Archives for May 2017

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How Do You Know if You Need an Annuity?

Last Monday’s article briefly touched on some of the factors involved in whether or not it makes sense for somebody to purchase a single premium immediate annuity (“SPIA” — essentially a pension from an insurance company) with part of their portfolio. Several readers wrote in with related questions, such as this one:

“My question is related to SPIA and when to buy them. How do you know if you need a SPIA? Example: If you have a $1 million portfolio (60% bonds 40% equity) and you need to take 4% a year out are you a candidate for a SPIA?”

Generally speaking, a SPIA is useful when you want to increase the amount that you can safely spend from your portfolio per year. Said differently, it’s useful when your desired spending level might not be safe, given your portfolio size and given the other characteristics of your situation.

Based on the example the reader provided, there’s no way to know whether the person is a candidate for such an annuity. Much more information is needed. I would ask the person in the example the following questions.

How old are you? What kind of health are you in? Are you married? If so, how old is your spouse and what kind of health are they in? The key point with all of these questions is that the longer your life expectancy — or joint life expectancy — the riskier that 4% withdrawal rate is. If you’re 80 and single, a 4% withdrawal rate is super duper safe. If you’re 55, married to a 52-year-old, and you’re both in great health, that 4% withdrawal rate is quite a bit riskier.

Also, when you say that you “need” to spend 4% per year, what do you mean by “need”? For example, if the portfolio’s returns were poor within the first 5 or 10 years of retirement, how much of a disaster would it be to spend, say, 3% or 3.5% from the portfolio instead? The more flexibility you have, the safer the 4% initial withdrawal rate and the lower the need for an annuity.

And have you already claimed Social Security? If you haven’t, delaying Social Security (especially for the higher earner of the two of you, if you’re married) is a great way to increase your level of guaranteed income, and the payout is much better than the payout from annuities purchased from insurance companies. Conversely, if you’re already age 70 (or are already planning to delay until 70) and you are thinking (due to the factors discussed above) that your 4% necessary withdrawal rate is riskier than you’d like, a SPIA becomes more relevant.

And, speaking of Social Security, how much total safe income do you have? For example, if you’re planning to spend $40,000 from the portfolio per year but you also have $80,000 per year of Social Security/pension income, the impact of portfolio depletion would be much less dramatic than if you have $15,000 per year of Social Security/pension income. And, therefore, holding all else constant, a 4% withdrawal rate is much riskier if you have a lower level of guaranteed income from other sources than if you have a higher level of guaranteed income. (This was the major point of the article from David Blanchett that we discussed last week.)

And how strong is your “bequest motive”? That is, how much do you care about leaving money to heirs? One of the big drawbacks of purchasing a SPIA is that it reduces the size of your portfolio, so if you die soon after purchasing the annuity, your heirs will receive less than they would have received otherwise.

Overall point being: In some cases, a person with a $1,000,000 portfolio who plans to spend $40,000 per year (adjusted for inflation) from that portfolio has absolutely no need for a SPIA. Another person with different circumstances — but still with the same portfolio and still planning to spend the same amount from it — should think very seriously about purchasing a SPIA.

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  • How to minimize the risk of outliving your money,
  • How to choose which accounts (Roth vs. traditional IRA vs. taxable) to withdraw from each year,
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Investing Blog Roundup: The Price of Socially Responsible Investing

Socially responsible investing is a hot topic — and getting hotter. This week, Larry Swedroe explains something that many SRI investors overlook: if the goal is to drive up the cost of capital for “bad” companies (however you define that), that is the same thing as driving returns up for investors in those companies (and down for investors in “good” companies).

Other Money-Related Articles

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The Relationship Between Guaranteed Income and Safe Withdrawal Rates

Spending from your portfolio in retirement is always a balancing act between two competing goals:

  1. Minimize the likelihood of depleting your portfolio during your lifetime (i.e., don’t overspend), and
  2. Have as high a standard of living as possible (i.e., don’t underspend and end up with a giant pile of unspent money when you die).

