Financial planners often work with averages. But the reality is that each bear market will be different from the norm. At the time that I write this, the depth of this particular drawdown does not even rank with the worst in history. Sure, it may still get worse, but that’s where we are today.
We may not want to hear about how things will get better, because the situation with the Covid-19 pandemic and its resulting prescription of social isolation and market downdrafts is scary. But, eventually, things will get better.
Keep in mind that things may get worse before they get better. The count of people with the virus will almost certainly increase. If you don’t have a source yet, you can keep up with it over here. But eventually, the Coronavirus epidemic will run out of steam. We will get back to our places of work. Kids will go back to school. Financial markets will right themselves out. We will revert to standard toilet paper buying habits. We will start going out to eat again. Life will become normal again.
Financially, the question is not just how bad will things get, but how long it will take for our nest eggs to rebuild, so we can put our lives back on tr
Hence, it could take us a while before we make it back to the previous market peak. However, we may want to look at the data differently. This graph shows that, historically, we have needed to achieve a return of 46.9% to recover from a bear market . According to Franklin Templeton calculations, these numbers can look daunting. However, they have been achieved and exceeded after every past downturn. While there is no guarantee, these numbers suggest that there will be strong returns once we have reached the bottom of the market. I like to think of this as an opportunity.
With the time that it takes for investments to grow and get your money back, there is time to take advantage of higher expected returns. For those who have resources available, this means that there is time to deploy your money at lower prices than has been possible in recent months.
Those of us who have diversified portfolios and are not in a position to make new investments, the opportunity is to rebalance to benefit from a faster upswing.
We know from history that every US stock market downturn was followed by new peaks at some point following.
Could this time be different?
Of course, that too is possible.
I like to think that the future will be better. We will still wake up in the morning looking to improve ourselves, make our lives better, and achieve our goals. We are still going to invent new technologies, fight global warming, and struggle for a more equitable society.
We are living through difficult times right now. Losses in our brokerage and retirement accounts are not helping. But we will get through this. Please reach out to me if you have specific questions or concerns.
Roth IRA accounts are well known for providing tax-free growth and retirement income within specific parameters. The catch is that contributions must be made with earned income that has been taxed already. In other words, Roth accounts aren’t exactly tax-free, they are merely taxed differently.
On the other hand, Traditional IRA retirement accounts are funded with pretax dollars, thereby reducing taxable income in the year of contribution. Then, distributions from Traditional IRA retirement accounts are taxed as income.
The Roth IRA is not tax-free, it is merely taxed differently
However, the tax benefit remains the most prominent factor in the Roth vs. Traditional IRA decision. To make the decision that helps you pay fewer lifetime taxes requires an analysis of current vs. future taxes. That will usually require you to enlist professional help. After all, you would not want to choose to contribute to a Roth to pay fewer taxes and end up paying more taxes instead!
As everyone’s circumstances will be different, it would be beneficial to check with a Certified Financial Planner® or a tax professional to plan a strategy that will minimize lifetime taxes, taking into account future income and projected taxes.
Check out our other posts on Retirement Accounts issues:
The SECURE Act makes several changes to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) as well as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) that are intended to expand retirement plan coverage for workers and increase savings opportunities. The SECURE Act also radically changes several techniques used for retirement and tax planning.
Some of the key provisions affecting employer retirement plans, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and Section 529 Plans included in the SECURE Act are as follows.
This RMD provision is part of the good news in the SECURE Act. It will allow retirees more time to reach their retirement income goals. For many, it will enable better lifetime tax planning as well.
End of the “Stretch” IRA
Prior to the SECURE Act, the distributions on an inherited IRA could be “stretched” over the expected lifetime of the inheritor. That was a staple tool of estate and tax planning.
No more. With a few exceptions, such as for the spouse, the “stretch” is now effectively crunched into ten years. Accounts inherited as of 12/31/2019 are now expected to be distributed over ten years, without a specific annual requirement.
The new law allows a penalty-free distribution of up to $5,000 from an IRA or employer plan for a “Qualified Birth or Adoption Distribution.” For a qualified distribution, the owner of the account must take the distribution for a one-year period starting on (1) the date of birth of the child or (2) the date when the adoption becomes final (individual must be under age 18). The law permits the IRA owner who took the distribution to pay it back to the plan or IRA at a later date. However, these distributions remain subject to income taxes.
Generally speaking, we at Insight Financial Strategists think that people in this situation should avoid availing themselves of this new wrinkle in the law. In our experience, a distribution from retirement accounts before retirement can have profound impacts on retirement income security.
It may sound off-topic, but it is not. The SECURE Act also addresses 529 plans. For students and their parents, the SECURE ACT allows tax-free 529 plans to pay for apprenticeship programs if they are registered and certified by the Department of Labor.
This provision will be helpful for those people who have children headed to vocational track programs.
Given how students and parents scramble to meet the challenge of the cost of higher education, I do not forecast that most 529 plans have much left over to pay off loans!
Business Retirement Plans
(Part-Time) Employee Eligibility for 401(k) Plans – In most 401(k) plans, participation by part-time employees is limited. The SECURE Act enables long-time part-time workers to participate in 401(k) plans if they have worked for at least 500 hours in each of three consecutive 12-month periods. Long-term part-time employees who become eligible under this provision may still be excluded from eligibility for contributions by employers.
Delayed Adoption of Employer Funded Qualified Retirement Plan– Beginning in 2020, a new plan would be treated as effective for the prior tax year if it is established later than the due date of the previous year’s tax return. Notably, this provision would only apply to plans that are entirely employer-funded (i.e., profit-sharing, pension, and stock bonus plans).
403(b) Custodial Accounts under Terminated Plans are allowed to be Distributed in Kind – Subject to US Treasury Department guidance, the SECURE Act allows an individual 403(b) custodial account in a terminating plan to be distributed “in-kind” to the participant. The account distributed in this way would retain its tax-deferred status as a 403(b).
