Insurance companies promote guaranteed pension products as being particularly rich in opportunity and value sure. Indeed, these products are rather popular, as they seem to offer the best of two worlds: participation in the upswing of a stock index, and the guarantee of never facing a loss. Unfortunately, as we show here with a close up look at Index Select from industry leader Allianz, these claims are in fact rather misleading.
Our conclusion: Allianz Index Select and similar products¹ are in reality not the stock index participation strategies they are being billed as, but rather option arbitrage strategies. Such products are not suitable for long-term investors, given their high cost and low returns, and the uncertainty of whether even modest returns could hold up over the medium to long-run. Figure 1 shows you the essence of the story: your money is stable but will not grow, unlike the index which is unstable but will grow.
How they tell you guaranteed pension products work
Investors in this product can choose to have a guaranteed annual minimum return or an index option with participation in either the Euro Stoxx 50 or the S&P 500 index. The latter has your uptick capped at about 2 % for each month and in return, your nominal investment is guaranteed never to drop. Note that you won't get any dividends if you choose the index participation, as dividends are not reflected in the index. Note also that the guarantees are before cost: so, after cost, your investment may decline. Allianz does guarantee that your total loss after cost is not more than 10 %, but this guarantee only applies at the start of your pension.
How guaranteed pension products really work
You may be surprised to hear this, but fundamentally the Index Participation is an option arbitrage strategy. Here is a precise though a necessarily somewhat complex explanation - that you can skip if you like and continue reading about the cost at the next section:
The product involves the annual purchasing of a so-called ‘put option’ on your chosen stock index, with a one year maturity period. I.e., this option gives Allianz the right to sell the investment in the index at the prevailing price for the duration of one year. This serves as protection of the investment but will cost you a sizable part of your assets, currently about 8 %.
To offset this Allianz sells monthly call options, which are valid for one month, that can be exercised when about 2 % above the prevailing price. I.e., Allianz gives away the right to benefit from a gain of over 2 %. This is what they call the cap, and Allianz in turn caps the maximum monthly gain you can get from their investment. These call options can be sold for say 0,67 % each. Over 12 months that yields 8 %. On balance this strategy is therefore about cost neutral: the cost of the put is offset by the gains of the calls.² As long as the calls can be sold "out of the money" (i.e., with a strike price above the prevailing stock price) there is some gain to be made from this strategy.
In addition, Allianz offers as an option an annual minimum guaranteed return, currently about 1,9 % (before cost). How they finance this is unclear. Possibly from the profits made with clients implementing the Index participation option.
The cost and how it eats up your returns
The extent of the cost of a product like this is not regulated. Examining a recent offer, we see Allianz charges an effective cost of 1,29 % if the product is kept for 30 years but about a percent higher if the contract is only held for 15 years.
Assessing the returns of guaranteed pension products
The strategy earns a nice return if the index grows very gradually. But in volatile years, losses are high and can easily outweigh gains, as these gains are capped. For example, a stable growth year with 8 months of 1,5 % gains and 4 months of 1 % loss, yields you a net gain of 8 %. In a volatile year, 4 months of 4 % gains, 4 months of 2 % losses, and 4 months with zero gain, earns you 0%, while the index increases by 8 %, as the gain of 4 x 4 % is capped to 4 x 2 %.
To examine the reality of this further, we ran this strategy over the longest time data set available for the two indices offered by Allianz.
Over 40 years this strategy (with a cap of 2 %) for the Euro Stoxx 50 index, would have earned a gross return of about 1,75 %. After cost, this would then be about 0,4 % return for you.
Over a period of 150 years, this strategy using the S&P 500 instead of Euro Stoxx would have yielded considerably better results. After cost, a return of just over 2 % remains, just about equal to that of inflation. And this is before dollar hedging costs. Holding stocks outright over this period would have yielded 9,3 % annually! You don't have to be a math wizard to realize that's many times more!
Our view on guaranteed pension products
We are rather skeptical about using such a strategy for a long term pension portfolio, given the zero or negative real return.
Fundamentally, there are further risks involved if this strategy by Allianz is deployed over a longer time period: there is no guarantee that the option’s prices will stay where they are, hence these returns are not guaranteed to hold up. In fact, this arbitrage strategy is unlikely to remain attractive and provide significant yields. If the strategy is used more widely the returns will drop and make it even less attractive.
There is clear evidence of this. When this strategy was introduced by Allianz, the returns were much higher than they have been in recent years. I.e., the cap was much higher and hence also; the expected returns.
Therefore, we would strongly advise clients not to invest in Allianz Index Select or any other product with such a strategy for the long-term. Especially as the product involves significant upfront costs (upfront fees are levied over the lifetime contribution), and the minimal return before cost is not even secure. What warrants even further concern, is that there seem to be no available articles by advisors or Altersvorsorge websites that explain how the real strategy works, as we do above. Or run tests with long-term historic data to check the benefits of these products in Germany. In other words: it seems that this product is too complex for advisors as well.³
The Index Select product from Allianz is not really an index participation strategy as it is being billed, but an option arbitrage strategy. It is not suitable for long-run investors, given the high cost and low returns, and the uncertainty of whether even the modest returns will hold up over the medium to long-run. Long-term investors should simply go for good stock indices. Over the long-term 6 % returns are attainable even in the worst case scenario.⁴
As an alternative we favor tax shielded ETFs. Read more about The Smartest Way to Invest in ETFs in Germany
¹ This principle does not only apply to Allianz Index Select. Similar products offered by various other companies display these same drawbacks.
² This strategy makes use of the fact that monthly call options are normally more costly than annual put options.
³ One exception is a publication from the Institute für Vorsorge und Finanzplanung which has a study from 2014 that is available for a whopping 1.166,20 €. Their conclusion, that the Index policy outperforms the index (based on data from 1987-2013), could not be replicated by us, and would also not be supported by option arbitrage as a permanent outcome, as an arbitrage strategy is cost neutral, and their result implies both more safety AND higher return. This should have been flagged as inconsistent with financial theory and hence not a basis for predicting the future. In the figure above we use the longest time series available from the owner of the index Boerse.de, namely February 1991. The results presented in Figure 1 contradict the conclusion of the IVFP study as you can see that the Index clearly outperforms the Index Select product for an average assumed cap of 2,2 %. The IVFP study may be due to very favorable results for the index in two years 1987 and 1989, and assuming an unrealistic cap in the early period that the product was not even available.
⁴ In the long-term protecting your portfolio from a decline through options is very costly and unnecessary as stocks. In the long run, do not fall in price, as you buy part of the real economy, and the real economy in the end always grows. The longer you hold stocks, the safer they are – provided you spread them well eg by participating in a broad index.