“It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good.” – Pa Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie
COVID-19 has been a tragedy. There’s no disputing that. Thousands dead. Millions sick. Millions more jobless. It’s hard to overstate the negative impacts of the pandemic. And yet, to paraphrase Pa Ingalls, even terrible situations can produce some good. As difficult as this time has been, I can’t help but think that many of us will look back on it as one of the best things to happen to us. Not in a “I just won the lottery!” sort of way, but in a “Painful, but positive” sort of way. Keep reading to see what I mean and to see how you can make sure that this “ill wind” blows some good for your retirement.
It forces us out of routine. It’s easy to get in a rut. Easy to put life on autopilot and live the same day over and over. Even if we don’t like the rut we’re in, we’ll often stay there because it feels safe. Human nature is such that we will often choose being unhappy over being uncertain. One thing this virus has done in spades is forced us all to live life in a different way. It grabbed the steering wheel and yanked us out of the rut. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost certainly a good thing. It gives us a fresh perspective. It helps time pass more slowly (because routine is the enemy of time). It opens us up to new experiences and new ways of thinking about things. It presents new opportunities. Yes, it brings uncertainty, but hiding in all that uncertainty is opportunity. Look for it.
It forces us to reexamine our priorities. Priorities are the things in life that are most important to us. They are the people, activities or things that we really care about and that bring us meaning. When life is going along swimmingly and we’re healthy and have plenty of time and money, we tend to get lazy. We allow things in that clutter or confuse our priorities. When life gets hard, however, and one or more of our priorities are threatened, it refocuses our mind on what’s important. Hard times force us to cut and say “no.” They force us to get back to the basics. That means a life less cluttered with filler and more focused on the things that bring you joy and meaning. That’s a good thing.
It forces us to think differently about debt. When the economy is strong and interest rates are low, it’s tempting to add debt. You almost feel foolish if you don’t. “One percent interest? Why wouldn’t I buy a $60,000 car?” But when hard times hit, servicing that debt becomes difficult if not impossible. Debt increases risk and reduces cash flow. It adds stress. It can derail your plans and dreams. It weakens your financial “immune system.” The pandemic is a good reminder to use debt sparingly.
It shows the fallacy of “appearances.” On a sunny day, a house built on the sand doesn’t look any different than a house built on rock. But when the storms come, the difference is pretty clear. It’s easy to get caught up in appearances. It’s tempting to keep up with the Jones’s. But even in the best of times, that strategy can be stressful and unfulfilling. In bad times it can be catastrophic. Machiavelli once wrote “The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities.” Don’t be one of those people. Build a life that is happy, secure and fulfilling, not one that only looks good on Instagram.
It exposes our weaknesses. Warren Buffett once said “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.” There’s nothing like a combination global pandemic + financial crisis to help expose your weaknesses. Too much risk in your investments? Too much debt? No rainy day fund? Strained relationship with your spouse? Underlying health issues you’ve been ignoring? Settling for a life that isn’t what you want? If the tide went out and you find yourself a bit overexposed, maybe it’s time to go shopping for a swimsuit.
One of the most important ingredients to a successful retirement is to decide what you really want out of life and to start taking those things very seriously. COVID-19, while terrible, has likely helped you in that regard by forcing you to reexamine your habits, routines, priorities, purpose, relationships, finances, lifestyle and any number of other things. Embrace that process and you’ll likely come out the other side a stronger, more resilient, more self-aware person.
What are some practical ways to apply all this? I’ll put a few ideas below along with links to articles and resources at Intentional Retirement.
The sharp market selloff in the fourth quarter of last year was partially caused by investor concern over an inverted yield curve. Just last week we saw another big drop as the curve inverted again. What is the yield curve and why are people worried about it? More importantly, how could it affect your plans if you’re at or near retirement and what can you do to protect yourself?
What is the yield curve?
When you get a loan, the interest rate you pay is based (in part) on how long you need to borrow the money. All else being equal, the longer you borrow, the higher the interest rate will be. The same is true when the government borrows. They pay higher interest on 30-year bonds than on 30-day bonds. If you plot out government bond rates (e.g. 1-year, 2-year, 5-year, etc.) and connect them with a line, that is the yield curve. In a normal economy, the curve slopes up and to the right, because as we just discussed, rates rise along with time to maturity.
Why is everyone worried about it?
