Retirement Planning Essentials

March 26, 2014

Back to the basics with Andy Kiersz at Business Insider:

We recently pointed out that starting to save early for retirement is extremely helpful, and also a useful chart showing how much you should have saved at different stages of your career to ensure a comfortable retirement.

To show how these ideas work, we figured out how much money you would have to set aside monthly, starting at different ages, and under different rates of return, to end up with $1,000,000 in savings when you are ready to retire at 65.

Here is how much you would need to save each month at a 6% annual rate of return, starting at different ages.

So if you’re 20, and you want to retire a millionaire, you should be socking away $361 per month. If you’re starting at 25, that jumps to $499. You can see how as you get older, you need to be saving much, much more:

monthly savings chart new Retirement Planning Essentials

Bottom line: It is much better to start saving young. Two things are happening here. First, by starting to save at 20 instead of 40, you have many more individual monthly payments, and can spread out your total principal investment over a longer period of time.

Second, and much more importantly, by saving earlier, you can better take advantage of compound interest. If you start saving when you are 20, your first payment of $361.04 will, at 6% return, grow into $5336.16 when you are 65.

How much you need to save also depends on  the return rate. This chart shows how much you need to put into your savings account each month for a variety of annual return rates:

monthly savings table good Retirement Planning Essentials

A solid grasp of (and commitment to act on!) the basics of savings and compound interest are fundamental to achieving a secure retirement.  This becomes ever more important as life expectancy continues to increase. From the WSJ earlier this week:

The Society of Actuaries recently updated its mortality tables for the first time since 2000 to reflect the longer life spans of today’s retirees. Based on the update, the average man who turns 65 this year is expected to live to 86.6, up from 82.6 in 2000. Women are expected to live to 88.8, up from 85.2.

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401k Spotlight: An (Enlightened) Alternative to Target Date Funds

March 24, 2014

Of the approximately $12 trillion of employer-based retirement plans, over $500 billion is now in target date funds.   The opportunity to show value to a plan sponsor by analyzing asset allocation solutions may be the source of credibility that wins a plan for the 401k advisor.  Target Date Funds are based on the notion that an increasing shift to bonds over time will produce the ultimate asset allocation solution.    In fact, it is implied by the labeling of the target date fund that all one must do is select the year in which they desire to retire and plug in a computed savings level to reach the magic number.     If nothing else, give the financial institutions creative credit for deflection marketing by providing a series of product such as: 2025, 2035, 2045, and 2055.  The labeling presumes accepted strategy and steers focus toward the desired end result.

Dynamic Asset Allocation

A quick browse into the Fidelity Freedom Funds website (Fidelity’s target date series) shows a caption of “Dynamic Asset Allocation”, which is then defined as the gradual glidepath away from stocks and toward bonds and short term notes as retirement nears.  Those of us who use the phrase dynamic know it to be a little more comprehensive than a simple shift from stocks to bonds.    Further, the primary premise of target date funds is put into much different perspective by  Robert Arnott, author of “The Glidepath Illusion.”    He points out that the rebalancing within a static allocation significantly outperforms a gradual shift from stocks to bonds.  Specifically, he maintains that adjusting the risk profile within stock and bond portfolios rather than across  asset classes reins in risk more constructively than glidepath solutions.

Dorsey Wright ETF Global Growth and Dorsey Wright ETF Global Balanced Collective Funds

Fee based 401k advisors:   If you are a fee based 401k advisor charging fees on plan assets or flat fees, you may wish to consider the Church Collective funds two ETF asset allocation solutions.  It is a way to educate plan sponsors about the value of relative strength and implementing it in a unique way via an asset allocation strategy.   Not only are these great solutions to play a part in a participant’s overall portfolio, they serve as a more comprehensive option than a single selected target date fund.   There are few plan sponsors who have been explained the logic of having the asset allocation risk managed within the asset class rather than across asset classes.

The Church Capital ETF Global Growth and Church Capital ETF Global Balanced has hired Dorsey Wright & Associates as sub-advisor for these relative strength-driven ETF asset allocation funds. They are currently available on the following platforms:

Fidelity
CPI
Frontier Trust
Schwab
TD Ameritrade
Wilmington Trust
MidAtlantic
Mass Mutual
ING
Greatwest
Paychex
Reliance Trust
MG Trust Company

Collective Investment Funds

CIF’s are specific to retirement plans only and registered under the banking regulations enforced by the office of Comptroller of Currency, which is part of the U.S. Treasury. CIF’s are issued cusip numbers and trade over the NSCC. CIF’s are created and administered by trust companies. The Church Capital funds use Altatrust, Denver, CO as their trust company. CIF’s are a natural fit for ETF money managers such as Dorsey Wright because they allow for unique strategy flexibility and inexpensive to create and manage.

These funds are portable to any 401k platform and Altatrust continues to complete new agreements with various 401k providers. In addition to making relative strength strategies available to any 401k plan, Church Capital and Altatrust provide a side benefit to plan sponsors of these plans by signing off as 3(38) fiduciaries for the management of these funds.

Church Capital ETF Global Growth, Global Balanced (QDIA)

By providing two different ETF asset allocation funds, the majority of 401k participant risk profiles can be met. Each fund retains a static asset class allocation, but provides the dynamic relative strength rotation management of ETF’s within the asset class allocation.

