Dear Retirement Investor, What If You’re Wrong?

Over the last several weeks, it has been a whirlwind of headlines from the financial media. Despite some very encouraging fundamentals in the economy—GDP growth, corporate earnings strength, positive corporate response to tax reform—we have recently rediscovered market volatility. In February, we saw a 10% drop in some of the indices in only 9 trading days!  Luckily, this swift downward slide was short-lived, and the markets rebounded. Until… they began to slide again. Now, we are hearing rumors of a potential trade war with China, and some of our social media platforms could be targets for increased regulation.

This is the nature of investing. Despite the beautiful oasis that was 2017, where volatility was at or near zero for the entire year, I must remind you that those results are not the norm.

For the last year or two, we are increasingly hearing more people who believe that we are due for another “Big One.” The question I probably should ask, but often fail to do so, is “How do you define a ‘Big One’?” After all, the traditional definition of a Bear Market is a 20% decline, which historically can be fairly common, with one happening on average once out of every 5 years. This type of market cycle is normal—so, if it happened now, would it be too much to handle for you as an investor?

Or, would a “Big One” be more like what investors experienced in 2008—where asset prices dropped between 35% and 50%?

I tend to think that investors are anchored to their 2008 experience, and sadly, the financial media continues to re-open that wound any time we experience volatility. This doesn’t serve investors, but it definitely draws eyeballs, which directly result in ad sales for the media machine. (Hint: this is one reason why I so often encourage clients to not even watch or read financial journalism)

Now…the title of this article I ask “What If You’re Wrong?” because whether you realize it or not, there’s a story you tell yourself about your financial future and the impact of equity markets on that future.

Some people believe that in the long-run, market returns are positive, and you simply have to hang in there when the seas get rough. Other investors believe that the next major financial downturn is all but inevitable, and it’s only a matter of time before the house of cards comes tumbling down. Worse, there are some folks who believe that it’s actually possible to predict the coming of this potential bear market and subsequent recovery.

Let’s look at each of these scenarios, and how they could impact your retirement plan if you are wrong. Note: most of the following information is going to be more relevant for investors who are either retired or very close to their retirement date.

In the Long Run, You Win— unless you don’t. There are many maxims about investing that are consistently thrown out to investors to encourage them to not panic out of the market. While, yes, we do want to encourage good investor behavior, we financial professionals should also make sure that clients have the financial ability to actually do what we are telling them to do. Some investors have the risk tolerance to be invested in growth markets, but they do not have the risk capacity to invest the way they are being coached to invest. For instance, some clients want a lifestyle in retirement that would be considered “constrained” under some retirement income metrics. These investors can be the most vulnerable to a market shock derailing their income plan, and in some cases, this derailment could be a permanent setback. I spoke with someone recently who told me that he “didn’t want to have to go back to work.”  Why leave something that critical to market probability and chance?

Mr. Market, My Hero. Another scenario, which is perhaps a more chronic condition for some investors, is when the market is being relied upon to produce a minimum level of return to make their plan work. I use “plan” lightly here because really this is more of a Hope and Change strategy— one where you hope the market probabilities don’t change in the future! Of course, we all hope to gain meaningful returns by being investors—we wouldn’t risk our hard-earned money otherwise. Yet, it still fascinates me that the old Wall Street retirement advice hasn’t changed with the times. You know the phase: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” This is more than just a meaningless disclosure—it’s a real statement that should be heeded by investors headed into retirement. Retirement strategies that are built on a rate of return requirement—either to preserve capital or sustain lifestyle— could be in for a rocky ride.

Are you ready to have an allowance?  Trust me, the institutional firms that still market the systematic withdrawal approach to retirement will be telling you when / how much / how little / go / stop…..and everything in between… in order to keep you invested. I tell attendees at our workshops that I know they aren’t going broke in retirement (barring some unforeseen medical or life event that depletes savings).  No, what will happen is that folks who finally tire of the market uncertainty or feeling like they have no control will simply cash in their chips and put their money in the bank. We think there is a better way to do things.

Did You Miss The Bus? A final consideration—one that flies in the face of conventional thinking—is that some investors are going to mess up their retirement future because they invest too conservatively, not too aggressively.

“How can this be?”  you ask.

