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Implementing and Refining the “Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy”

A couple of years ago, we discussed a paper by Steve Vernon, Joe Tomlinson, and Wade Pfau, which looked at an assortment of retirement spending strategies and evaluated them based on several different criteria. The authors then put forth a strategy that they referred to as the “Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy,” which generally does a good job of satisfying the various (often competing) criteria.

Broadly speaking, the strategy involves creating two sources of retirement income:

  1. A safe floor of guaranteed lifetime income. The authors refer to these as “retirement paychecks.” This includes Social Security, pensions, and annuity income. These retirement paychecks would be used to cover the necessities like housing, utilities, food, transportation, medical care, etc.
  2. A liquid mutual fund portfolio, from which you pay yourself a “retirement bonus” — used for discretionary expenses. The level of spending from this portfolio varies with investment performance.

And again speaking broadly, the strategy has two steps:

  1. Implement the safe floor of income. Usually this means delaying Social Security if you are single or the higher earner in a married couple. Sometimes it means delaying for the lower earner in a married couple as well. And sometimes it means buying an annuity for additional guaranteed income.
  2. For the remainder of the portfolio (the “retirement bonus” portion), invest in a low-cost stock index fund or all-in-one fund (e.g., target-date fund, balanced fund, or LifeStrategy fund). Then use the IRS’s RMD tables to determine how much to spend from this part of the portfolio each year.

This strategy tends to work well as a rough-draft plan, for a few reasons:

  • Satisfying basic needs via guaranteed income minimizes your exposure to investment risk, longevity risk, investment mistakes, cognitive decline, fraud, or mistakes that might otherwise be made after the death of the more financially knowledgeable spouse.
  • To the extent that the guaranteed income is made up of Social Security, your exposure to inflation risk is minimized as well.
  • Using the RMD tables for discretionary spending accounts for the facts that it is wise to adjust spending based on investment performance, as well as the fact that you can safely spend a greater percentage of the portfolio per year the older you are.
  • The plan is reasonably simple and can in many cases be implemented without needing a financial advisor.

Real-World Implementation

But the basic, two-step plan described above (and in the original report) leaves an assortment of open questions. And when it comes time to actually implement the strategy in a real-world situation, you must come up with answers to those questions.

So I was happy to learn recently that the authors released a follow-up paper that addresses those real-life implementation questions one-by-one. (To be clear, the follow-up paper was published last year. I only recently learned about it though.)

The newer paper addresses questions such as:

  • How would you implement the RMD portion of income before the normal RMD age? (In brief: use the same life-expectancy-based calculation that the IRS uses. The authors provide a table with per-year spending percentages.)
  • How would you select an asset allocation for the RMD portion of the portfolio? (In brief: if your basic needs are completely satisfied by guaranteed sources of income, you can afford a stock-heavy allocation with remaining assets. Whether you want to use such an allocation is up to you and your preferences.)
  • How can you plan for the fact that the portfolio-funded level of spending has to vary as the level of income from other sources (e.g., work income or Social Security) changes over time? (In brief: create a “retirement transition fund” — a portion of the portfolio that has been carved off and invested in something like a bond ladder that will be used to fund the additional spending over the years in question.)
  • How can you plan for an uneven desired amount of total spending, such as a desire to front-load spending in the early years of retirement? (The authors propose a few options here. One such proposed method is to multiply the RMD for each year by a factor such as 1.25 or 1.5, which would increase spending early — and thereby result in less spending later, since you’d be spending a percentage of a portfolio that is smaller than it otherwise would have been. They run through a few examples of how such adjustments would have played out, given various assumptions.)

If you have the time, I’d encourage you to give the newer follow-up paper a read — or at least bookmark it for future reading. As I’ve written previously, I think the strategy that the authors describe is a great rough-draft approach to funding retirement spending (i.e., a sort of “cookie cutter” plan, which you can then adjust based on your own circumstances and preferences).

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."

Inflation-Adjusted Annuities No Longer Available: Now What?