Click here to view the Church Capital brochure for more information.

A relative strength strategy is NOT a guarantee.  There may be times where all investments and strategies are unfavorable and depreciate in value.  Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Potential for profits is accompanied by possibility of loss.  Dorsey Wright & Associates is the sub-advisor for the Church Capital ETF Global Growth, Global Balanced CITs.

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Time and Discipline

March 16, 2014

I love this image from Carl Richards of Behavior Gap:

Time and discipline Time and Discipline

Experience teaches us that the image above is true.  Anyone can get it right in the short run.  We’ve all seen it.  The gambler at the slot machines who walks out with a few thousand dollars, the sports fan who successfully bets on his home team over the higher ranked opponent, the investor who makes some money buying stock in a company recommended by his brother-in-law.  Yet, will any of the previous approaches end well in the long run?  Not likely.

Relative strength happens to be our discipline of choice.  It has been extensively tested.  It is logical.  It has been effective over time.  There are other disciplines that have also been effective over time.  There are many approaches that fall in the category of undisciplined.  One example: the quant manager who incorporates many different return factors into an ever-changing investment model.  A tweak here.  A tweak there…

When building allocations meant to last and designed to make a meaningful difference for a client over time, advisors and their clients would be well served to build allocations around effective disciplines and leave the rest by the wayside.

A relative strength strategy is NOT a guarantee.  There may be times where all investments and strategies are unfavorable and depreciate in value. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Potential for profits is accompanied by possibility of loss. 

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The Power of Buying Pullbacks

February 5, 2014

Buying pullbacks is a time-tested way to boost returns.  From time to time, we’ve discussed the utility in buying pullbacks in the market.  Buying the dips—instead of panicking and selling—is essentially doing the opposite of how most investors conduct their affairs.  In the past, much of that discussion has involved identification of market pullbacks using various oversold indicators.  (See, for example, Lowest Average Cost Wins.)  In a recent article in Financial Planning, Craig Israelsen proposes another good method for buying pullbacks.

The gist of his method is as follows:

The basic rule for investment success is as old as the hills: Buy low, sell high. But actually doing it can be surprisingly difficult.

Selling a stock or fund that has been performing well is tough. The temptation to ride the rocket just a little longer is very strong. So let’s focus on the other element: Buy low.

I propose a disciplined investment approach that measures performance against an annual account value target. If the goal is not met, the account is supplemented with additional investment dollars to bring it up to the goal. (For this exercise, I capped supplemental investment at $5,000, in acknowledgement that investors don’t have endlessly deep pockets.)

Very simply, the clients will “buy low” in years when the account value is below the target. If, however, the target goal is met at year’s end, the clients get to do a fist pump and treat themselves to a fancy dinner or other reward.

One benefit of this suggested strategy is that it is based on a specific performance benchmark rather than on an arbitrary market index (such as the S&P 500) that may not reflect the attributes of the portfolio being used by the investor.

In the article, he benchmarks a diversified portfolio against an 8% target and shows how it would have performed over a 15-year contribution period.  In years when the portfolio return exceeds 8%, no additional contributions are made.  In years when the portfolio return falls short of 8%, new money is added.  As he points out:

It’s worth noting that the added value produced by this buy-low strategy did not rely on clever market timing in advance of a big run-up in the performance of the portfolio. It simply engages a dollar cost averaging protocol – but only on the downside, which is where the real value of dollar cost averaging resides.

Very smart!  (I added the bold.)  It’s a form of dollar-cost averaging, but only kicks in when you can buy “shares” of your portfolio below trend.  He used an 8% target for purposes of the article, but an investor could use any reasonable number.  In fact, there might be substantial value in using a higher number like 15%.  (You could also use a different time frame, like monthly, if that fit the client’s contribution schedule better.)  Obviously you wouldn’t expect a 15% portfolio return every year, but it would get clients in the habit of making contributions to their account in most years.  Great years like 2013 would result in the fancy dinner reward, while lousy market years would result in maximum contributions—hopefully near relative lows where they would do the most good.

This is an immensely practical method for getting clients to contribute toward some kind of goal return—and his 15-year test shows good results.  In six of the 15 years, portfolio results were below the yardstick and additional contributions were made totalling $13,802.  Making those additional investments added an extra $12,501 to what the balance would have been otherwise, resulting in a 7.7% boost in the portfolio total.  Looked at another way, over time you ended up with nearly a 100% return on the extra money added in poor years.

Of course, Israelsen points out that although his proposed method is extremely simple, client psychology may still make it challenging to implement.  Clients are naturally resistant to committing money to an underperforming market or during a period of time when there is significant uncertainty.  Still, this is one of the better proposals I have seen on how to motivate clients to save, to invest at reasonable times, and to focus on a return goal rather than on how they might be doing relative to “the market.”  You might consider adding this method to your repertoire.

Rollercoaster3 zps2aa050fa The Power of Buying Pullbacks

Buy pullbacks and use the rollercoaster ride of the market to your advantage.

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Equity as the Way to Wealth

January 3, 2014

According to a recent Gallup Poll, most Americans don’t think much of the stock market as a way to build wealth.  I find that quite distressing, and not just because stocks are my business.  Stocks are equity—and equity is ownership.  If things are being done right, the owner should end up making more than the employee as the business grows.  I’ve reproduced a table from Gallup’s article below.

equityasthewaytowealth zps879479fb Equity as the Way to Wealth

Source: Gallup  (click on image to enlarge)

You can see that only 37% felt that the stock market was a good way to build wealth—and only 50% among investors with more than $100,000 in assets.