In a recent paper David Blanchett of Morningstar looked at how that balancing act is affected by the portion of your spending that comes from guaranteed sources (e.g., Social Security, pension, lifetime annuities) as opposed to from a portfolio of stocks/bonds with unpredictable returns.

If your spending is primarily portfolio-funded (rather than coming from guaranteed sources), you cannot afford to take significant risk of depleting the portfolio. That is, Goal #1 (don’t overspend and deplete your portfolio) is so much more important than Goal #2 (don’t underspend) that you can’t really afford to think about Goal #2 very much. Conversely, if your overall spending is funded primarily by guaranteed sources, then Goal #1 becomes less important relative to Goal #2 and the “just right” rate of spending from your portfolio is going to be higher.

A lot higher, as it turns out. Here’s one of Blanchett’s findings:

“Results from this analysis suggest that optimal initial safe withdrawal rates varied significantly when guaranteed income was considered, from approximately 6 percent when 95 percent of wealth was in guaranteed income, versus approximately 2 percent when only 5 percent of wealth was in guaranteed income.”

In other words, holding all of the other variables constant, it’s reasonable for a person with a very high level of guaranteed income to spend from their portfolio at roughly three-times the rate of a person with a very low level of guaranteed income.

An important takeaway here is that if you are basing your own spending rate upon one or more specific pieces of “safe withdrawal rate” research, you should check that their assumptions are a good fit for your own personal circumstances. Does the research demand a higher (or lower) level of safety than you require given your own circumstances?

Another important point is that this factor (i.e., the percentage of your spending that comes from guaranteed income sources rather than from a stock/bond portfolio) is under your control to a significant extent. If you want to increase your level of safe income, you can delay Social Security and/or purchase a lifetime annuity with part of your portfolio. These are not things that everybody should do. But they do meaningfully increase the amount you can safely spend per year, because:

  1. The payout on the part of the portfolio that gets annuitized (or the part that gets spent down to delay Social Security) is higher than the safe withdrawal rate from a stock/bond portfolio, and
  2. As Blanchett discusses in the paper, your safe withdrawal rate from the rest of the portfolio can now be higher because it’s less problematic if the portfolio is ultimately depleted.

To be clear though, while this one factor does have a big impact, it’s not the only thing influencing the appropriate spending rate from a portfolio. The appropriate spending rate also varies significantly depending on:

  • The expected returns from stocks and bonds,
  • Your life expectancy (an 85-year-old can safely spend a higher percentage of their portfolio per year than a 65-year-old),
  • Your flexibility to adjust spending, and
  • The strength of your “bequest motive” (i.e., your desire to leave behind a lump-sum for your heirs).

Retiring Soon? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Can I Retire Cover

Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How to calculate how much you’ll need saved before you can retire,
  • How to minimize the risk of outliving your money,
  • How to choose which accounts (Roth vs. traditional IRA vs. taxable) to withdraw from each year,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"Hands down the best overview of what it takes to truly retire that I've ever read. In jargon free English, this gem of a book nails the key issues."

Investing Blog Roundup: The Future of Financial Advice

Over the last few decades, people have come to realize two things about mutual funds:

  1. Costs matter, and
  2. Most people don’t need anything fancy. (So paying a low cost for a cookie-cutter solution is usually just fine.)

This week John Rekenthaler of Morningstar predicts that, eventually, people will come to realize the same two things about financial advice.

Other Money-Related Articles

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“Total Market” Investing and Multi-Factor Models

A reader writes in, asking:

“I would like to ask you about factor investing. For background, I am a plain vanilla investor. I use the Vanguard Market-cap weighted Total World Stock fund. As simple as it gets!

However I have been reading literature about the case for factor investing. There seems to be a broad consensus that multi-factor models explain returns much better than the CAPM. [Mike’s note: the Capital Asset Pricing Model is an older model in finance that states that a portfolio’s expected return is a function of how sensitive the portfolio is to market risk. More recently, various multi-factor models have said that a portfolio’s expected return also depends on other things, such as how much of the portfolio is allocated to small-cap stocks (as opposed to large-cap stocks) or to value stocks (as opposed to growth stocks).]

I have heard many recommending tilting to small and value stocks.