It’s often discussed in our industry about the changes that need to be considered when one retires. One of those changes is that people should invest more conservatively in retirement because they cannot afford to lose funds to market volatility…. or should I say have large losses due to market volatility? The idea of “not losing” is a myth when it comes to investing. There’s no free lunch. Retirees need to understand that asset allocation—and constructing a thoughtful retirement income plan—can significantly improve their outcomes. This doesn’t mean that we divorce ourselves from growth assets…actually the opposite. We create a plan that will allow for us to embrace a growth-oriented allocation for part of our portfolio. 

With increasing longevity driving retirement seasons that can last 30-plus years, investors cannot afford to shy away from growth completely. We need to have assets that can give us real returns—net of inflation—so we can maintain purchasing power. A major concern for some retirees should be what their portfolios could look like 10, 15, 20 years from now if they don’t allow for some growth.

Take this example:  Investor Jones, age 62, takes a conservative route with $250,000 in assets that aren’t needed for his current retirement income needs. He invests in a portfolio that gives him a 4.5% return over a 15 year period. His account now stands at $483,820. However, if inflation averaged 2.5% during that same period, his real rate of return would be 1.95%. What this means is that, while his account has a balance of $483,820, the purchasing power of those funds is equal to only $334,000 in today’s dollars. This is a significant shift, as Mr Jones is moving into a phase of life where he may need these assets to supplement his lifestyle and where medical expenses tend to increase.

Note: The example given is hypothetical in nature, for illustrative purposes only and results are not guaranteed.

So, what can YOU do?

The truth is we must plan…and continue to plan as the years go by. Market volatility will make the news media headlines all day…because that is what helps the media drive their profits from advertising. Do you think the media is going to front page stories like Mr. Jones?  Or, will they give primetime interviews to retirees who got cooked in another major downturn?  Sure, they might…but by then it will be too late for those people who were harmed by not having an effective plan.

The challenging part of the retirement equation is that most people have little or no experience with withdrawing money from a portfolio. Thus, when they approach retirement or interview financial professionals, they tend to continue using their experience as accumulators as a guide. The game changes completely—and so many folks don’t realize it. If you want to be successful with your retirement dollars, I cannot stress enough the importance of these 3 action items:

1) You work with someone who is a credentialed financial professional that has a fiduciary responsibility to you as a client. Professionals that carry the CFP®marks are a good litmus test for this requirement. I would also encourage you to go a step further and look for someone who is both independent of any major institutional firm and who specializes in retirement planning. Much like the world of investing, retirement planning is its own specialty, and folks preparing for their retirement years should seek professionals with retirement planning expertise.

2) Have a written plan. This is where a good many financial professionals can fall short. When I say written plan, I’m referring to a document that you—the client— can read and understand. Do you have one of these?  Sure, many people get printouts of charts and graphs w/ monte carlo simulation results. Can you actually read and understand that?  What you should require is that you get a document that you can read and understand. If you can’t, how will you know if your plan is working or on track?

3) Participate in the process.  A good financial professional will make sure that you are engaged in the planning process. The more involved you are in the planning process, the more you should be able to identify and align with your finalized action items. Your plan should reflect your needs / wants / desires on paper— and give you a roadmap on how to make it all happen. If you don’t actively participate—or worse, the planning team doesn’t ask you to be an active participant— you should look for a group that will be proactive in planning with you. Retirement is too important to simply let (insert big firm name here) take the wheel.

Retirement planning doesn’t have to be tedious or stressful. Let our team guide you through our planning process, where we can align your assets with your values. Reach out to us to schedule your free 1-hour consultation!

 

Investment advisory and financial planning services offered through Planners Alliance, LLC, a SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Subadvisory services are provided by Advisory Alpha, LLC, a SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Insurance, Consulting and Education services offered through Vertex Capital Advisors. Vertex Capital Advisors is a separate and unaffiliated entity from Planners Alliance, LLC and Advisory Alpha, LLC.

Your Portfolio Won’t Save You

In the many years that I have been fortunate to work with couples and families as they plan for their financial future, I have seen, heard, and witnessed just about every type of financial mindset you can imagine. From the “Free Spirits” to the “Doom and Gloom” to the “Fiscal Hawks”— it’s been a colorful journey. One thing that continues to surprise me is the persistence of the idea that all that matters is the allocation of one’s portfolio.

In our retirement workshops, we often discuss several retirement planning issues and concerns that we frequently hear from folks who come to see us. The overwhelming majority of people who attend are coming to learn how they can make their retirement income last longer than they do. However, we still see people who have been trained to believe that the “right” portfolio is all that matters. I say “trained” because I believe that the majority of what some people know comes from the marketing of Wall Street and financial institutions.