Perhaps investors will reconsider after reading an article from the Wall Street Journal, here republished on Yahoo! Finance.  In the article, they asked 40 prominent people about the best financial advice they’d ever received.  (Obviously you should read the whole thing!)  Two of the comments that struck me most are below:

Charles Schwab, chairman of Charles Schwab Corp.

A friend said to me, Chuck, you’re better off being an owner. Go out and start your own business.

Richard Sylla, professor of the history of financial institutions and markets at New York University

The best financial advice I ever received was advice that I also provided, both to myself and to Edith, my wife. It was more than 40 years ago when I was a young professor of economics and she was a young professor of the history of science. I based the advice on what were then relatively new developments in modern finance theory and empirical findings that supported the theory.

The advice was to stash every penny of our university retirement contributions in the stock market.

As new professors we were offered a retirement plan with TIAA-CREF in which our own pretax contributions would be matched by the university. Contributions were made with before-tax dollars, and they would accumulate untaxed until retirement, when they could be withdrawn with ordinary income taxes due on the withdrawals.

We could put all of the contributions into fixed income or all of it into equities, or something in between. Conventional wisdom said to do 50-50, or if one could not stomach the ups and downs of the stock market, to put 100% into bonds, with their “guaranteed return.”

Only a fool would opt for 100% stocks and be at the mercies of fickle Wall Street. What made the decision to be a fool easy was that in those paternalistic days the university and TIAA-CREF told us that we couldn’t touch the money until we retired, presumably about four decades later when we hit 65.

Aware of modern finance theory’s findings that long-term returns on stocks should be higher than returns on fixed-income investments because stocks were riskier—people had to be compensated to bear greater risk—I concluded that the foolishly sensible thing to do was to put all the money that couldn’t be touched for 40 years into equities.

At the time (the early 1970s) the Dow was under 1000. Now it is around 16000. I’m now a well-compensated professor, but when I retire in a couple of years and have to take minimum required distributions from my retirement accounts, I’m pretty sure my income will be higher than it is now. Edith retired recently, and that is what she has discovered.

Not everyone has the means to start their own business, but they can participate in thousands of existing great businesses through the stock market!  Richard Sylla’s story is fascinating in that he put 100% of his retirement assets into stocks and has seen them grow 16-fold!  I’m sure he had to deal with plenty of volatility along the way, but it is remarkable how effective equity can be in creating wealth.  His wife discovered that her income in retirement—taking the required minimum distribution!—was greater than when she was working!  (The italics in the quote above are mine.)

Equity is ownership, and ownership of productive assets is the way to wealth.

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Longevity Risk Increases With Age

November 13, 2013

Insightful post by Wade Pfau on longevity risk:

What the figure shows, for a same-age couple, is their median remaining life expectancy for each age beyond 50. For a 50-year old couple, there is a 50% chance that at least one member of the couple will live at least for just under another 42 years to age 92. By the time they reach 75, there is a 50% chance that at least one will live for a little more than 17 more years to age 92. This is the age range where mortality starts to pick up. If both are still alive at age 92, there is a 50% change that at least one will live for at least 4.6 more years to 96.6, and so on.

What is also shown in the figure are the remaining life expectancies at the 90th and 10th percentiles as well. At 50, 10% of couples will see at least one spouse live for more than another 50.3 years, and 10% of couples will experience both spouses dying in less than 30.7 years. And so on.

What is important to highlight is that the relative gap between median life expectancy and the 90th percentile grows with age. This is because mortality rates are lower at younger ages, and the differences between the median and 90th percentiles only start to build up by staying alive at the higher ages.

So at age 50, 50% of couples will see someone live another 41.8 years, while 10% of couples will see someone live another 50.3 years. It’s not that big of difference, relatively speaking.

However, by age 100, for instance, the median remaining life expectancy is 2.1 years, while the 90th percentile is 5.7 years. This is a big relative difference. The implication is that a variable strategy in which withdrawal rates are guided by remaining life expectancy, which I think is an important component of developing an optimal strategy, become much more exposed to longevity risk at the higher ages.

lifeexpectancy Longevity Risk Increases With Age

As people become familiar with the basics of longevity risk they will naturally become increasingly serious about an effective savings and investment plan to build an adequate nest egg.  Furthermore, thinking about the very real possibility of living to 90+ can also temper the appetite for unsustainable spending patterns in retirement.

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Your Plan vs. Reality

November 12, 2013

Great pic from @ThinkingIP:

plan thinkingip1 Your Plan vs. Reality

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10 Reasons You’re Not Rich Yet

August 1, 2013

Jocelyn Black Hodes of DailyWorth lists 10 Reasons You’re Not Rich Yet.  Essential advice that you should embrace (if you haven’t already).

  1. You spend money like you’re already rich.
  2. You don’t have a plan.
  3. You don’t have an emergency fund.
  4. You started late.
  5. You’d rather complain than commit.
  6. You live for today in spite of tomorrow.
  7. You’re a one trick investor.
  8. You don’t automate.
  9. You have no sense of urgency.
  10. You’re easily influenced.