A reader writes in, asking:

“I’ve read on Bogleheads that the last insurance company stopped selling annuities with a CPI adjustment, meaning that there’s no nowhere to buy an annuity that has inflation protection. What are the implications for somebody nearing retirement?”

It’s true: sometime in the second half of 2019 (I’m unsure of the exact date), Principal stopped offering inflation-adjusted lifetime annuities, so they’re now unavailable commercially at all, as the other insurance companies that had been offering them stopped a few years ago.

So what impact does this have on retirement planning?

The first thing that comes to mind is that delaying Social Security is now the only option at all to buy an inflation-adjusted lifetime annuity. But I’m not sure how much this actually changes any decision-making, because it was already the case that delaying Social Security was the most desirable option available for somebody looking for safe lifetime income (with the possible exception of the lower earner in a married couple).

If I personally were in that critical stage of “just about to retire or recently retired” my overall plan for funding retirement spending would have looked something like this, back when inflation-adjusted annuities were available:

  1. Higher earning spouse delays Social Security to age 70,
  2. Lower earning spouse delays Social Security until the point at which our safe income satisfies what we consider to be our “necessary” spending,
  3. Buy an inflation-adjusted lifetime annuity if we needed more safe income than what we would get from Social Security if both of us were already planning to file at age 70,
  4. Use primarily stocks for any remaining assets, since such assets would be intended for discretionary spending (i.e., non-necessities).

But, step #3 is no longer an option.

The primary options to consider as alternatives would be Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), a nominal annuity (i.e., one with no cost of living adjustment), or some combination of the two.

This is probably a good time to point out that annuities with a fixed annual cost of living adjustment (e.g., 2% per year) are still available. But as we’ve discussed previously, that doesn’t really protect you from inflation. (And in fact they perform worse in inflationary scenarios than annuities without any COLA at all.)

Creating a TIPS ladder would work well in that it creates a predictable, inflation-protected source of spending. But it has the downside of leaving you exposed to longevity risk (e.g., you build a 30-year TIPS ladder but end up living beyond 30 years).

A nominal annuity eliminates longevity risk, but it leaves you with inflation risk.

As for me personally, I have to admit that if I were recently retired, or just about to retire, I’d have a hard time devoting a particularly large chunk of my retirement savings to a nominal lifetime annuity. But it’s worth pointing out that some researchers have found that nominal annuities tended to be a better deal than inflation-adjusted ones anyway (see Wade Pfau’s An Efficient Frontier for Retirement Income, or David Blanchett’s article in Advisor Perspectives last year, for example).

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."

Single Premium Immediate Annuity: Why They’re Useful and When to Buy Them

The following is an excerpt from my book Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less.

Most annuities are a raw deal for investors. They carry needlessly high expenses and surrender charges, and their contracts are so complex that very few investors can properly assess whether the annuity is a good investment.

That said, one specific type of annuity can be a particularly useful tool for retirement planning: the single premium immediate annuity (SPIA).

What’s a SPIA?

A single premium immediate annuity is a contract with an insurance company whereby:

  1. You pay them a sum of money up front (known as a premium), and
  2. They promise to pay you a certain amount of money periodically (monthly, for instance) for the rest of your life.

A single premium immediate annuity can be a fixed annuity or a variable annuity. With a single premium immediate fixed annuity, the payout is a fixed amount each period. With a single premium immediate variable annuity, the payout is linked to the performance of a mutual fund. For the most part, I’d suggest steering clear of variable annuities. They tend to be complex and expensive. And because they each offer different bells and whistles, it’s difficult to make comparisons between annuity providers to see which one offers the best deal.

In contrast, fixed SPIAs are helpful tools for two reasons:

  1. They make retirement planning easier, and
  2. They allow for a higher withdrawal rate than you can safely take from a portfolio of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds over the course of a potentially-lengthy retirement.

Retirement Planning with SPIAs

Fixed SPIAs make retirement planning easier in exactly the same way that traditional pensions do: they’re predictable. With such an annuity, you know that you will receive a given amount of income every year, for the rest of your life — no matter how long you might live. With a traditional stock and bond portfolio, retirement planning is more of a guessing game.

