Boca Raton, Fla., and he said many of his clients were worried about the same restrictions on future contributions from other annuity companies. “It was in the contract that they have the right to stop or no longer allow future contributions,” Mr. Lyon said. “It’s in a prospectus that’s 150 pages long, but it was in there.”
So what can people do about the sudden change? The consensus from the annuity experts was that they should be happy with what they got while they got it. Moshe A. Milevsky, an associate professor of finance at the York University business school in Toronto, said while these good deals were going away, he was more worried that people would rush to put as much money as they could into an annuity with a high guarantee and come to regret it.
“I don’t want to create this fire-sale mentality,” Mr. Milevsky said. “I don’t want to give advisers the ability to say to their clients, ‘Give me more money now because it’s going to be shut down tomorrow.’ Then, the adviser gets a big commission, but the person may need that money in the future.”
Mr. Garutti equated what Prudential did to the swimming pool in his town closing on Labor Day, even though the weather was still nice. “I have to tell my son there is nothing I can do about it until Memorial Day, no matter how much you cry,” he said. “I don’t want to be callous, but you have to accept what happened and move on.”
While some people do add money each year to their annuities, many traditional annuity buyers buy an annuity with a lump sum, and the guarantee on that is still in effect.
But experts said that Prudential’s decision to stop people from putting new money into their annuities was not the worst of what was likely to happen across the industry. “They can get a lot more stringent,” Mr. Milevsky said. “Wait until they tell him they’re going to restrict his investment choices. Or they’re going to raise his fees.” Mr. Ferris said the company evaluated its benefits each day.
In the end, Steve decided to put an extra $20,000 into his annuity before the deadline, to bring his account balance to $75,000. He had planned to contribute until it reached $300,000 — a huge difference at a 5 to 6 percent payout.
“I get the situation Prudential is in, but they should be smarter,” Steve said. “If they’re not smart enough to figure out how they can keep doing something they offered two years ago in a bad market, I’m worried.”