Being “rich” can mean different things to different people, but I believe it means having the financial freedom to achieve your goals and live the life you want.

The whole article is well worth the read.

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Early Take on How Boomers Are Faring

July 10, 2013

All those dire predictions about the level of  retirement readiness of the Baby Boomers may be incorrect, says Mary Beth Franklin in Investment News.

One of the most closely watched areas focused on retirement readiness as boomers navigated a changing labor market that saw the demise of traditional pensions and the rise of the 401(k). Now many of the oldest boomers — those born in 1946 — have moved into retirement. Despite the dire predictions of their dismal retirement prospects, many of them are doing just fine.

Premature assessment, isn’t it?  Yes, of course they are doing just fine now (just a few years into retirement)!  The test comes in if they have saved enough money to be doing just fine in 20 years.  To be fair to the author of the article, she does present some studies that discuss the varying levels of retirement preparedness of the Baby Boomers.

The reality is that some of the Baby Boomers saved adequately and will be just fine and many will be struggling and relying on others for help.  I have great confidence in humanity so the vast majority of those in need will find help from children, churches, or the government, but many will probably wish they had put more thought and action into a disciplined savings and investment plan.

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The Rising Cost of Long-Term-Care Insurance

July 2, 2013

Today’s WSJ article “Long-Term-Care Insurance Gap Hits Seniors” should provide plenty of motivation for anyone who may be inclined to skimp on their savings.

The long-term-insurance industry now is shrinking, premiums are soaring and there is no fix in sight. At the same time, government safety-net programs, already under cost-cutting pressure, are bracing for demand from more of the 77 million aging baby boomers.

Currently, Medicare pays for only short stays in nursing homes or in-home care under limited conditions. For the most part, seniors who need care have to burn through their savings to pay for it. Only after they are impoverished will Medicaid—the government health program for poor people—pay for a basic level of care.

Insurers have been aware of this gap for decades, and many began selling long-term-care policies in the 1980s and 1990s. They vowed to provide policyholders with better access to high-quality nursing homes and home-based health care than Medicaid.

But insurers underestimated how fast medical costs would rise, and how many seniors would actually use the benefits. And they underpriced the insurance premiums. Making matters worse, some insurers that were “hungry for market share” charged too little at first and planned to increase premiums later, says Joseph M. Belth, editor of the Insurance Forum newsletter and professor emeritus of insurance at Indiana University.

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Cage Match: Pension vs. 401k

June 26, 2013

Chuck Jaffe recently had a good retirement article on Marketwatch.  He covered a number of topics, especially longevity estimates, but he also had the most succinct explanation of the difference between how a pension and a 401k plan works.  Here it is:

In the days when corporate pensions were the primary supplement to Social Security, Americans were able to generate a lifetime income, effectively, by putting everyone’s lifetime in a pool, then saving and managing the pooled assets to meet the target.

The individuals in a pension plan would live out their lives, but the actuaries and money managers would adjust the pool based on the life experience of the group. Thus, if the group had a life expectancy of living to age 75 – which statistically would mean that half of the pensioners would die before that age, and half would die afterwards – longevity risk was balanced out by the group experience.

Now that we have shifted to making individuals responsible for generating their lifetime income stream, there is no pool that shares the risk of outliving assets.

The bold is mine, but the distinction should be pretty clear.  With a pension plan, you’re covered if you live a long time—because your extra payouts are covered by the early mortality of some of the other participants.  It’s a shared-risk pool.

In a 401k, there’s only one participant.  You.  In other words, you’re on your own.

With a 401k, the only way to cover yourself adequately is to assume you are going to live a long time and save a lot to reserve for it.  If you’ve got enough assets to cover yourself to age 100, the most negative outcome is that your heirs will think very fondly of you.  If you are covered for only a few years of retirement, you’ll need to either keep working, eat Alpo, move in with your kids, or possibly take up motorcycle racing and sky-diving.  None of those sound like great options to me.

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The Million-Dollar Illusion

June 11, 2013

Over the weekend, the New York Times had an article about retirement and the million-dollar illusion.  What, you may ask, is the million-dollar illusion?  Quite simply it’s the idea that $1 million dollars will be ample for retirement.  Jeff Sommer writes:

…as a retirement nest egg, $1 million is relatively big. It may seem like a lot to live on.

But in many ways, it’s not.

Inflation isn’t the only thing that’s whittled down the $1 million. The topsy-turvy world of today’s financial markets — particularly, the still-ultralow interest rates in the bond market — is upending what many people thought they understood about how to pay for life after work.

“We’re facing a crisis right now, and it’s going to get worse,” said Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “Most people haven’t saved nearly enough, not even people who have put away $1 million.”

The article proceeds to go through the math of low interest rates and increasing longevity.  This is not new, but sometimes it is difficult to get clients to focus on the big picture.

The big picture is not whether the most recent quarterly return on their balanced account was +6.3% or +6.4%, but whether that account balance was $300,000 or $3 million.

Since industry sources suggest that only 3% of retail accounts ever have balances over $2 million, it’s probably most important to focus on savings.  This might be particularly important with younger clients, who, by and large, do not have defined benefit pensions to supplement Social Security.  (In fact, it’s not clear how Social Security might be modified or eliminated by the time they get around to collect it.)  The one thing younger clients do have on their side is time—time to contribute steadily to their 401k and to an outside investment account. With enough nagging from a qualified investment advisor and a reasonable investment plan, there is no reason that clients shouldn’t succeed.

