Are low interest rates ruining retirement?

low interest rates ruining retirement

Not long ago, most people worked as long as they were able and eventually either “died in harness” or relied on younger family members to care for them in their old age.  And then along came this idea of retirement where through hard work, shrewd investing and some help from a pension (if you’re lucky) and Uncle Sam, you could hang up your work boots a little early and spend your golden years enjoying a bit of leisure and fun.  But for most people, the math of retirement only works if they’re able to earn some interest on their savings.  That is a challenging task in a world where Central Banks the world over seem to have declared war on savers.  What does this mean for the long term viability of your retirement?  In other words, are low interest rates ruining retirement?  More importantly, what can you do to keep your plans on track?

The 4% Rule

Back in the early 1990s, a financial adviser by the name of William Bengen did research on sustainable portfolio withdrawal rates.  Assuming an asset mix of half stocks and half bonds, he back tested withdrawal rates against historical 30 year periods in the market.  His conclusion was that if you wanted your portfolio to last 30 years, the maximum withdrawal that you should take each year is 4%.  That rate has worked well for millions and many assume it will continue to work great unless future returns are significantly worse than past returns.  Enter the Central Banks.

ZIRP and NIRP

The global economy has been stuck in slow growth mode since recovering from the near death experience of the 2008 financial crisis.  To stimulate growth, Central Banks around the world lowered rates to pretty much zero and engaged in endless rounds of quantitative easing.  When that didn’t work some of them started adopting negative interest rates.  That’s right, zero apparently wasn’t low enough.  Now they’re moving to negative.  ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) has given way to NIRP (negative interest rate policy) in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan.  The logic is to force banks to lend, weaken currencies to help exports and stimulate economies.  Not surprisingly, there are a lot of people who think these policies could come with some pretty significant unintended consequences, not the least of which being that it will be pretty tough for savers, pension funds and governments to meet those future withdrawal needs if large portions of their bond portfolios are earning zero instead of the 4%-5% that history has taught us to expect.

The $64,000 question (more like $64 trillion) is whether or not these low interest rates will derail retirees and the portfolios, pensions and Social Security program that they rely on to fund retirement.   I can say with certainty that…it depends.  If these low rates are an anomaly and they eventually return to normal, then the 4% rule of thumb that retirees rely on and the return assumptions that pensions rely on can continue to work.  But if they stay this low for a long time, then retirement as we have come to know it is at significant risk.  Which will it be?  My gut tells me that rates will eventually rise and the 4% rule will continue to work, but it makes sense to plan for the worst even while hoping for the best.

What to do

There are several levers you can pull in order to improve your odds of success.  Some are better than others.  One side effect of ZIRP has been to force people into riskier investments in search of returns.  That works great until it doesn’t as we saw recently when markets rang in the New Year by plummeting.  Another side effect of ZIRP has been to encourage individuals, companies and countries to take on more debt.  That can also work for a while, but debts eventually needs to be repaid.  Are there better options?

Draw less.  If a 4% withdrawal rate is too high, the most obvious way to protect yourself is to take less than 4%.  I have some clients that are taking 2%-3%.  Some are even taking 0% because their pension and Social Security cover their expenses.  There is an extremely high probability that those taking less than 4% will be fine even if rates stay low for a long time.  Of course drawing less only works if the amount you’re taking is enough to cover your expenses.  That might mean you need to…

Cut retirement expenses.  Examine your retirement budget for items you can reduce or eliminate.  Housing and transportation are often major expenses. Consider downsizing to a smaller home or sharing a car with your spouse. Staying active and healthy can save on health care co-pays and prescription costs. Substituting planned hobbies or activities with less expensive alternatives also can trim costs without significantly changing the quality of your retirement.  Taken cumulatively, these adjustments to your retirement budget can help reduce the strain on your nest egg and still provide a meaningful retirement.

Save more.  Spending less is one option, but you could also improve your chances if you save more (assuming you’re not already retired).  Recent research by Aon Hewitt and others shows that a person will need Social Security plus savings worth about 11-12 times their annual income in order to fund their retirement.  If interest rates stay low, that multiple will be higher.  If you are still working, make saving a high priority. Both 401(k)s and IRAs have higher contribution limits for people over 50. Take advantage of those limits by putting away as much as possible. The maximum 401(k) contribution for 2016 is $18,000 plus an additional $6,000 if you’re over 50. IRA contribution limits are $5,500 plus an additional $1,000 if you’re over 50.  Extra additions to your portfolio could significantly improve your financial position in retirement.

Pay off debt.  As I mentioned earlier, one of the unfortunate side effects of low interest rates is that the Fed is punishing savers and encouraging debtors.  Debt can make sense if it’s used to purchase an asset that generates income such as a new computer for the office or a college education.  Last I checked, however, a $60,000 SUV or a gourmet kitchen aren’t income producing asset for most people.  When used unwisely, debt adds risk and reduces cash flow. Those things are especially troublesome to someone in retirement.  By retiring debt free, you can greatly reduce the amount of savings necessary to fund your retirement.

Work longer.  Working longer may not sound fun, but neither is running out of money. If low rates reduce the viability of your retirement plan, one option is to keep working and earning a paycheck. This strategy has multiple benefits: it allows you to save more, it gives your portfolio more years to grow, it could help boost your potential Social Security benefits and it decreases the overall amount of income you need to draw over the years. Of course this assumes that working longer is an option.  Don’t put all your eggs in that basket in case your health doesn’t cooperate or your job skills don’t translate well in a changing world.

Delay Social Security.  If you delay collecting Social Security until after your full retirement age, you will get a permanent increase in your benefits. The increase is based on the year you were born. For example, those born after 1943 will get an 8% credit for each year they wait. The increase caps out at age 70, but waiting until then will increase your benefits significantly.

Obviously, we have to deal with the world as it is, not how we want it to be.  When I started my career, you could buy a 1 year CD yielding 7%.  That made retirement planning much easier.  Now you’re lucky if you can get 1% on that same CD.  That’s just the world we live in and there’s a chance that it could persist for some time.  Plan accordingly and you’ll greatly improve your odds of retirement success.

~ Joe

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