SPIAs and Withdrawal Rates

Fixed SPIAs are also helpful because they allow you to retire with less money than you would need with a typical stock/bond portfolio. For example, even with the low interest rates that prevail as of this writing, according to immediateannuities.com (a website that provides annuity quotes from various insurance companies), a 65-year-old male could purchase an annuity paying 5.88% annually.

If that investor were to take a withdrawal rate of 5.88% from a typical stock/bond portfolio (and continue spending the same dollar amount each year going forward), there’s a meaningful chance that he’d run out of money during his lifetime—especially given the current environment of low interest rates and high stock valuations. That risk disappears with an annuity.

How is that possible? In short, it’s possible because the annuitant gives up the right to keep the money once he dies. If you buy a SPIA and die the next day, the money is gone.* Your heirs don’t get to keep it — the insurance company does. And the insurance company uses (most of) that money to fund the payouts on SPIAs purchased by people who are still living.

In essence, SPIA purchasers who die before reaching their life expectancy end up funding the retirement of SPIA purchasers who live past their life expectancy.

But I Want to Leave Something to My Heirs!

For many people, it’s a deal-breaker to learn that none of the money used to purchase an annuity will go to their heirs.

The relevant counterpoint here is that, depending on how your desired level of spending compares to the size of your portfolio, choosing not to devote any portion of your portfolio to an annuity could backfire. That is, there’s a possibility that, rather than resulting in a larger inheritance for your kids, the decision results in you running out of money while you’re still alive, thereby causing you to become a financial burden on your kids.

Inflation Risk

Another important downside of single premium immediate annuities is that they are exposed to inflation risk. That is, the amount of income that the annuity pays each year is fixed, thereby leaving you with a purchasing power that will be eroded over time via inflation.

It is possible to purchase an annuity with a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) each year. But that naturally requires paying a higher initial premium. Also, the COLA is a fixed percentage (e.g., the income increases by 2% annually), so you are still exposed to the risk of high inflation eating away at your purchasing power.

Not too long ago, it was possible to purchase a SPIA that had a COLA that was linked to the consumer price index (i.e., the actual rate of inflation), thereby eliminating inflation risk. But in 2019, the last insurance company offering such products decided to stop selling them. Will they be available again in the future? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t count on it.

It’s worth noting that for some people the lack of inflation protection may not be a problem at all. Some people explicitly desire to spend more per year in early retirement than in late retirement. A fixed nominal dollar amount may actually be a good fit for people with such a preference (because it has the effect of front-loading spending, when we measure spending in terms of actual purchasing power).

Annuity Income: Is It Safe?

Because the income from an annuity is backed by an insurance company, financial advisors and financial literature usually refer to it as “guaranteed.” But that doesn’t mean it’s a 100% sure-thing. Just like any company, insurance companies can go belly-up. It’s not common, but it’s certainly not impossible. However, if you’re careful, the possibility of your annuity provider going out of business doesn’t have to keep you up at night.

Check Your Insurance Company’s Financial Strength

Before placing a meaningful portion of your retirement savings in the hands of an insurance company, it’s important to check that company’s financial strength. I’d suggest checking with multiple ratings agencies, such as Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s, or A.M. Best. (Note that each of these companies uses a different ratings scale, so it’s important to look at what each of the ratings actually means.)

State Guaranty Associations

Even if the issuer of your annuity does go bankrupt, you aren’t necessarily in trouble. Each state has a guaranty association (funded by the insurance companies themselves) that will step in if your insurance company goes insolvent.

It’s important to note, however, that the state guaranty associations only provide coverage up to a certain limit. And that limit varies from state to state. Equally important: the rules regarding the coverage vary from state to state.

For example, the guaranty association in Connecticut provides coverage of up to $500,000 per contract owner, per insurance company insolvency. But they only provide coverage to investors who are residents of Connecticut at the time the insurance company becomes insolvent. So if you have an annuity currently worth $500,000, and you move to Arkansas (where the coverage is capped at $300,000), you’re putting your money at risk.