Instead on focusing on just portfolio allocations— investors and clients should be focusing on creating an actual PLAN.

“Why is that?”, you ask.

The answer is simple— A portfolio is simply a tool that should be used to achieve your financial goals. The measure of a portfolio’s long-term success should be how well it enables you to meet your goals—NOT how it performed against the S&P 500 last year. The best benchmark for a portfolio is the answer to these questions,

“Am I on track to make sure I know for certain that I’ll never run out of income during retirement?”
“If I get sick or die unexpectedly, how could my family be impacted? (this is big if one spouse handles all of the finances)
“If my spouse gets sick or dies unexpectedly, what’s my plan?”

“If I need to take care of my aging parents, will I need to provide financial assistance?”

“Is there anyone in my family that I want to help with education or financial expenses?”

“If taxes or healthcare costs go up unexpectedly , how will I be impacted?”

Of course, there are more questions…but you get the idea. Retirement planning is much, much more nuanced than making sure your portfolio allocation is appropriate for your age. In fact, fund giants like Vanguard are trying to find ways to add advice to their platform because they realizing how valuable financial expertise can be to clients today.

Right now, stock markets are touching all-time highs, as the DOW, S&P, and NASDAQ have all touched record closes during this current bull market run. More and more, we are seeing the slow grip of inertia and complacency weave their way into the mindset of investors. What an amazing time to put a solid plan in place without the fear of market volatility or unexpected life events hindering your thought process. Don’t let this opportunity to plan for the future pass by—take the time to build your plan today…one that will protect you tomorrow in ways that a portfolio can’t.

 

Investment Advisory Services offered through AlphaStar Capital Management, LLC, a SEC Registered Investment Adviser. SEC registration does not constitute an endorsement of the firm by the Commission nor does it indicate that the adviser has attained a particular level of skill or ability. AlphaStar Capital Management, LLC and Vertex Capital Advisors, LLC are independent entities.

 

Can Your Retirement Survive a Low Return Environment?

Retirement-SurvivalWhat kind of retirement income can you expect if the stock market doesn’t produce the types of returns you’re anticipating? It’s no secret today that retirees are facing many challenges as they move into their retirement years. Longevity, for one, is becoming a real risk multiplier for the Baby Boomer generation since it amplifies the impact of several other risks retirees will face like inflation, cost of healthcare, and market risk. Now, it seems that some Boomers may be building their retirement plan upon flawed market return assumptions as well.

Are you relying on the “The Number”?

One of the most commonly used rules for distribution portfolios, which are portfolios that are now being used to provide income during one’s retirement, is what’s known as the 4% rule. The 4% rule originated from research done by William Bengen, who determined that an individual could safely withdraw 4% of the assets accumulated at retirement, adjust their spending for inflation, and have their portfolio survive a 30 year retirement period. (Bengen used portfolios that adjusted between 50% to 75% stocks, with the remaining percentage in bonds).

Naturally, this rule has helped frame the conversation around how much one needs to retire. For instance, if you’d like to have around $40,000/year in income, adjusted by inflation, the rule of thumb is that you’d need 1 million dollars invested in your retirement portfolio.

Ex: 4% X 1 million = $40,000

It has been over 20 years since the original findings came from that study, and since then, there has been additional research findings:

-Bengen’s original work didn’t account for taxes, advisory fees, or healthcare costs
-Diversification can actually help increase safe withdrawal rates
-Market valuations at the beginning of retirement have a disproportionate impact on portfolio success

Since the original research was formed, there have been many variations of the rule proposed. For the sake of this conversation, we’re going to keep it simple and focus on the philosophy behind the 4% rule and how it may impact retirees today, especially if retiree portfolios do not perform as expected.

History versus Today

There’s an old saying that we hear often in our industry, “Nothing beats the market over time.” The key word in that entire sentence is time. If you look at a long enough time horizon, equity returns can be quite compelling. One of the most serial offenders for abusing this principle is Dave Ramsey. (In the spirit of fairness, I will concede that I like Dave, and I think he is a great motivator in teaching people about the dangers of consumer debt. However, Dave is not a financial planner—something he openly admits.)

For years, Ramsey has promoted that people can invest in certain mutual funds and earn average returns of 12%, backing up his assertion with historical returns from 1926 until the end of 2012. That’s a 90 year time horizon for growth that I’m sure assumes perfect investor behavior; however, I would argue that, for retirees, what matters to them is their time horizon. Specifically, they don’t want to run out of money during their their retirement years. However, if retirees are expecting the markets to do the heavy lifting for them, they may be in for disappointment.