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The Defining Decade of Adulthood

May 13, 2013

The financial industry spends little focus on 20-somethings for the obvious reason that they don’t tend to have much money.  It’s a shame because this really is “the defining decade of adulthood.” Habits, like saving and investing, established in this decade lay the foundation for success for the long run.  Although the TED talk below (Meg Jay: Why 30 is not the new 20) focuses on a number of topics, including career and marriage, it serves up plenty of food for thought for us in the financial industry about how we serve this demographic.

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From the Archives: Life Expectancy at Retirement

May 13, 2013

retirement From the Archives: Life Expectancy at Retirement

Source: The Economist, via Greg Mankiw.

Americans, as well as citizens of many other advanced nations, now spend about twice as many years in retirement as they did a generation or two ago.  Aggressive saving and adherence to a well-thought-out investment plan are more important today than they have ever been.  It is a big mistake for today’s 65-year olds to no longer consider themselves to be “long-term investors.”

—-this article originally appeared 3/1/2010.  As you can see from the graphic, the average US 66-year old retiree spends another 15-20 years in retirement.  That’s long enough that investment performance is going to be important.

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Retirement Success

April 30, 2013

Financial Advisor had a recent article in which they discussed a retirement success study conducted by Putnam.  Quite logically, Putnam defined retirement success by being able to replace your income in retirement. They discovered three keys to retirement success:

  1. Working with a financial advisor
  2. Having access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan
  3. Being dedicated to personal savings

None of these things is particularly shocking, but taken together, they illustrate a pretty clear path to retirement success.

  • Investors who work with a financial advisor are on track to replace 80 percent of their income in retirement, Putnam says. Those who do not are on track to replace 56 percent.
  • Workers who are eligible for a workplace plan are on track to replace 73 percent of their income while those without access replace only 41 percent.
  • The ability to replace income in retirement is not tied to income level but rather to savings level, Putnam says. Those families that save 10 percent or more of their income, no matter what the income level, are on track to replace 106 percent of their income in retirement, which underscores the importance of consistent savings, the study says.

I added the bold.  It’s encouraging that retirement success is tied to savings level, not income level.  Everyone has a chance to succeed in retirement if they are willing to save and invest wisely.  It’s not just an opportunity restricted to top earners.  Although having a retirement plan at work is very convenient, you can still save on your own.

It’s also interesting to me how much working with a financial advisor can increase the ability to replace income in retirement.  Maybe advisors are helping clients invest more wisely, or maybe they are just nagging them to save more.  Whatever the combination of factors, it’s clearly making a big difference.  Given that the average income replacement level found in the study was 61%, working with an advisor moved clients from below average (56%) to well above average (80%) success.

This study, like pretty much every other study of retirement success, also shows that nothing trumps savings.  After all, no amount of clever investment management can help you if you have no capital to work with.  For investors, Savings is Job One.

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Current Income

April 12, 2013

Investors lately are in a frenzy about current income.  With interest rates so low, it’s tough for investors, especially those nearing or already in retirement, to come up with enough current income to live on.  A recent article in Advisor Perspectives had a really interesting take on current income.  The author constructed a chart to show how much money you would have to invest in various asset classes to “buy” $100,000 in income.  Some of these asset classes might also be expected to produce capital gains and losses, but this chart is purely based on their current income generation ability.  You can read the full original article to see exactly which asset classes were used, but the visual evidence is stunning.

100mIncome zps66939722 Current Income

Source: Advisor Perspectives/Pioneer Investments (click to enlarge)

There are two things that I think are important to recognize—and it’s hard not to with this chart.

  1. Short-term interest rates are incredibly low, especially for bonds presumed to have low credit risk.  The days of rolling CDs or clipping a few bond coupons as an adequate supplement to Social Security are gone.
  2. In absolute terms, all of these amounts are relatively high.  I can remember customers turning up their noses at 10% investment-grade tax-exempt bonds—they felt rates were sure to go higher—but it only takes a $1 million nest egg to generate a $100,000 income at that yield.  Now, it would take more than $1.6 million, even if you were willing to pile 100% into junk bonds.  (And we all know that more money has been lost reaching for yield than at the point of a gun.)  A more realistic guess for the typical volatility tolerance of an average 60/40 balanced fund investor is probably something closer to $4.2 million.  Even stocks aren’t super cheap, although they seem to be a bargain relative to short-term bonds.

That’s daunting math for the typical near-retiree.  Getting anywhere close to that would require compounding significant savings for a long, long time—not to mention remarkable investment savvy.  The typical advisor has only a handful of accounts that large, suggesting that much work remains to be done educating clients about savings, investment, and the reality of low current yields.

The pressure for current income might also entail some re-thinking of the entire investment process.  Investors may need to focus more on total return, and realize that some capital gains can be spent as readily as dividends and interest.  Relative strength may prove to be a useful discipline in the search for returns, wherever they may be found.

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Retirement Stress

March 20, 2013

AdvisorOne ran an interesting article recently, reporting the results of a retirement study done by Franklin Templeton.  Investors are feeling a lot of stress about retirement, even early on.  And given how things are going for many of them, feeling retirement stress is probably the appropriate response!  In no particular order, here are some of the findings:

A new survey from Franklin Templeton finds that nearly three-quarters (73%) of Americans report thinking about retirement saving and investing to be a source of stress and anxiety.