Establish Open Multiple Employer Plans (MEPs) – Employers may now join together to create an “open” MEPs, referred to in the legislation as “Pooled Plans.” This will allow small employers to join together and share the costs of retirement planning for their employees, such as through a local Chamber of Commerce or other organization, to start a retirement plan for their employees.
Increased Tax Credits – The tax credit for small employers who start a new retirement planwill increase from $500 to $5,000. In addition, small employers that add automatic enrollment to their plans also may qualify for an additional $500 annual tax credit for up to three years.
There are many more provisions in the SECURE Act. While some of them are useful for taxpayers, it is worth noting the observation by Ed Slott, a tax expert and sometimes wag: “whatever Congress names a tax law, it does the opposite .” This is worth keeping in mind as you mull the implications of this law. With the SECURE Act now the law, it may be time to check in with your fiduciary financial planner and revise your retirement income and estate plans.
If you value your business, you should know the value of your business. Every business owner should have an up-to-date business valuation wherever you are in your business’s lifecycle. It is important to know the value of your business sooner rather than later. For a variety of reasons, owners like you will want to have an ongoing understanding of where you stand. In this post, I will be describing eight of the most common reasons for valuing ongoing businesses, the different valuation methods, and advice for future planning.
1.Measuring Your Company’s Growth – A business valuation delivers a calculated benchmark for comparing your annual growth. Specifically, a valuation report details areas for improvement and what is having a negative impact on your business, such as unstable cash flow, poor systems and procedures and key staff dependencies. Correcting these negative impacts can often translate into opportunities for business and valuation growth.
2. Selling your Business – This is one of the most common reasons for needing a valuation. Knowing your business’ true value and how to increase its Earnings Before Interest and Tax (EBIT) is crucial if you’re planning to sell (as EBIT is a critical factor in valuation). Much like using a valuation to measure your business’ growth, in the case of preparing for a sale you can use the valuation to identify areas for improvement and strategically implement developments to improve your business’ value by the time you plan to sell. Even if you want to sell only a percentage of your company, to get a partner, for example, an owner will need to know the value of the interest being transferred.
What is Earnings Before Interest and Taxes (EBIT)? In accounting and finance, EBIT is a measure of a company’s profit that includes all income and expenses (operating and non-operating) except interest expenses and income tax expenses.
3. Attracting Investment Opportunities – You never know when an attractive opportunity will present itself. A valuation can be like your business’s resume for potential investors. It provides a snapshot of your business performance in the current economic climate. If you are seeking investors, annual valuations are essential.
6. Implementing an EXIT strategy – Every exit plan should align with the owner’s business and personal goals. You have worked a lifetime to build your business into a profitable, well-run operation. A successful exit from a business takes considerable planning. Annual business valuations create a ‘starting point’ for the planning process. No matter what exit strategy you choose (merger/acquisition, sale to employees, etc.), you will need an accurate insight into the value of your share of the business. Regular business valuations will provide a clear picture of your business’s financial position at all times, and help you to achieve the best possible outcome when it is time to ‘exit’.
7. Litigation – If the Principal/Owner of the business is involved in legal proceedings such as a divorce or other lawsuit, the business may need to be valued as part of a property settlement. Divorce and legal disputes can sometimes be difficult topics to discuss. By implementing regular business valuations you’ll have an up-to-date financial record of your business assets which can be useful in legal proceedings such as a divorce or an audit investigation with a government agency.
8. Insurance coverage –Buy-sell arrangements between heirs of the owners’ estate will often include a life insurance requirement so that funds are available in the event of a co-owner’s death. The other co-owners are paid a lump sum benefit, which is then used to buy out the interest of the deceased’s surviving family members. An up-to-date business valuation is vital for this agreement. Insurance companies will ask for it, as your family’s/estate will be paid according to your share of the business value upon your death.
There are several business valuation methods. The three most common types of business valuation are the Cost Approach, the Income Approach, and the Market Approach. While methods under each approach rely upon compatible sets of economic principles, the procedural and mathematical details of each business valuation method may differ considerably.
Businesses are unique and putting a price on a company is complex. Cost, income, and market data must all be considered in order to form an opinion of value.
The Cost Approach looks at how much it would cost to reconstruct or replace your company (or certain assets that are part of it). When applied to the valuation of owners’ or stockholders’ equity, the cost approach requires a restatement of the balance sheet that substitutes the fair market values of assets and liabilities for their book or depreciated values.
The Income Approach looks at the present value of the future economic benefits of your company. That future is then discounted at a rate commensurate with alternative investments of similar quality and risk.
The Market Approach measures the value of your company, or its assets, by comparing it to similar companies that have been sold or offered for sale. This information is generally compiled from statistics for comparable companies. Where the price represents a majority interest, the higher value is recognized and reflected in a higher price or a premium paid. However, the value of a closely-held company or its stock must reflect its relative illiquidity compared to publicly traded companies. A discount, or a reduction in the indicated marketable value, is made for this factor.
These individuals no longer have the luxury of a steady paycheck, and unless they are one of the lucky ones with a defined benefit plan and/or a large portfolio of liquid investments, they will have to dip into their 401k’s and savings to fund their lifestyle.
Somebody in the de-accumulation phase will naturally worry about how long their money will last and whether they can maintain their lifestyles.
Let’s look at the data. According to the Social Security Actuarial Life Table (2014) estimates, life expectancy for a 65 male is 17.81 years and for a female 20.36 years. Somebody in above average health may live even longer – these are just median numbers. If you want to conduct your own calculations, you can refer to How Long Will You Live?
David Blanchett of Morningstar uses the 2012 Society of Actuaries annuity table to estimate the likelihood of living to a certain age using the methodology outlined in his 2013 FPA journal article. This cohort of individuals comes from a higher than average socio-economic group and tends to live longer than average.