I have seen several different commentaries on this subject over the last year or two, but I’m going to highlight a couple of viewpoints in this post that I found interesting and easy to understand…

Will Boomers Drag Down Market Growth?

In a recent letter to his firm’s clients, Scott Krisiloff highlighted his belief that the wave of retiring baby boomers is going to have a profound impact on financial markets.* He wrote:

In an ideal environment, Boomers would be able to generate returns without having to sell assets. Income received from dividends and bond coupons would be enough. However, this isn’t a normal environment. Today very few if any assets are producing enough income to cover necessary expenses. With the dividend yield of the S&P 500 ETF at just 1.9% and the 10 year treasury yield at a similar level, back of the envelope math suggests that a Boomer would need a portfolio of $2.6 million to generate $50,000 per year in current income before taxes.

It’s my sense that most boomers and their financial advisors have probably not underwritten their retirement with the assumption of a 1.9% return on their investment portfolios though. This means that in order to generate the requisite income, Boomers will have to become sellers of assets in order to produce yield.

To be fair to Mr. Krisiloff, he does assert that he believes the impact of Boomers becoming more income focused will take time to develop; however, he does see it to be a trend that can create drag on overall market growth simply because the younger generations cannot afford to buy the assets as Boomers sell them at today’s valuations. This, it seems, lends itself to downward pressure on asset prices. Mr. Krisiloff goes on to write:

If you’re a Baby Boomer considering or approaching retirement, it’s important to keep in mind that today’s asset prices are inflated. The economic value of a portfolio at today’s levels can not necessarily be taken at face value. Stress your assumptions about the rate of return that your portfolio will generate. And if you have a strong stomach you may want to assume that the true value of your invested portfolio is about 30-35% lower than current levels. From those prices the standard 5-8% growth assumptions are more reasonable. The other alternative, which is the path that we are taking, is to utilize the tax advantages of retirement accounts to sell at these high levels.

If you’d like to read the full post from Scott Krisiloff, you can do it here.

*Scott Krisiloff is the Chief Investment Officer of Avondale Asset Management, a Los Angeles based investment firm.

How Do You Feel about Portfolio Failure?

Another view that I find even more clarifying on this topic comes from the research done by Blanchett, Finke, & Pfau. In their study from 2013, “The 4% Rule is Not Safe in a Low-Yield World,” they found that,

“…if we calibrate bond returns to the January 2013 real yields offered on 5-year TIPS, while maintaining the historical equity premium, the failure rate jumps to a whopping 57%,” which led to the conclusion that “the 4% rule cannot be treated as a safe initial withdrawal rate in today’s low-interest-rate environment.”

Naturally, some would argue that rates are due to rise, and they continued their study as if rates did indeed increase in 5 years and/or 10 years. In the 5 year scenario, the failure rate was still at 18%; and for rate increases that occurred in 10 years, the failure rate was 32%—roughly 1 out of 3 portfolios would fail.

The emphasis for me came with the statement,

“The bottom line is that the current low-yield environment is a retirement income game changer. And hoping that things will get better eventually is a risky strategy”….By relying on 20th century market returns which we may never see again we’re giving people a false sense of security.”

Finke then explains to advisors:

“I think an advisor has to think more carefully about constructing a retirement income portfolio that includes safeguards to prevent disaster if a client runs out of money.*”

*Quotes from Finke were pulled from an interview he did with ThinkAdvisor and the actual white paper itself.

Conclusion

As you can see, this topic is becoming more frequently debated and discussed; and fortunately, it’s a subject that will only continue to increase awareness because of the massive number of Baby Boomers retiring every day. Unfortunately, however, there are many individuals who are retiring on the idea that having a set “number” or investment strategy will be a panacea for their retirement income needs.

For this reason, we have chosen at our firm to focus on the cash flow side of retirement and protect income sources first and foremost for our clients. No matter how hard we try, we cannot force the equity markets to cooperate with our goals, but if I ever develop that skill, I promise I’ll tell you. What we MUST focus on is the things we can control—and build our plan to protect our retirement income. Then, we are able to construct portfolios that can give us the best chance for realizing our long-term investment goals.