In contrast to those making financial sacrifices to save, three in 10 American adults have not started saving for retirement. The survey notes it’s not just young adults who are lacking in savings; 68% of those aged 45 to 54 and half of those aged 55 to 64 have $100,000 or less in retirement savings.

…two-thirds (67%) of pre-retirees indicated they were willing to make financial sacrifices now in order to live better in retirement.

“The findings reveal that the pressures of saving for retirement are felt much earlier than you might expect. Some people begin feeling the weight of affording retirement as early as 30 years before they reach that phase of their life,” Michael Doshier, vice president of retirement marketing for Franklin Templeton Investments, said in a statement. “Very telling, those who have never worked with a financial advisor are more than three times as likely to indicate a significant degree of stress and anxiety about their retirement savings as those who currently work with an advisor.”

As advisors, we need to keep in mind that our clients are often very anxious over money issues or feel a lot of retirement stress.  We often labor over the math in the retirement income plan and neglect to think about how the client is feeling about things—especially new clients or prospects.  (Of course, they do feel much better when the math works!)

The silver lining, to me, was that most pre-retirees were willing to work to improve their retirement readiness—and that those already working with an advisor felt much less retirement stress.  I don’t know if clients of advisors are better off for simply working with an advisor (other studies suggest they are), but perhaps even having a roadmap would relieve a great deal of stress.  As in most things, the unknown makes us anxious.  Working with a qualified advisor might make things seem much more manageable.

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Target Date Fund Follies

March 7, 2013

Target date and lifecycle funds have taken off since 2006, when they were deemed qualified default investment alternatives in the Pension Protection Act.  I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.  Unfortunately, it planted the idea that a glidepath that moved toward bonds as the investor moved toward retirement was a good idea.  Assets in target date funds were nearly $400 billion at the end of 2011—and they have continued to grow rapidly.

In fact, bonds will prove to be a good idea if they perform well and a lousy idea if they perform poorly.  Since 10-year future returns correlate closely with the current coupon yield, prospects for bonds going forward aren’t particularly promising at the moment.  I’ve argued before that tactical asset allocation may provide an alternative method of accumulating capital, as opposed to a restrictive target-date glidepath.

A new research paper by Javier Estrada, The Glidepath Illusion: An International Perspective, makes a much broader claim.  He looks at typical glidepaths that move toward bonds over time, and then at a wide variety of alternatives, ranging from inverse glidepaths that move toward stocks over time to balanced funds.  His findings are stunning.

This lifecycle strategy implies that investors are aggressive with little capital and conservative with much more capital, which may not be optimal in terms of wealth accumulation. This article evaluates three alternative types of strategies, including contrarian strategies that follow a glidepath opposite to that of target-date funds; that is, they become more aggressive as retirement approaches. The results from a comprehensive sample that spans over 19 countries, two regions, and 110 years suggest that, relative to lifecycle strategies, the alternative strategies considered here provide investors with higher expected terminal wealth, higher upside potential, more limited downside potential, and higher uncertainty but limited to how much better, not how much worse, investors are expected to do with these strategies.

In other words, the only real question was how much better the alternative strategies performed.  (I added the bold.)

Every strategy option they considered performed better than the traditional glidepath!  True, if they were more focused on equities, they were more volatile.  But, for the cost of the volatility, you ended up with more money—sometimes appreciably more money.  This data sample was worldwide and extended over 110 years, so it wasn’t a fluke.  Staying equity-focused didn’t work occasionally in some markets—it worked consistently in every time frame in every region.  Certainly the future won’t be exactly like the past, so there is no way to know if these results will hold going forward.  However, bonds have had terrific performance over the last 30 years and the glidepath favoring them still didn’t beat alternative strategies over an investing lifetime.

Bonds, to me, make sense to reduce volatility.  Some clients simply must have a reduced-volatility portfolio to sleep at night, and I get that.  But Mr. Estrada’s study shows that the typical glidepath is outperformed even by a 60/40-type balanced fund.  (Balanced funds, by the way, are also designated QDIAs in the Pension Protection Act.)   Tactical asset allocation, where bonds are held temporarily for defensive purposes, might also allow clients to sleep at night while retaining a growth orientation.  The bottom line is that it makes sense to reduce volatility just enough to keep the client comfortable, but no more.

I’d urge you to read this paper carefully.  Maybe your conclusions will be different than mine.  But my take-away is this: Over the course of an investing lifetime, it is very important to stay focused on growth.

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How Long Might Your Portfolio Last?

February 21, 2013

When it comes to retirement, you want your portfolio to last at least as long as you do.  From BlackRock comes a useful table for estimating how long your portfolio will last, given return and withdrawal rate assumptions:

withdrawal 02.21.13 How Long Might Your Portfolio Last?

(Click to enlarge)

It is very interesting that choosing a 5 percent withdrawal rate rather than 6 percent resulted in an additional portfolio life of 11 years in this study!   A client who has amassed $1 million may be feeling like they must be set for retirement.   However, when they realize that this means $50,000 a year (increased annually for inflation), they may no longer feel so good.  The earlier that clients begin to think about the concept of withdrawal rates, the more time they will have to affect the absolute value of those withdrawals (through saving and investment decisions) and be able to set themselves up for a comfortable lifestyle.