Table 1 highlights the calculations from the perspective of a 65-year-old. There is a 50% chance that a male lives to age 89 with a female living to age 91.
Some people retire with very healthy nest eggs that, barring a cataclysmic event, will provide plenty of cash to fund their lifestyles. They need not worry much as long as assets vastly outstrip expenses. They have a high margin of safety.
For most retirees, however, the margin of safety provided by their financial assets in relation to their expenses is slimmer. They do need to worry about how much they are spending, how their investments are performing and how long they may need their portfolio assets to last. They may have other sources of income such as Social Security but still need to make their investment portfolios work hard to bridge the gap between lifestyle expenses and sources of income.
Most people in retirement face a balancing act
They can control their expenses to some extent (putting off non-essential expenses). They can plan and make sure that their investment portfolios are structured in accordance with their appetite and need for risk-taking (maybe requiring the help of a financial professional). But what they can’t control are capital market returns and how long they need to tap into their retirement accounts (how long they will live).
One way to identify the various trade-offs required to ensure the sustainability of an investment portfolio is to come up with a CHRIS, a Comprehensive Holistic Retirement Investment Strategy with the help of a financial professional. A good plan should clearly outline what actions you need to take and what type of minimum portfolio return you will need to achieve to ensure that the probability of running out of money before you or your partner/spouse die is within your comfort zone.
Another alternative is to forego a formal financial plan and utilize some sort of rule of thumb such as William Bengen’s 4% rule. According to this highly popular rule published in 1994, you can safely withdraw 4% of your capital every year in retirement. The research contains a number of key assumptions (such as a 50/50 stock/bond allocation) often ignored in the popular press, but the Bengen rule is not only well known but popular among many retirees.
Milevsky and Robinson provide a simple approach in their highly touted article “A Sustainable Spending Rate without Simulation” to calculating what they call the “probability of ruin.”
Milevsky and Robinson identify three important factors: your rate of consumption, the risk/reward structure of your portfolio, and how long you live. Visually, these concepts can be illustrated in a Retirement Finances Triangle as depicted in Figure 1.
Without going into the mathematics of the Milevsky and Robinson approach for calculating a “probability of ruin” lets us think a bit more deeply about what makes retirement planning complicated in the first place.
The first aspect that makes retirement planning difficult is the uncertainty surrounding how long you and your spouse/partner are going to live. People are living longer, on average, than in previous generations. But an average does not necessarily help you. Your physical and mental health could be dramatically different from the “average” individual.
The other variable that is highly uncertain and makes retirement planning more difficult relates to the variability of investment outcomes on your retirement portfolio. While history is a guide as to what to reasonably expect in terms of key asset class returns and risks over the long-term, in any given year returns could fall within a wide range.
As most people already know, stock returns exhibit more variability in outcomes than bonds. The “probability of ruin” calculation using the Milevsky and Robinson formula incorporates the ability of individuals to evaluate the implications of various forms of asset allocation with varying levels of expected risk and return.
As you have probably figured out by now, calculating the “probability of ruin” is extremely important in planning your retirement.
To make the situation more realistic let’s look through the eyes of George and Mandy, both aged 65 and about to retire from their corporate jobs. They have saved diligently over the years and now have a portfolio worth $1,000,000 that they will tap to fund their lifestyle in retirement.
George and Mandy estimate that they will need $90,000 a year to maintain their lifestyle. Their Certified Financial Planner has also told them that their Social Security income will be $50,000 a year. They face an annual gap of $40,000. They expect to tap into their retirement portfolio to fund this gap.
They are in reasonably good health and based on discussions with their financial planner they assume that they will live to age 90. To be safe, they assume a retirement horizon of 30 years.
Their starting portfolio value is $1,000,000 and they wish to withdraw $40,000 a year to fund their living expenses.
Capital Market Assumptions:
We assume that inflation will run 3% per year, on average. Currently, inflation is running a bit lower than 3% in the US but the historical average is only slightly north of 3%.
What sort of investment risk and return assumptions should people use to calculate the probability of running out of money under this scenario?
For illustrative purposes only, Insight Financial Strategists has aggregated all the asset class risk and return numbers into six multi-asset class strategy portfolios according to investment risk – Conservative, Moderate Conservative, Moderate, Moderate Aggressive, Aggressiveand the industry convention of a 60/40balanced strategy.
Source: Insight Financial Strategists
Let’s start out gently – the Case of No Uncertainty:
It always helps to start off with a hypothetical scenario where all decision elements are known with certainty up front. We assume that George and Mandy own a 60/40 portfolio returning 4.9% per year and an annual inflation rate of 3%.
If they were to withdraw the equivalent of $40,000 a year in inflation-adjusted terms what would the required distribution look like over their retirement years?
Source: Insight Financial Strategists
The red line in Figure 1 depicts what would happen to their expenses in retirement if inflation were to rise every year by 3%.
What started off as a withdrawal of $40,000 turns into a much larger number over time. For example, after ten years they would need to withdraw $52,000 each year to fund their lifestyle (assuming that their Social Security checks are adjusted annually for inflation as is the current practice).
After 20 years they would need to withdraw $70,000 from their portfolio each year and after 30 years (their last year in their calculations) the number would increase to $94,000 annually. Inflation can sure take a bite!
In terms of George and Mandy’s portfolio, the assumption is that it will yield 4.9% per year or in inflation-adjusted terms, 1.9% per year. After withdrawals are taken out of the portfolio by George and Mandy to fund their lifestyle net of portfolio returns (the assumed 4.9% nominal return per year) the assumed value of the portfolio is depicted in Figure 2.
Source: Insight Financial Strategists
At the end of the 30th year, the portfolio is expected to be worth $277K. As long as George and Mandy only live 30 years in retirement and the assumed inflation and portfolio returns prove spot on (accurate) then things should be ok. They will glide through retirement and even have some assets left over.