As we just saw, a normal yield curve slopes up and to the right because long-term rates are typically higher than short-term rates. Once in a while, however, conditions are such that short-term rates rise above long-term rates. This is a warning sign that the markets are anticipating trouble for the economy and they expect the Federal Reserve to cut rates. When short-term rates rise above long-term rates, that graph we talked about earlier shifts from upward sloping to downward sloping. In short, it becomes inverted. This is concerning, because it turns out that an inverted yield curve is a pretty good predictor of recession.
Does an inverted curve guarantee a recession?
Not every inverted yield curve has led to a recession, but every recession we’ve had since World War II has been preceded by an inverted yield curve. So when the yield curve inverts, it’s worth paying attention to.
Is the yield curve inverted now?
The yield curve flattened for most of 2018 as the Fed raised short term interest rates and long-term rates stayed low. Then, during the fourth quarter, portions of the yield curve inverted. It wasn’t entirely inverted, but even having portions inverted is a red flag. Rates normalized a bit earlier this year (and the markets rallied), but last week portions of the curve inverted again when 10-year rates fell below 3-month rates.
If a recession follows an inversion, how long does it usually take?
An inverted curve is a good predictor of recessions, but they generally don’t happen right away. The average time between inversion and recession is about a year.
What does the stock market typically do after the curve inverts?
Markets will usually continue to rise for a period of time after an inversion. For example, markets rose an average of 35% after the last 3 inversions (1989, 1998 and 2006), before ultimately falling as the economy went into recession. And returns on the S&P tend to be above average for many months after an inversion. So yes, an inverted yield curve can signal a potential recession, but it can also signal a period of strong stock returns before the recession arrives.
What should investors be doing?
A yield curve inversion isn’t a perfect indicator and it’s by no means the only economic indicator. There are plenty of signs that point to a strong U.S. economy and as we saw above, markets usually continue to rise for a period of time even after an inversion. That said, it’s a red flag, as are signs of slowing economic activity in Europe and China. The best thing you can do is to make sure that you are invested in a way that is consistent with your risk tolerance, time to retirement, goals and overall financial situation. Then, even if things get choppy, you’ll be able to ride out the storm. For further ideas on what to do, read: Should you prepare for a deeper downturn?
The current bull market is 9 years old. That’s the second longest on record and it has people wondering how much further it can go. That question has taken on added urgency given the recent volatility, rising interest rates and political uncertainty. Markets lost ground in February (the first losing month in over a year) and they’re on track to close lower in March as well. Is this the beginning of something bigger? Should you make changes to your portfolio or otherwise prepare for a deeper downturn? I’ll share my thoughts below.
Keep Things in Perspective
First of all, I think it’s good to keep things in perspective. Yes, there have been some scary drops recently. In February, the Dow had its two biggest point drops ever. The S&P 500 had four of its largest drops ever. On a percentage basis, however, those drops didn’t even crack the top 20. Still, when the daily loss has a comma, it’s disconcerting. Just try to remember that pullbacks are natural and healthy, especially after the outsized gains we’ve had over the last several years. At the beginning of this bull market (the end of the Great Recession) the Dow was below 7,000 and the S&P was below 700. Now, even after the recent selling, they’re around 24,000 and 2,600 respectively.
Watch the Fundamentals
Warren Buffett has famously said that in the short-term the market is a voting machine, but in the long-term it’s a weighing machine. In other words, fundamentals matter more than feelings. How do the fundamentals look? In a word, strong. GDP and corporate earnings are growing at the fastest pace in years. The tax cuts will boost profits even more. Job creation continues to surprise on the upside. Unemployment is low. Consumer sentiment and consumer spending are very strong. Interest rates are still relatively low. Most signs point to a healthy and growing economy.
3 Key Risks
While most indicators are positive, that doesn’t mean that investors should be complacent. The bullish case is always strongest right before it’s not. And even if the fundamentals stay strong, you can still get some nasty price corrections. What are the key risks?
I see three primary risks right now: 1) Valuations, 2) Interest Rates, and 3) Political/Geopolitical risks. Because of the strong economy, stocks have been going up and valuations are at the upper end of their historical range. Markets are priced for perfection. What if we don’t get it? To quote John Mauldin, an economist I follow, “the consequences of a mistake are growing.” Or what if the Fed raises rates too aggressively? That could tip the economy into recession. And the uncertainty in Washington is not helping. If we get into a trade war with China or the Mueller investigation finds serious wrongdoing, markets will not react positively.