As more and more Boomers retire and age into their retirement years, effective retirement income strategies will be paramount to their success. This is why social security claiming strategies are becoming an integral part of retirement income planning, and it’s also a reason that annuity income is beginning to see more and more praise in the academic world. Hopefully, this increased demand for cash flow and income security by the retiring Boomers will continue to be a driver of public awareness for the importance of having a comprehensive retirement income strategy and rewire future generations to consider cash flow generation over a specific account balance.

Retirement Focus: It’s About Cash Flow

I was recently having an in-depth conversation with one of my clients, and he said perhaps one of the truest statements I’ve ever heard when it comes to retirement planning. While we were discussing some potential ideas for him and his wife, he said:

“You know, you will probably create hundreds of these plans over the course of your lifetime. But, me, I only get to do this once…so I can’t afford to mess it up.”

Naturally, he was thinking about himself and his family when making this statement; however, his mindset reflects the thought process of plenty of workers today. The idea is that you only get one shot at having a successful retirement, so one had better make it count.

As more and more Boomers move into their retirement years, those of us in the financial industry are beginning to see changes in the retirement planning landscape. For one, people are living longer—-much longer—than they have in the past. In fact, I have a relative in my own family that worked for 34 years and is now entering his 31st year of retirement. How crazy is that?!

One might expect that with the Baby Boomer generation creating such demand for retirement planning services, there would be some definite benchmarks for how to measure retirement success. Unfortunately, the only thing our industry has agreed about is our disagreement on how to plan for retirement; and the continuous information dump provided by the internet only adds more layers of confusion and noise.

Some advisors will argue that retirement is all about “safe money” or “not losing” your nest egg, and others will stand for the exact opposite, saying “nothing beats the market over time.” The debate is endless, and in many ways, it can seem pointless, as proponents often care more about pushing their viewpoints than hearing those of their opposition. In the middle of this battleground stands the client, who just wants to enjoy a secure and safe retirement. In my opinion, this could quite possibly be the worst environment for someone who genuinely wants advice because they’re trapped in a world of debate about financial products.

So, how does someone go about trying to plan for their retirement? What should be the focus?

In my opinion, the most important facet of a retirement plan is having sources of guaranteed cash flow.

Now, for the sake of this discussion, let’s qualify what I consider to be guaranteed vs. non-guaranteed. In my view, guaranteed income sources would be: social security, pensions, or income from annuities (contractual guarantees only).

Income that I personally do not consider guaranteed is: bond interest, dividend payments, rental income, or any other type of distribution from a portfolio of securities.

Of course, this is the point where everyone’s biases begin to run wild, and they debate starts to rage. “How can you say that ______ is guaranteed?” or “Clearly, you must not understand the income reliability of __________.”

The goal here isn’t to get lost in the minutiae of social security reform proposals, pension funding, or the actuarial reliability of investment products. The point is this—- Cash Flow is what matters in retirement.

In the July 2014 Issue of the Harvard Business Review, Robert C. Merton writes:

“To begin with, putting relatively complex investment decisions in the hands of individuals with little or no financial expertise is problematic…More dangerous yet is the shift in focus away from retirement income to return on investment that has come with saver-managed DC plans: Investment decisions are now focused on the value of the funds, the returns on investment they deliver, and how volatile those returns are. Yet the primary concern of the saver remains what it always has been: Will I have sufficient income in retirement to live comfortably.”

Sadly, I believe that Merton is 100% correct in his beliefs. Financial discussions that focus on retirement planning are too often dominated by conversations about portfolio returns—-recent returns or projected returns—take your pick. Instead, we should be helping clients understand how the income pieces of their plans can fit together to establish an overall cash flow strategy.

From there, we can allow the clients to help determine what level of fluctuation they desire in their income streams. Naturally, some clients will not want to have any fluctuation; therefore, they will gravitate towards more of their assets being dedicated for income. Yet, some clients, will find themselves more open to some fluctuation, as long as they have a nice baseline of guaranteed income. These clients may be more inclined to place more assets in a growth-oriented strategy that allows for market fluctuation.

Our role as retirement income planners is to help clients navigate the multiple decisions they will face as they transition into the retirement season of their lives. But, I can honestly say that I have yet to meet with a client who didn’t have the desire for knowing their retirement cash flow potential as a very high priority. Workers today spend much of their energy in focusing on returns—too much energy. Returns are important; however, I don’t believe they should be the dominating factor in a planning process. If we want to work with the massive numbers of Baby Boomers moving into their retirement years, the conversation needs to begin with cash flow—-that’s where these clients experience their money and their retirement.

Michael H. Baker, CFP®, RICP®