The problem occurs if either George and/or Mandy live past age 95. According to the actuarial data in Table 1, there is a 25% chance that George will live to age 99 and Mandy will live to age 101.
Now what? Their current $1,000,000 portfolio is now insufficient to fund their retirement expenses past the age of 97. They will run out of money and not be able to rely on portfolio income anymore.
What could they do to prevent such an unpleasant outcome?
For starters, they could spend less. For example, they could cut back their annual spending to $30,000.
They could also shoot for higher portfolio returns by taking on a bit more investment risk. George and Mandy understand that higher portfolio returns are not generated out of thin air. Higher prospective returns are tied to higher risks.
But does the real world work like this?
Is it just a matter of pulling some levers here and there and voila you have wished for the perfect outcome?
Unfortunately, referring to the Retirement Finances Triangle depicted in Figure 1 although there are some things that George and Mandy can control such as their expenses but when it comes to how long they will live and how their portfolio will actually perform over their retirement years there are lots of unknowns.
Let’s deal with the real world – Introducing Uncertainty:
What if George and/or Mandy live longer than the assumed 30-year lifespan? This is what professionals refer to as longevity risk. Living a high quality, long life is a very noble and common goal. Outliving your assets is a real fear.
What if portfolio returns do not measure up to our assumed returns? This is referred to as investment risk. What happens if investment returns are significantly below expectations and portfolio income proves insufficient to maintain your desired lifestyle? Most retirees seek some margin of safety in their investments for this exact reason.
The Milevsky and Robinson formula is designed to take these uncertainties into account by modeling the likely distribution of portfolio returns and longevity. The end output is a probability of running out of money at some point in time over the retirement horizon. They refer to this number as the “probability of ruin”.
Let’s start by looking at the implications of the various portfolios strategies presented in Table 1. The Conservative strategy is the least risky approach but also has the lowest prospective returns. This strategy is exclusively composed of bonds.
The Aggressive strategy is exclusively composed of equities and is expected to have the highest returns as well as the highest risk of all of our strategies.
The 60/40 strategy falls along the middle in terms of prospective portfolio returns and risk.
What do the different risk and return profiles of the strategies imply in terms of the probability of ruin of George and Mandy’s portfolio?
Figure 3 depicts graphically the output from the Milevsky and Robinson formula.
Source: Insight Financial Strategists
What immediately jumps out from the bar charts is that the probability of ruin for the various portfolios is quite high. No longer assuming that everything is perfect creates, not surprisingly, more difficult likely outcomes.
For example, if George and Mandy were to employ the Conservative strategy yielding an assumed 2.3% annual return there is an 80% probability of them running out of money at some point in retirement. Being conservative has its drawbacks!
What if they had the internal fortitude to employ the all-equity Aggressive strategy yielding a prospective return of 6.8% with a volatility of 17%? Their probability of ruin would drop to 37%.
Even if they employed the conventional 60/40 strategy, their probability of ruin would still exceed 45%.
What if the probability of running out of money is too high?
Well, for starters they could reduce their rate of consumption, i.e. spend less. Maybe not what they wanted to hear but possible.
Let’s assume that instead of taking out $40,000 a year from their investment accounts they withdraw only $30,000? Let’s also assume that they invest in the traditional 60/40 portfolio. The only thing that has changed from the previous scenario is that now George and Mandy are spending only 3% of their initial portfolio to fund their lifestyle.
By spending less and thus depleting their investment assets at a slower rate, they lower their probability of running out of money at some point over their remaining lives to 30%. George and Mandy start thinking that maybe searching for a more inexpensive vacation option makes sense and allow them to worry less about outliving their assets.
Source: Insight Financial Strategists
What else can they do to shift the odds in their favor?
Besides spending less, another option is to work a bit longer and postpone their retirement date. Let’s say they both work five years longer than originally planned. What would happen assuming that they still intend to withdraw $40,000 in portfolio income and they invest in the 60/40 strategy?
Source: Insight Financial Strategists
By delaying retirement for five years George and Mandy lower the probability of running out of money to below 38%. Not bad but maybe not quite to their satisfaction.
Could George and Mandy restructure their investment portfolio to improve their odds?
Yes, that is certainly a feasible approach as we already outlined in Figure 3. Higher return strategies carry higher risk but when held over the long-term tend to lower the probability of running out of money.
But not everybody is equally comfortable taking investment risk even if it is likely to result in higher ending portfolio values over the long-term.
Is there another approach to design a more suitable retirement portfolio?
While risk and return are inextricably intertwined, recent financial research has identified the “low volatility” anomaly where lower volatility stocks outperform their higher volatility cohorts on a risk-adjusted basis. See this note for an introduction to the low volatility anomaly.
Let’s say that instead of assuming a 10.4% volatility for the 60/40 portfolio we are able to utilize a mixture of similar investment vehicles designed to exhibit lower levels of volatility but equivalent returns. Say the volatility of this strategy is now 8.4% and uses a range of lower volatility fixed income and equity approaches plus possibly an allocation to a guaranteed annuity.
Figure 6 illustrates the implications of using the lower volatility investment strategy. The probability of ruin goes down marginally to below 42%. Good but not great in the eyes of George and Mandy.
Source: Insight Financial Strategists
What else can George and Mandy do?
After all, they have evaluated the impact of lowering their expenses, deferring their retirement date and structuring a more suitable investment portfolio and they still are uncomfortable with a probability of ruin in the 30% range.
The short answer as in many areas of life is to do a bunch of small things. They could elect to just lower their spending from 4% to 3% and the probability of running out of money would drop to about 30%.
But George and Mandy realize that they could do even better by doing all three things:
Working a bit longer
Structuring a more suitable investment portfolio
Figure 7 highlights the various alternative courses of action that they could take to increase the odds of not running out of money in retirement.
Source: Insight Financial Strategists
There are no guarantees in life, but spending less, delaying retirement and designing a more suitable portfolio lowers the probability of running out of money to about 20%.