Do I need to be concerned about my plain vanilla strategy? Am I potentially missing out on much superior returns over the long run?”

It’s true that there is, roughly, a consensus that multi-factor models explain returns better than CAPM. That isn’t an argument for or against a “total market” portfolio though.

To back up a step, a one-factor model such as CAPM tells us that stocks are riskier than bonds and should therefore usually have higher returns. But that’s not an argument for an all-stock portfolio (or any other particular stock/bond allocation). It all depends on your own personal balance of desire for return and willingness to take stock market risk.

Similarly, in multi-factor models, value stocks and small-cap stocks are generally considered to have higher risk and higher expected return than their counterparts. But that’s not an argument for any particular value/growth allocation or small/mid/large allocation. Again it all depends on your personal balance of desire for return and willingness to take risk.

In my experience, it’s usually the salespeople (e.g., certain advisors or purveyors of mutual funds) who argue that a given allocation is better, while the academics are much more neutral on the matter. For instance, Eugene Fama (one of the two people originally behind multi-factor research) was super clear in a video interview on Dimensional Fund Advisors’ website. The video disappeared when they restructured their site a few years back, but here’s the relevant quote:

Interviewer: Some people cite your research showing that value and small firms have higher average returns over time and they assume that you would recommend most investors have a big helping of small and value stocks in their portfolios. Is that a fair representation of your views?

Fama: Um, no. (Laughs) Basically this is a risk story the way we tell it, so there is no optimal portfolio. The way I like to talk about it when I give presentations for DFA or other people is, in every asset pricing model, the market portfolio is always an efficient portfolio. It’s always a relevant portfolio for an investor to hold. And investors can decide to tilt away from that based on their personal tastes.

But that’s what it amounts to. You can decide to tilt toward more value or smaller size based on your tastes for these dimensions of risk. But you needn’t do it. You could also decide to go the other way. You could look at the premiums and say, no, I think I like the growth stocks better. Then, as long as you get a diversified portfolio of them, I can’t argue with that either.

So there’s a whole multi-dimensional continuum here of efficient portfolios that anybody can decide to buy that I can’t quarrel with. And I have no recommendations about it because I think it’s totally a matter of taste. If you eat oranges and I eat apples I can’t really quarrel very much with that.

As far as still-available interviews with Eugene Fama, here are two:

In the first video, Fama talks about the origin of the 3-factor model. While he doesn’t explicitly get around to portfolio construction in this interview, he does state very clearly that his view is that the higher returns are the result of higher risk. (Around 5:26 is where the conversation leads to this point.)

The second video is longer and covers a lot of topics. The video’s publisher explicitly requests that it not be quoted, so I won’t quote it. Instead, I’ll just point out that around 28:45, Fama says things very similar to the interview that I quoted above. And at 35:28 he says something very clear about holding a market portfolio and whether he thinks it’s a good choice or not.

In my view, overweighting small-cap stocks or value stocks in your portfolio is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But on occasion you’ll encounter people who indicate that doing so is the smart way to invest and only an uninformed investor would say otherwise. But that’s clearly not true.

Investing Blog Roundup: Another Challenge to DALBAR’s Math

Since 1994, research firm DALBAR has published an annual report that shows that mutual fund investors dramatically underperform their own mutual funds due to poor timing decisions (i.e., buying and selling at disadvantageous times), and their report is frequently cited within the investment industry. The underperformance that DALBAR reports, however, is quite a bit larger than the underperformance that Morningstar reports on the same topic.

Two months ago, Advisor Perspectives published an article from researcher Wade Pfau asserting that the difference is primarily due to DALBAR just doing the math incorrectly. DALBAR replied — disagreeing of course. But they they did not really provide any evidence or examples of how they do their math and why it would make sense to do it the way they do it.

This week, David Blanchett (head of retirement research for Morningstar) performed an independent calculation of investor performance to see whether his findings would mirror Morningstar’s official findings or DALBAR’s findings. The result is that we now have one more source indicating that DALBAR’s findings are way off the mark.

The takeaway: It looks like mutual fund investors aren’t nearly as dumb as some prominent sources would have you believe.

Other Investing Articles

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