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Underfunded Pension Plans

February 4, 2013

Many large corporations still carrying defined benefit plans for their workers have underfunded pension plans.  For example, here’s an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal article on the issue today:

“It is one of the top issues that companies are dealing with now,” said Michael Moran, pension strategist at investment adviser Goldman Sachs Asset Management.

The drain on corporate cash is a side effect of the U.S. monetary policy aimed at encouraging borrowing to stimulate the economy. Companies are required to calculate the present value of the future pension liabilities by using a so-called discount rate, based on corporate bond yields. As those rates fall, the liabilities rise.

If you think that underfunded pension plans are only a corporate or government problem, you would be wrong.  Chances are that the underfunded pension plan is a personal problem, even if (or especially if) you have a defined contribution plan like a 401k.  In a corporate plan, the corporation is on the hook for the money.  If you have a 401k plan, you are on the hook for the money.  And, since there is a contribution cap on 401ks, it may well be that you need to set aside additional money outside your retirement plan to make sure you hit your goals.

Figuring out whether your retirement is funded or not depends on some assumptions—and those assumptions are a moving target.  The one thing you know for sure is how much you have saved for retirement right now.  You might also have a handle on your current level on contributions.  What you don’t know exactly is how many years it will be until you retire, although you can generate scenarios for different ages.  What you don’t know at all is what the return on your retirement savings will be in those intervening years—or what the inflation rate will be during that time.

As interest rates fall, pensions are required to assume that their investment returns will fall too.  That means they have to contribute much more to reach their funding goals.

Guess what?  That means you should assume that you, too, will see lower returns and will need to save more money for retirement.  When stock and bond yields are low, it’s realistic to assume that returns will be lower going forward.  Investors right now, unfortunately, are stuck with rates that are near 50-year lows.  It puts a big burden on investors to get cracking and save as much as they can while they are working.  A qualified advisor should be able to give you some sense of your funding level so that you can plan for retirement.

 

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Are You the Millionaire Next Door?

January 31, 2013

Clients, in general, are bad about even trying to figure out what their retirement number is—that is, the pool of assets they will need to maintain their standard of living in retirement.  Even more difficult is figuring out if they are on track.  One simple method is mentioned in The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas Stanley and William Danko.  From Yahoo! Finance:

Thomas Stanley and William Danko, authors of the bestselling book “The Millionaire Next Door,” suggest that you simply take your age and multiply it by your current annual income before taxes from all sources (except for inheritances, which are only paid once). Divide the total by 10, and the quotient is what your net worth should be at that point in your life.

So, for example, if you are making $80,000 per year and you are now 45 years old, this simple formula suggests that to stay on track your net worth should be about $360,000.  There are a lot of assumptions that go into this, obviously, and there are better and more accurate ways to figure out if you are on track (for example, we use a % funded spreadsheet), but it’s a start.  Given current return expectations, this simple formula might understate what you will require, but anything that will motivate clients to get moving in the right direction is a help.

 

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401k Abuse

January 18, 2013

With the elimination of traditional pensions in many workplaces, Americans are left to their own devices with their 401k plan.  For many of them, it’s not going so well.  Beyond the often-poor investment decisions that are made, many investors are also raiding the retirement kittyBusiness Insider explains:

Dipping into your 401(k) plan is tantamount to journeying into the future, mugging your 65-year-old self, and then booking it back to present day life.

And still, it turns out one in four workers resorts to taking out 401(k)  loans each year, according to a new report by HelloWallet –– to the tune of $70 billion, nationally.

To put that in perspective, consider how much workers contribute to retirement plans on average: $175 billion per year. That means people put money in only to take out nearly half that contribution later.

That’s not good.  Saving for retirement is hard enough without stealing your own retirement money.  Congress made you an investor whether you like it or not—now you need to figure out how to make the best of it.

Here are a couple of simple guidelines:

  • save 15% of your income for your entire working career.
  • if you can max out your 401k, do it.
  • diversify your portfolio intelligently, by volatility, asset class, and strategy.
  • resist all of the temptations to mess with your perfectly reasonable plan.
  • if you can’t discipline yourself, for heaven’s sake get help.

I know—easier said than done.  But still, if you can manage it, you’ll have a big headstart on a good retirement.  Your 401k is too important to abuse.

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Extolling the Power of Compound Interest

January 7, 2013

Carl Richard’s latest sketch simply and effectively conveys the nature of compound interest:

Compound Interest1 Extolling the Power of Compound Interest

You’ve probably heard that starting early is one of the best investing decisions you can make. That’s because investing done right is short-term boring but long-term exciting.

The reason? The reality of compound interest. Let me explain.

Many people talk about the power of compound interest. Albert Einstein is rumored to have called it the most powerful force in the universe.

Now, I suspect he probably didn’t really say that, but whether he did or not, it’s a point that we often miss in the discussion about compound interest. Despite it being one of the most powerful forces in the universe, it’s not one of the most exciting – at least in the short term. Nothing really great happens until after years and years of discipline and patience.

Take this silly (but true!) story that’s often told to demonstrate how powerful compound interest is: If you start with one penny and double it every day for 30 days, you’ll end up with $5,368,709.12.