While we all strive for control, George and Mandy are comfortable with this approach and the sacrifices required. To them leading a fulfilling life in retirement is more than just about money and sacrificing a bit in order to gain peace of mind is a worthwhile trade-off.
What does calculating the probability of running out of money in retirement teach us?
Is the trade-off that George and Mandy are making appropriate for you? Maybe, but maybe not. At the very least, understanding your own circumstances and your own probability of running out of money may lead to vastly different choices.
Your retirement could extend for 30+ years. Having enough resources to fund your retirement is important to maintain your lifestyle and achieve peace of mind.
While much of life is beyond our control, everybody can still exert some influence over their retirement planning. In this article we highlighted three general strategies:
Adjusting your spending
Delaying when you tap your retirement resources
Designing an investment portfolio that suitably balances risk and reward
As people enter retirement, they can’t eliminate either longevity or investment risk. What they can do is manage the risks and remain open to adapting their plan should things change.
At Insight Financial Strategists we don’t believe in shortcuts. A CHRIS, a Comprehensive Holistic Retirement Income Strategy, gives you the best chance of full understanding your circumstances and what needs to happen to fund your lifestyle in retirement.
Barring a full financial plan, at a minimum people should evaluate the likelihood of running out of money. Applying the Milevsky and Robinson formula represents a starting point for an in-depth conversation about your needs, goals and especially your attitude toward risk and capacity to absorb losses.
Interested in having the professionals at Insight Financial Strategists guide you? Please request a complimentary strategy session here.
Information presented herein is for discussion and illustrative purposes only and is not a recommendation or an offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities. Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market and other conditions. References to specific investment themes are for illustrative purposes only and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s own goals, time horizon, and tolerance for risk. Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources and no representations are made by our firm as to another parties’ informational accuracy or completeness. All information or ideas provided should be discussed in detail with an advisor, accountant or legal counsel prior to implementation.
This piece may contain assumptions that are “forward-looking statements,” which are based on certain assumptions of future events. Actual events are difficult to predict and may differ from those assumed. There can be no assurance that forward-looking statements will materialize or that actual returns or results will not be materially different from those described here.
Stock and bond markets are volatile and can decline significantly in response to adverse issuer, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. Investing involves risk, including the risk of loss.
4 Counter-Intuitive Steps to Take Now to Make Your 401(k) Rock
With the demise of traditional defined benefit plans, 401(k)’s provide the most popular way for individuals to save for their retirement.
401(k)’s are also the second largest source of US household wealth right behind home equity.
According to the Investment Company Institute there were over 55 million active participants in 401(k) plans plus millions of former employees and retirees as of the end of last year. The amount of money is staggering at $5.3 trillion as of the end of 2017.
Given the importance of 401(k)’s to US household financial health you would think that plan participants would watch their balances like a hawk and actively manage their holdings.
Some people do, but the vast majority of people do not truly understand what they own or why. Most people know that the more they contribute to their 401(k) the higher their ending balances are going to be, but beyond that there is a lot of confusion.
Picking funds before figuring out your goals and objectives is like picking furniture before you know the size and shape of your dining room. It might work out but it would involve a lot of luck. Do you want to count on luck when it comes to your financial future?
A different way of addressing the challenge is to start the other way around. Start with the end goal in mind.
Re-frame the problem to first figure out what you are trying to do. You want your 401(k) to work for you and your family, right? Sound like a better starting point?
Without knowing what you are trying to do and what really matters to you putting money into your 401(k) loses meaning.
What funds to select
First figure out for yourself why you are taking money out of your paycheck to put into your 401(K). What is your “why”?
The answer may be obvious to you, but when money gets tight due to some unforeseen life event you will be glad that you have a tangible picture for its ultimate use.
Visualize what you are going to do with that money. Is it for a retirement full of adventure? Is it for buying that dream sailboat that you’ll take around the world? Or, is it simply to preserve your lifestyle once you retire? Money has no intrinsic value if you don’t spend it on things that matter to you and your family.
“Money cannot buy peace of mind.
It cannot heal ruptured relationships, or build meaning into a life that has none.”
— Richard M. DeVos, Billionaire Co-founder of Amway, Owner of Orlando Magic
So, if starting with the end in mind makes sense to you, let’s take a look at the four counter-intuitive steps that you can take now to make your 401(k) work for you. Figure 1 lays it all out.
Step 1: Define what matters to you and inventory your resources
Visualize your goals and objectives for the type of life you and your family want to lead. Don’t just think about your retirement – think as broadly as possible.
Close your eyes, visualize, pour a nice glass of cabernet for you and your partner before you have the “talk”, write it down in your journal – whatever approach gets you out of your everyday busy persona and makes you focus on what you really want out of life.
How do you want to use your money to accomplish this lifestyle?
Maybe you and your spouse want to engage in missionary work in 10 years. Maybe you also need to fund college expenses for your children? Maybe you see a lakefront house in the near future? There is no cookie cutter approach when it comes to people’s dreams! It’s up to you to make them up.
Your house, your emergency fund, investments in mutual funds, possibly a little inheritance, company stock. Almost forgot, your spouse’s 401(k) and that condo that he/she bought before you met. Take a comprehensive inventory of your assets.
How much debt do you have? That is part of your financial picture as well. Do you anticipate paying your mortgage off in the next few years?
Wealth managers talk about a concept called the household balance sheet. It’s the same idea that financial analysts use when evaluating a company. In the corporate world you have assets, liabilities and the difference is net worth. In your own world you have assets, obligations and unfunded goals, and net worth is the difference.
Sounds a bit harsh when it involves you, right? Don’t take it personally. The key idea is taking an inventory of what you own, what you owe and then matching that up to your goals and aspirations.
Step 2. How aggressive do you need to be while being able to sleep at night
The whole idea of saving and investing is about making your goals and aspirations a reality. If you already have enough assets to fund your desired lifestyle into perpetuity then you don’t really have to worry too much about investing. Just preserve what you got!