In contrast, the guaranty association in New York offers $500,000 of coverage, and they cover you if you are a NY state resident either when the insurance company goes insolvent or when the annuity was issued. So moving to another state with a lower coverage limit isn’t a problem if you bought your annuity in New York.

Minimizing Your Risk

In short, annuities can be a useful tool for maximizing the amount you can safely spend per year. But to maximize the likelihood that you’ll receive the promised payout, it’s important to take the following steps:

  1. Check the financial strength of the insurance company before purchasing an annuity.
  2. Know the limit for guaranty association coverage in your state as well as the rules accompanying such coverage.
  3. Consider diversifying between insurance companies. For instance, if your state’s guaranty association only provides coverage up to $250,000 and you want to annuitize $400,000 of your portfolio, consider buying a $200,000 annuity from each of two different insurance companies.
  4. Before moving from one state to another, be sure to check the guaranty association coverage in your new state to make sure you’re not putting your standard of living at risk.

*There are some exceptions. For example, you can buy a SPIA that promises to pay income for the longer of your lifetime or a given number of years. But purchasing such an add-on reduces the payout, thereby reducing the ability of the SPIA to do what it does so well—provide a relatively high payout with very little risk.

Simple Summary

  • If you desire a larger “floor” of safe income than you will receive from Social Security (and pension, if applicable), a single premium immediate fixed annuity may be a good idea.
  • Such annuities allow for a higher level of spending than would be safely sustainable from a typical portfolio of other investments.
  • In exchange for this safety, you give up control of the money as well as the possibility of leaving the money to your heirs.
  • Another drawback of single premium immediate annuities is that they leave you exposed to the risk that inflation will significantly erode your purchasing power over time.
  • Before buying an annuity, check the financial strength of the insurance company and make sure you’re familiar with the rules and coverage limits for your state’s guaranty association.

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."

401k Rollover: Where, Why, and How

The following is an excerpt from my book Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less.

After leaving your job, you’ll have to decide whether or not you want to roll your 401(k) into an IRA.

Comparing Investment Options

Reducing your investment costs is one of the most reliable ways to improve your investment returns. Some employer-sponsored plans offer a satisfactory lineup of low-cost choices. For example, federal employees with access to the Thrift Savings Plan can build an extremely low-cost diversified portfolio without needing to take their money anywhere else.

Many 401(k) plans, however, do not provide their participants with low-cost options. If that’s the case with your employer’s plan, that’s a strong point in favor of rolling the money into an IRA, where you’ll have access to a wide array of low-cost investment options in every asset class.

Lower Fees in an IRA

In addition to potentially limiting you to high-cost funds, some 401(k) plans include administrative fees, whereas it’s easy to find brokerage firms that will charge no annual IRA fees at all.

Between less expensive investment options and lower administrative costs, you may be able to reduce your total investment costs by 0.5% per year (or even more, in some cases) simply by moving your money from a 401(k) to an IRA. That might not sound like much, but when compounded over your whole retirement, improving your investment return by 0.5% can have a significant impact on how long your money lasts.

Roth 401(k) Rollover to Avoid RMDs

If you have a Roth 401(k) account, there is an additional point in favor of rolling it over (into a Roth IRA). Specifically, after you reach age 72 (age 70½ for anybody born before July 1, 1949) you will have to start taking required minimum distributions each year from your Roth 401(k). In contrast, Roth IRAs do not have required distributions while the owner is still alive. So by rolling your Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA, you can avoid having to deal with RMDs during your lifetime.

Reasons Not to Roll Over a 401(k)

There are, however, a few specific situations in which it doesn’t make sense to roll over a 401(k)—or other employer-sponsored retirement plan—after leaving your job.

Retiring Early?
If you are “separated from service” (i.e., you leave your job, were laid off, etc.) in a calendar year in which you turn age 55 or older, distributions from your 401(k) with that employer will not be subject to the 10% additional tax that normally comes with retirement account distributions before age 59½.