I should add a disclaimer here that if anyone offers you an investment that will double in value every day, you should run as fast as you can in the other direction. But let’s get back to the main point. Sure, compound interest has a powerful outcome, but it takes an awfully long time to become fun and exciting.

Now take a look at our penny example again. One penny doubled is 2 cents. Two cents turns to $0.04, $0.04 to $0.08, $0.08 to $0.16, $0.16 to $0.32, $0.32 to $0.64, and $0.64 to $1.28. Nothing very exciting there.

But when you stick with it, it’s that last few times when the figure doubles that it gets very, very exciting. You’re looking at $1,342,177.28 becoming $2,684,354.56, and $2,684,354.56 doubling to $5,368,709.12.

That’s the case with our investments, too. It’s not very exciting at the beginning, but compounding becomes a powerful force after years of patience and discipline.

In case you want to see the penny example in spreadsheet form:

compounding Extolling the Power of Compound Interest

 

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Seven (Obvious) Steps to a Sound Retirement

December 11, 2012

When I first read this retirement article by Robert Powell at Marketwatch, I thought the advice was useful, but obvious.  Subsequent experience has led me to believe that while it may be obvious to a financial professional, it’s not always obvious to clients.  Clients, it seems, have pretty fuzzy thinking about retirement.

Here’s a retirement step that to me is obvious—but a lot of clients haven’t done it, or haven’t thought about it in a very complex way.  From Mr. Powell’s article:

1. Quantify assets and net worth

The first order of business is taking a tally of all that you own — your financial and non-financial assets, including your home and a self-owned business, and all that you owe. Your home, given that it might be your largest asset, could play an especially important part in your retirement, according to Abkemeier.

And at minimum, you should evaluate the many ways you can create income from your home, such as selling and renting; selling and moving in with family; taking out a home-equity loan; renting out a room or rooms; taking a reverse mortgage; and paying off your mortgage.

Another point that sometimes gets lost in the fray is that assets have to be converted into income and income streams need to be converted into assets. “When we think of assets and income, we need to remember that assets can be converted to a monthly income and that retirement savings are important as a generator of monthly income or spending power,” according to SOA’s report. “Likewise, income streams like pensions have a value comparable to an asset.”

One reason retirement planning is so difficult, according to SOA, is that many people are not able to readily think about assets and income with equivalent values and how to make a translation between the two. Assets often seem like a lot of money, particularly when people forget that they will be using them to meet regular expenses.

Consider, for instance, the notion that $100,000 in retirement savings might translate into just $4,000 per year in retirement income.

I put in bold a section that I think is particularly important.  With some effort, clients can usually get a handle on what their expenses are.  If they have pension income or Social Security benefits, it’s pretty easy to match income and expenses.  But if they have a lump sum in their 401k, it’s very difficult for them to understand what that asset means in terms of income.

After all, if they are just looking for an additional $3,000 per month in supplemental income, their $400,000 401k balance looks very large in comparison.  They figure that it will last at least ten years even if they just draw the funds out of a money market, so 20 years or more should be no problem with some growth.  At least I can only assume that’s what the thought process must be like.

Sustainable income is an entirely different matter, as clients almost never factor inflation into the thought process—and they are usually horrified by the thought of slowly liquidating their hard-earned assets.  No, they want their principal to remain intact.  They are often shocked when they are informed that, under current conditions, some practitioners consider a 4% or 5% income stream an aggressive assumption.

And, of course, all of this assumes that they have tallied up their retirement assets and net worth in the first place.  Lots of retirement “planning,” it turns out, works on the “I have a pretty good 401k, so I think I’ll be all right” principle.  I have a couple of thoughts about this whole problem.  What is now obvious to me is that clients need a lot of help understanding what a lump sum means in terms of sustainable income.  I’m sure that different advisors work with different assumptions, but they are still often not the assumptions your client is making.

Some practical steps for advisors occur to me.

  1. Encourage clients to track their assets and net worth, maybe quarterly, either on paper or on a spreadsheet.  At least they will know where they stand.  A surprising number of clients nowadays are carrying significant debt into retirement—and they don’t consider how that affects their net worth.
  2. Talk to them about what you consider reasonable assumptions for sustainable income.  Maybe you’re still using the good old 4% rule, or perhaps you’ve moved on to more sophisticated methods.  Whatever they are, start the conversation long before retirement so the client has a chance to build sufficient savings.

Sound retirement isn’t obvious, and planning for it isn’t simple or easy.

Note:  The rest of the article is equally worthwhile.

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Quote of the Week

October 22, 2012

No strategy can make up for inadequate savings or premature retirement.—-Rob Arnott, Research Affiliates

I like this quote a lot.  It gets at some of the factors that allow clients to achieve wealth, along with intelligent investment management.

  1. Savings, and
  2. Time.

Savings is usually more important than investment strategy, especially when a client is just beginning to accumulate capital.  Without some savings to begin with, there’s no capital to manage.

Time is important to allow compounding to occur.  This is often lost on young investors, who sometimes do not realize what a jump they will get by starting a portfolio early.  How many of us in the industry have met with the 55-year-old client who has just finished putting the kids through college and is now ready to start saving for retirement—only to realize they will need to save 115% of their current income to reach the retirement goal they have in mind?  Oops.

Save early and often, and give your capital lots of time to grow.

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