If you are like most people, you need to make your investments work for you. You need a return on your assets.
It’s a good idea to be realistic about goals and objectives. Are your goals reachable? Is there only a tiny probability of reaching them?
Are your goals a stretch, reachable with some effort, or a slam dunk?
Your answer will dictate how aggressive you will need to be in your investment strategy.
If your goals are a stretch you need high return/high risk investments – be ready for a volatile ride and many highs and lows
If your goals are within reach using conservative asset class return assumptions you need a moderate return/moderate risk portfolio – you will still experience fluctuations in your portfolio that will leave you feeling anxious at times, but the periods of recovery will more than make up for the periods of stress
If your goals are a slam dunk, you are lucky and you will only need low return/safe investment strategies – your portfolio values will not fluctuate much in the short-term but your portfolio will also not grow much in size
To some extent this is the easy part. There is a link between risk and return in the capital markets. Higher risk usually translates over long periods of time into higher returns. Equities do better on average than bonds and bonds in turn do better than money market investments. So far so good.
Figuring out the required rate of return to fund your goals and objectives given your resources involves math but little emotional contribution.
But what about your emotions?
This is the tricky part. Many people are able to conceptualize risk in their heads, but are entirely unable to deal with their emotions when they start losing money.
They think of themselves as risk takers but can’t stand losing money. They panic every time the stock market takes a dip. It does not matter why the market is tanking – they do not like it and run for the exits.
Let’s examine a simple situation where we classify your need and comfort level with investment risk in three states: low, medium and high.
Figure 2 lays out all the possibilities. Ideally, your two dimensions of risk will match up directly. For example, if your need for risk is low and your comfort level with taking risk is low you are all set. Same if you need a high risk/high return strategy to meet your goals and objectives and you are comfortable experiencing significant fluctuations in your portfolio.
The real problem for you is, however, when the two dimensions of risk are not aligned. You’ll need to resolve these differences as soon as possible to regain any hope of financial health.
Let’s say you are really risk averse. You fear losing money. Your worst case scenarios (bag lady, eating cat food) keep popping up in your nightmares. If your goals and objectives are ambitious in relation to your resources (high need for risk) those nightmares will not go away and you will live in fear.
You can do one of two things – learn to live with fear or, scale back your goals and objectives. There is no right or wrong answer – it’s up to you but you must choose.
What if you are comfortable taking on lots of investment risk? Would you like a low risk/low return portfolio? Probably not. In fact, such a portfolio would probably drive you crazy even if you did not need any higher returns.
People comfortable with investment risk frequently suffer from fear of missing out (FOMO). They think that they should be doing better. They want to push the envelope whether they need to or not.
FOMO is as damaging of an emotion as living in fear. Both states spell trouble. You will need to align both dimensions of risk to truly get that balance in your financial life.
Step 3. Determine the asset allocation consistent with your goals and risk preferences
Sounds like a mouthful, right? Let’s put it in plain English. First of all, the term asset allocation simply refers to how much of your investment portfolio you are putting into the main asset classes of stocks, bonds and cash/bills.
Sure, we can get more complicated than that. In our own research we use ten asset classes, but in reality breaking up the global equity and bond markets into finer breakouts is important but not critical for the average individual investor.
Figuring out the right range of stocks, bonds and cash is much more important than figuring out whether growth will outperform value or whether to include an allocation to real estate trusts. Do the micro fine tuning later once you have figured out your big picture asset allocation.
All right, since we are keeping things simple let’s look at some possible stock/bond/cash allocations. We are going to use information from our IFS article on risk and return. As a reminder the data used in these illustrations comes courtesy of Professor Aswath Domodaran from NYU and covers US annual asset returns from 1928 to 2017.
The top half of the table shows the performance and volatility of stocks, bonds and cash/bills by themselves. From year to year there is tremendous variability in returns but for the sake of simplicity you can use historical risk and returns statistics as a rough guide.
Here is what you should note:
If you need high risk/high portfolio returns and you can take the volatility go with a stock portfolio with average historical returns of 12%. On a cumulative basis nothing comes close to stocks in terms of wealth creation but you should expect a bumpy ride
If you only need low risk/low returns and you are extremely risk averse go with cash/bill type of portfolios returning, on average, 3%. This portfolio is probably just going to keep up with inflation
If you have a medium tolerance for risk and medium need for taking risk then you will likely gravitate toward a combination of stocks, bonds and cash
There is an infinite number of combinations of asset class weights – the three asset allocations in the bottom panel of Table 1 may very well apply to you depending on your risk tolerance, need for return and time horizon
What about the stock/bond/cash mixes?
The 60% stock/40% bond allocation has over this 1928-2017 period yielded a 9% return with a 12% volatility. Historically, you lost money in 21% of years but if you are a long-term investor the growth of this portfolio will vastly outstrip inflation
The 40% stock/60% bond portfolio is a bit less risky and also has lower average yields. When a loss occurs, the average percentage loss is 5%. This portfolio may appeal to a conservative investor that does not like roller coaster rides in his/her investment accounts and does not need the highest returns.
The 25% stock/50% bond/25% cash portfolio is the lowest risk/return asset class mix among our choices. Historically this portfolio yields an average return of 6% with a volatility also of 6%. This portfolio may appeal to you if you are naturally risk averse and have a low tolerance for portfolio losses, but you might want to also check whether these returns are sufficient to fund your desired goals and objectives
Step 4. It’s finally time to pick your funds
Yes, this is typically where people start. Many times people pick a bunch of funds based on a friend’s recommendation or simply based on the brand of the investment manager. Rarely do people dig deep and evaluate the track record of funds.
A lot of people pick their funds and declare victory. They are making a huge mistake. They are not framing the problem correctly.
The problem is all about how to make your 401(k) work for you in the context of your goals and objectives, your resources and your comfort with investment fluctuations.