As a result, if you are 55 or older when you leave your job (or you will turn 55 later that year) and you plan to retire prior to age 59½, it may make sense to put off rolling your 401(k) into an IRA until you are 59½. This way, if you need to spend some of the money prior to age 59½, you can do so without having to worry about the 10% additional tax.

Planning a Roth Conversion?
Alternatively, if you currently have a traditional IRA to which you made nondeductible contributions and you are planning a Roth conversion, you may want to hold off on rolling over your 401(k) until the year after you’ve executed the Roth conversion, so as to minimize the portion of the conversion that’s taxable.

Does Your 401(k) Include Employer Stock?
Lastly, if your 401(k) includes employer stock that has significantly appreciated in value from the time you purchased it, you’d do well to speak with an accountant before rolling over your 401(k) or taking distributions from the account. Why? Because under the “net unrealized appreciation” rules, you may be able to take a lump-sum distribution of your 401(k) account, moving the employer stock into a taxable account and rolling the rest of the account into an IRA.

Why would such a maneuver be beneficial? Because, if you roll the stock into a taxable account, only your basis in the stock (i.e., the amount you paid for it) will be taxed as a distribution. The amount by which the shares have appreciated in value (the “net unrealized appreciation”) isn’t taxed until you sell the stock. And even then, it will be taxed at long-term capital gain tax rates (currently, a max of 20%) instead of being taxed as ordinary income.

In contrast, if you roll the stock into an IRA, when you withdraw the money from the IRA, the entire amount will count as ordinary income and will be taxed according to your ordinary income tax rate at the time of withdrawal.

EXAMPLE: Martha recently retired from her job with a utility company. She owns employer stock in her 401(k). The stock is currently worth $100,000. Her total cost basis for the shares is $42,000.

If she rolls her entire 401(k) into an IRA, when she withdraws that $100,000, the entire amount will be taxable as ordinary income.

If, however, she rolls the employer stock into a taxable account, she’ll only be taxed upon her basis in the shares ($42,000). And when she eventually sells the shares, the gain will be taxed as a long-term capital gain (at a maximum rate of 20%) rather than as ordinary income.

Remember, though, that holding a significant amount of your net worth in one company’s stock is risky—especially when that company is your employer. Be careful not to take on too much risk in your 401(k) solely in the hope of getting a tax benefit in the future.

And to reiterate, if you think you might benefit from the net unrealized appreciation rules, it’s definitely a good idea to speak with a tax professional to ensure that you execute the procedure properly.

How to Roll Over a 401(k)

In most cases, rolling over a 401(k) is just four easy steps:

  1. Open a traditional IRA if you don’t already have one,
  2. Request rollover paperwork from your plan administrator,
  3. Fill out the paperwork and send it back in, and
  4. Once the money has arrived in your IRA, go ahead and invest it as you see fit.

When you’re filling out the paperwork, you’ll want to initiate a “direct rollover.” That is, do not have the check made out to you. Have it made out to—and sent to—the new brokerage firm.

If for some reason the check arrives in your own mailbox, don’t panic. But be sure to forward the check to the new brokerage firm ASAP. If you don’t get it rolled over into your new IRA within 60 days, you will (in most cases) lose the ability to roll it over, and the entire amount will count as a taxable distribution this year.

Where to Roll Over Your 401(k)

In terms of where to roll over your 401(k), you have three major options. You can roll your 401(k) account into an IRA at:

  1. A mutual fund company,
  2. A discount brokerage firm, or
  3. A full service brokerage firm.

Rolling a 401(k) into an IRA with a mutual fund company can be a good choice. As long as you make sure to choose a fund company that has low-cost funds, low (or no) administrative fees for IRAs, and a broad enough selection of funds to build a diversified portfolio, you should do just fine. For example, Vanguard and Fidelity have excellent index funds and would be great places to roll over a 401(k).

Your second option is to roll your 401(k) account into an IRA at a discount brokerage firm, such as E*TRADE. Due to the proliferation of exchange-traded funds (ETFs), you can now quickly and easily create a low-cost, diversified portfolio at any discount brokerage firm.