Picking funds is the least important part. You still have to do it but first figure out what matters to you, your need and comfort with risk and your target stock, bond, cash mix.
Once you have your target asset allocation go to work and research your fund options. Easier said than done, right?
Here are some fund features that you should focus on:
Passive or Active Management – a passive fund holds securities in the same proportions as well-known indices such as the S&P 500 or Russell 2000. An active fund is deliberately structured to be different from an index in the hope of achieving typically higher returns
Fund Style – usual distinctions for equity funds are market capitalization, value, volatility, momentum and geographic focus (US, international, emerging markets). For bond funds the biggest style distinctions are maturity, credit and geographic focus
Risk Profile – loosely defined as how closely the fund tracks its primary asset class. Funds with high relative levels of risk will behave differently from their primary asset class. Accessing a free resource such as Morningstar to study the basic profile of your funds is a great starting point. For a sample of such a report click here
Fund expenses – these are the all in costs of your fund choices. Lower costs can translate into significant savings especially over long periods of time. In general, index funds tend to be lower cost than actively managed funds
Understanding what makes a good fund choice versus a sub-optimal one is beyond the financial literacy and attention span of most plan participants.
For most people a good rule of thumb to use is to allocate to at least two funds in each target asset class.
Let’s make this more concrete. Say your target asset allocation is 60% stocks and 40% bonds. Most 401(k) plans have a number of stock and bond funds available.
What should you do? A minimalist approach might entail choosing an S&P 500 index fund and an actively managed emerging market equity fund placing 30% in each. This maybe appear a bit risky to some so maybe you only put 10% in the emerging market fund and 20% in a US small capitalization fund.
Same on the bond side where you might allocate 20% to an active index fund tracking the Bloomberg US Aggregate index and 20% in a high yield actively managed option.
Let your fund research dictate your choice of funds. You should keep things simple.
Know what funds you own and why. Keep your fund holdings in line with your asset allocation. Spreading your money into a large number of fund options does not buy you much beyond unneeded complexity.
Picking funds that closely match the risk and return characteristics of your asset classes (say stocks and bonds) is good enough.
Trying to micro-manage the selection of funds will not likely lead to a huge difference in overall portfolio returns.
The task facing you in managing your 401(k) may seem daunting at times. You may feel out of your own depth.
You are not alone but if you reverse the usual way in which most participants manage their 401(k)’s you should gain greater control over your long-term financial health.
Start with the end in mind. What is this money for? Think about your life goals and objectives. Depending on your resources, you will need to figure what type of risk/return portfolio combination you will need as well as how comfortable you are dealing with the inevitable investment fluctuations.
Lastly, keep it simple when choosing your funds. You have figured out the important stuff already. Pick at least a couple of funds in each of your target asset classes by performing some high level research from sites such as Morningstar and MarketWatch.
Keep in mind that more funds do not translate into higher levels of diversification if they are all alike. Know what you own and why.
If this is all just too much for you, consider hiring Insight Financial Strategists to review your 401(k) investment allocations. We will perform a comprehensive analysis of your asset allocation and fund choices in relation to your stated goals and objectives while also keeping your expressed risk preferences in mind.
The analysis will set your mind at ease and make your 401(k) work for you in the most effective manner. We are a fee based fiduciary advisor, which means we are obligated to act solely in your best interest when making investment recommendations.
People will often feel very proprietary about their retirement accounts. They will reason that because the account is in their name only, as opposed to the house which is usually in both their names, they should be able to keep those accounts. Most of the time, this is flawed reasoning. The general rule is that assets that are accumulated during marriage are considered marital assets regardless of the titling.
However, there are cases when part of a retirement plan can be considered separate. This often depends on state law, so it is best to check with a specialist before getting your hopes up.
2. Can I Divide a Retirement Account Without Triggering Taxes?
Since there are so many different retirement accounts, the rules to divide them vary widely. Plan administrators will often recommend their own “model” QDRO. It usually makes sense to have a QDRO specialist verify that the document conforms to your interests.
In addition, that money that was set aside for retirement will no longer be there for that purpose. Although you might tell yourself that you will replace that money when you can, that rarely ever happens.
However, if you have no other choice, it so happens that divorce is one of the few exceptions to the penalty rule. A beneficiary of a QDRO (but not the original owner) can, pursuant to a divorce, take money out of a 401(k) without having to pay penalties. However, you will still have to pay income tax on your withdrawal. Note that this only applies to 401(k)s. It does not apply to IRAs.
4. How Do I Compare Retirement Accounts with Non-Retirement Accounts?
Most retirement accounts contain tax-deferred money. This means that when you get a distribution, it will be taxable as ordinary income. At the other end of the spectrum, if you have a cash account, it is usually all after-tax money. In between you may have annuity accounts where the gains are taxed as income, and the basis is not taxed; you may have a brokerage account where your gains may be taxed at long-term capital gains rate; or you may have employee Restricted Stock which is taxed as ordinary income. All of these accounts can be confusing.
In order to get an accurate comparable value of your various assets, you will want to adjust their value to make sure that it takes the built-in tax liability into account. Many divorce lawyers will use rules of thumb to equalize pre-tax and after-tax accounts. Rules of thumbs can be useful for back-of-the-envelopes calculations , but should not be used for divorce settlement calculations, as they are rarely correct.
Because these calculations are not usually within a lawyer’s skill set, many lawyers and clients will use the services of a Divorce Financial Planner to get accurate calculations that can form a solid basis for negotiation and decision making. It is usually better to know than to guess .
5. Should I Request a QDRO of My Spouse’s Defined Benefit Pension?
Another key consideration is that defined benefit plans are complex. Although they have common features, they are each different from one another, and each come with specific rules. You will be well advised to read the “plan document” or have a Divorce Financial Planner read it and let you know the key provisions.