Option #3—using a full service brokerage firm (e.g., Edward Jones)—is one I’d generally recommend against. At these companies, financial advisors will usually try to sell you a portfolio of funds with front-end commissions (a needless cost) or an advisory account with unnecessarily high ongoing fees.

Simple Summary

  • Rolling your 401(k) into an IRA after leaving your job may give you access to better investment options and/or reduce your administrative costs.
  • If you left your job at age 55 or older (or in the year in which you turn age 55), and you plan to retire prior to age 59½, you may want to postpone rolling over your 401(k) until you reach age 59½.
  • If you’re planning a Roth conversion of nondeductible IRA contributions, you may want to hold off on a 401(k) rollover until the year after your Roth conversion.
  • If you have employer stock in your 401(k), before rolling your 401(k) into an IRA, it’s probably a good idea to speak with an accountant to see if you can take advantage of the net unrealized appreciation rules.
  • In most cases, the best place to roll over a 401(k) is a mutual fund company with low-cost funds or a discount brokerage firm that offers low-cost (or no-cost) trades on ETFs.

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."

Monte Carlo Analysis: Understanding What You’re Dealing With

A reader writes in, asking:

“What are the pros and cons of using the Monte Carlo tool for retirement planning?”

I wouldn’t focus so much on the pros and cons of Monte Carlo simulations, because there’s so much variation among how the Monte Carlo simulation concept is applied. Instead, I would focus on knowing what is going into (and coming out of) a specific Monte Carlo tool — or a study based on such.

For instance, what assumptions are being made about returns? Is the analysis using historical mean return as the mean return for each asset class? Or is it making a downward adjustment to account for today’s relatively low interest rates and high valuations? And what type of distribution is being assumed about returns? (For instance, many Monte Carlo tools assume a normal distribution for stock returns, which significantly understates their risk.) And what assumption is being made about reversion to the mean? That is, are the simulations assuming that several bad years in a row increases the likelihood that the next year is a good year? A set of simulations that does include such an assumption will have fewer very bad scenarios than a set of simulations that does not include such an assumption.

And what assumptions are being made about mortality? Are you (and your spouse, if married) assumed to live precisely to your life expectancy but no longer? Or is age at death one of the variables that the simulation is allowing to fluctuate? Or is mortality completely ignored, and the analysis is simply looking at a fixed length of time, such as 30 years?

And what assumptions are being made about spending? Most analyses don’t account for the possibility of spending shocks (i.e., an unanticipated and unavoidable large amount of spending in a given year). That’s fine, but it is important to recognize then that the analysis is leaving out one significant type of risk that exists in real life.

Overall point being, if you don’t know what assumptions are being made by the tool (or if you’re reading a study/article based on a set of simulations the writer performed and you don’t know what assumptions were made), it’s hard to get a lot of value out of the conclusions.

And what metrics are coming out of the simulations? For instance, if the simulations are regarding retirement strategies (i.e., a combination of spending decisions and asset allocation decisions — and possibly Social Security/tax decisions), does the tool give us something other than simply “likelihood of running out of money”? For instance, a few other metrics that are useful to know are:

  • In scenarios in which the portfolio is depleted, when is it depleted (e.g., does the average/median depletion occur 15 years into retirement or 25 years into retirement)?
  • In scenarios in which the portfolio is not depleted, what is the average/median bequest?
  • If the strategy allows spending to fluctuate based on market performance, how much does it end up fluctuating?

(See this excellent paper paper from Wade Pfau, Joe Tomlinson, and Steve Vernon for a more thorough discussion of useful metrics for evaluating retirement plans.)

In short, one Monte Carlo analysis can vary significantly from another. So I wouldn’t worry so much about the pros and cons of Monte Carlo analysis in general, but rather make sure you understand what you’re dealing with when you use a given Monte Carlo tool or read about a Monte Carlo-based study. What types of risk are being excluded from the analysis? And what information is being left out of the output?