A common provision is that the benefit for the alternate payee can only start when the plan participant starts receiving benefits and must stop when the plan participant passes away. It is all good for the plan participant. But what if as a result of that, the alternate payee ends up losing his or her pension benefits too early?
Hence a key issue of valuing defined benefit plans is that a true valuation is more than just numbers. It also involves a qualitative discussion of the value of the plan, especially for the alternate payee. Some Divorce Financial Planners can handle the valuation of interests in a defined benefit plan easily and the discussion of the plan. Others will refer you to a specialist.
Tactical asset allocation can enhance a long term strategy
Strategic asset allocation, the practice of maintaining a strategic mix of stocks, bonds, and cash, has guided many investors in creating portfolios that suit their risk profile and long-term investing goals. This widely used strategy is a long-term, relatively static tool and is not intended to take advantage of short-term market opportunities.
Proponents of tactical asset allocation, in contrast, take a shorter-term view. Tactical asset allocation is the practice of shifting an asset allocation by relatively small amounts (typically 5% or 10%) to capitalize on economic or market conditions that may offer near-term opportunities. Tactical asset allocation differs from re-balancing, which involves periodic adjustments to your strategic allocation as a result of portfolio drift or a change in personal circumstances. With tactical asset allocation, you maintain a strategic allocation target, but fine tune the exact mix based on expectations of what you believe will happen in the financial markets.
Tactical asset allocation also can involve shifting allocations within an asset class. For example, an equity portion of a portfolio may be shifted to include more small-cap stocks, more large-cap stocks, or other areas where an investor perceives a short-term opportunity.Note that mutual funds that invest in these areas may impose restrictions on short-term trading, and it is important to understand these restrictions before making an investment.
A tactical approach involves making a judgment call on where you think the economy and the financial markets may be headed. Accordingly, a tactical asset allocation strategy can increase portfolio risk, especially if tactical allocations emphasize riskier asset classes. This is why it may be a good idea to set percentage limits on asset allocation shifts and time limits on how long you want to keep these shifts in place.
In addition, when evaluating investment gains that are short-term in nature, such as those on investments held for one year or less, it is important to understand taxes on short-term capital gains. Currently, short-term capital gains are taxed as ordinary income, where the highest marginal tax rate is 39.6%. In contrast, long-term capital gains on investments held for more than one year are taxed at 15% for most investors, 20% for joint filers earning more than $450,000.
The Great Recession has many older Americans considering the prospects of going back to work after retirement or staying in the workforce past their normal retirement age. But working after retirement age is not a new necessity. According to the Social Security Administration, more than 30% of individuals between the ages of 70 and 74 reported income from earnings in 2010, the latest year data are available. Among a younger age group, those between 65 and 69, nearly 49% had income from a job.
Some remain employed for personal reasons, such as a desire for stimulation and social contact; others still want a regular paycheck. Whatever the reason, the decision to continue working into your senior years could potentially have a positive impact on your financial future.
Working later in life may permit you to continue adding to your retirement savings and delay making withdrawals. For example, if you earn enough to forgo Social Security benefits until after your full retirement age, your eventual benefit will increase by between 5.5% and 8% per year for each year that you wait, depending on the year of your birth. Although you can continue working after age 70, you cannot delay social security benefits past age 70. You can determine your full retirement age at the Social Security Web site (www.ssa.gov) or by calling the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213.
Adding to Your Nest Egg
Depending on the circumstances of your career, working could also enable you to continue adding to your retirement nest egg. If you have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, you may be able to make contributions and continue building retirement assets. If not, consider whether you can fund an IRA. Just remember that after age 70 1/2, you will be required to make withdrawals, known as required minimum distributions (RMDs), from traditional 401(k)s and traditional IRAs. RMDs are not required from Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s.
Even if you do not have access to a retirement account, continuing to earn income may help you to delay tapping your personal assets for living expenses, which could help your portfolio last longer in the years to come. Whatever your decision, be sure to apply for Medicare at age 65. In certain circumstances, medical insurance might cost more if you delay your application.
Work doesn’t have to be a chore. You may find opportunities to work part time, on a seasonal basis, or capitalize on a personal interest that you didn’t have time to pursue earlier in life.
Marriage and Building Wealth: Finding a Happy Balance
Marriage affects your finances in many ways, including your ability to build wealth, plan for retirement, plan your estate, and capitalize on tax and insurance-related benefits. Here are some considerations to keep in mind if you are thinking of getting married or have just tied the knot.
If both you and your spouse are employed, two salaries can be a considerable benefit in building long-term wealth. For example, if both of you have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans, your joint contributions are double the individual maximums ($17,500 for 2013). Similarly, a working couple may be able to pay a mortgage more easily than a single person can, which may make it possible for a couple to apply a portion of their combined paychecks for family savings or investments.
Some (but not all) pensions provide benefits to widows or widowers following a pensioner’s death. When participating in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, married workers are required to name their spouse as beneficiary unless the spouse waives this right in writing. Qualifying widows or widowers may collect Social Security benefits up to a maximum of 50% of the benefit earned by a deceased spouse.
Married couples may transfer real estate and personal property to a surviving spouse with no federal gift or estate tax consequences until the survivor dies. But surviving spouses do not automatically inherit all assets. Couples who desire to structure their estates in such a way that each spouse is the sole beneficiary of the other need to create wills or other estate planning documents to ensure that their wishes are realized. In the absence of a will, state laws governing disposition of an estate take effect. Also, certain types of trusts, such as QTIP trusts and marital deduction trusts, are restricted to married couples.
When filing federal income taxes, filing jointly typically results in lower tax payments when compared with filing separately.
In certain circumstances, creditors may be able to attach marital or community property to satisfy the debts of one spouse. Couples wishing to guard against this practice may do so with a prenuptial agreement.
The opportunity to go through life with a loving partner may be the greatest benefit of a successful marriage. That said, there are financial and legal benefits that you may want to explore with your beloved.