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."

Getting out of the Market in Retirement?

A reader writes in, asking:

“An acquaintance emailed recently to ask input on her portfolio. She said her ultimate goal is to get out of the stock market. This woman and her husband are both retired and in their early 70s I think, with no extreme wealth. I assume they are comfortable enough but live simply and likely need to watch expenses.

When I asked what her concerns were about the market, she replied ‘political objections, volatility, ignorance..lack of control..risk aversion..Would consider investing in something I could believe in..’

Can you point me to any resources (articles, books, charts) that clearly explain why getting out of the market probably isn’t a good idea?

Any thoughts about how to respond to something like this?”

The idea of getting in and out of the stock market necessitates a belief that the market is predictable in the short-term. And it is not.

People are always looking for ways to predict short-term market movements — a reliable such method is basically the holy grail of investing. Of course, nobody ever finds it. For example, here is a well known study that looked at over 5,000 different trading rules and found that they “do not add value beyond what may be expected by chance.”

The best stock market predictor I am aware of is the concept of valuations (which can be measured in an assortment of related ways). It’s useful (though not at all perfect) for longer-term predictions, but essentially useless for short-term predictions. Here’s a recent article from Larry Swedroe on that topic.

But a separate question is whether a retiree might want to permanently get out of the stock market (i.e., not attempting to move back and forth between stocks and bonds at advantageous times, but rather simply electing to have a permanent 0% allocation to stocks).

And that isn’t necessarily such a bad idea, depending on circumstances. Many experts think it’s entirely reasonable (wise even) to prioritize building a sufficient pool of safe assets to fund retirement before allocating any part of a retirement-stage portfolio to stocks.

For example, the following two quotes come from Bill Bernstein’s book The Ages of the Investor.

“As one approaches the end of one’s human capital and hopefully has accumulated enough investment capital to safely offset the expense of retirement living, it makes little sense to put at risk the funds earmarked for retirement living expenses. In other words, once the game has been won by accumulating enough safe assets to retire on, it makes little sense to keep playing it, at least with the ‘number’: the pile of safe assets sufficient to directly provide or indirectly purchase an adequate lifetime income stream.”

“If, at any point, a bull market pushes your portfolio over the LMP [liability matching portfolio] ‘magic number’ of 20 to 25 times your annual cash-flow needs beyond Social Security and pensions, you’ve won the investing game. Why keep playing? Start bailing. After you’ve put enough TIPS, plain vanilla Treasuries, and CDs into your mental LMP, you’re free to start adding again to your RP [risk portfolio].”

Or as many people have quoted him since: “if you’ve won the game, why keep playing?”

When comparing various stock/bond allocations, this 2015 paper/article from Wade Pfau may be of interest. In that paper, we can see that once we look at horizons greater than 20 years, it becomes clear that having some stocks is helpful relative to an all-bond portfolio, in the sense that those stocks will reduce the likelihood of running out of money.

But there are important caveats:

  • Probability of portfolio depletion is not the only relevant metric here. In the failure scenarios, we don’t just care that a failure occurred (i.e., portfolio was depleted), we want to know when it occurred. That is, in the scenarios in which the portfolio is depleted prior to death, it makes a big difference to the retiree whether the depletion occurred 15 years into retirement or 25 years into retirement. And a risky allocation can result in depleting the portfolio sooner than would be the case with a super safe allocation.
  • If the goal is just to maximize spending over their lifetimes in as safe a way as possible, a boring (likely inflation-adjusted) joint lifetime annuity is probably the best tool for the job rather than stocks.

With regard to that first caveat, this paper from Joe Tomlinson may be of interest.

Key questions that could help determine how much of their portfolio should be annuitized (and how to allocate the non-annuitized portfolio) would be:

  1. What type of health are they in (i.e., what type of planning horizon is necessary)?
  2. How much (what percentage of the portfolio) is the couple hoping to spend per year?
  3. How flexible is the answer to #2?
  4. How strong is their “bequest motive” (i.e., desire to leave behind money to heirs)?

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