How to Protect Yourself
I said earlier that pullbacks are healthy. What do I mean by that? Economist Hyman Minsky had a theory that stability leads to instability. In other words, when the economy and markets are good, it encourages more and more risk taking. People start to focus on reward and ignoring risk. They invest too aggressively. They take on too much debt. They save less. They get complacent. And then a shock hits the system, losses start to build and people panic. The bottom falls out. That sudden instability is referred to as a Minsky Moment. The longer the period of stability, the greater the likelihood that people are making decisions that will eventually lead to serious instability. Periodic corrections are healthy because they keep people from straying too far from home.
Which brings me to the question at the beginning of this article. Should you prepare for a deeper downturn? The answer, of course, depends. During this 9-year bull market, how far have you strayed or drifted from your appropriate investment and retirement strategy? How can you tell? Here are 7 areas to look at closely.
Risk Tolerance. The longer a bull market goes, the less people worry about (or even think about) risk. That’s a problem, because the economy and markets usually revert to the mean. What would mean reversion look like now? We’ve gotten a taste of it over the last several weeks. After years of rising markets, they start to fall. After years of almost non-existent volatility, it spikes. After a decade of historically low interest rates, they start to climb. If the market dropped 20-30% this year, how would that impact your portfolio? Could you (would you) just ride it out? If not, you should probably dial back your risk.
Asset Allocation. The two primary ways to manage risk are through diversification and asset allocation. Look at your portfolio. Do you have any outsized positions? Is your stock/bond balance appropriate given your risk tolerance? Has your allocation drifted or changed over the years? Review your portfolio and align your asset allocation with your risk tolerance.
Time Horizon. All of this is a bigger deal if you’re at or near retirement. You have less to worry about the longer you have to go. Even after the 57% peak to trough drop in 2008-09 the markets fully recovered within about 4 years. Those who rode it out did fine. Could you ride out another major downturn? If you’re already retired, maybe not. At the very least you’re 9 years closer to retirement than you were during the last serious pullback. And even if you have time, sharp drops can cause you to make mistakes and do the wrong thing at the wrong time, so see points 1 and 2 again. Make sure you understand your risk tolerance and that your allocation is aligned with that.
Spending. Most people have lifestyle bloat as they get older. As income grows, so do expenses. Bigger paychecks mean better houses, cars, vacations, wardrobes and gadgets. That’s not necessarily bad, but the longer good times persist, the closer we tend to push our spending to the outer limits. That makes a person financially fragile. It can cause stress, limit your options and force you to make compromises in life. You control your spending. Beware of bloat. The more you live below your means, the more financially resilient you will be. And when you splurge on things or add expenses, do your best to make that spending discretionary rather than fixed. That way you can dial back if your income drops or the economy heads into recession. See this article on how to use dynamic spending to make your money last.
Debt. One of the characteristics of long bull markets is that people load up on debt. The boom years make them more comfortable borrowing for cars, houses and credit cards. Having debt adds risk and reduces cash flow, two things that are especially troublesome for a person at or near retirement. If you want to be better positioned to weather a financial storm, get rid of debt.
Saving. The average savings rate in 2015 was 7.19%. In 2016 it fell to 5.98%. Last year it fell to 3.74%. Care to guess which direction it will move in 2018? This is what Minsky was talking about. Stability leads to instability. People become complacent. They save less, which means they have less of a buffer, which means they’re less able to weather a storm.
Cash. It’s always a good idea to have a portion of your portfolio in cash or short-term securities. That way, if markets drop and a good investment opportunity presents itself, you’ll have some dry powder to invest. Or, if you’re already retired and taking distributions from your portfolio, you can pull your distributions from your cash rather than selling your stocks into a declining market.
Will the markets drop further? Who knows. The risk is certainly there. The important thing is to focus on the things you can control and make sure that if we get another downturn, it won’t derail your plans.
“Will my money last?” That’s the biggest concern for most retirees. What can you do to stretch your retirement dollars for as long as possible? A recent article in the Journal of Financial Planning (JFP) analyzed six factors and the role each played in portfolio longevity. (Determinants of Retirement Portfolio Sustainability and Their Relative Impacts, by Jack C. DeJong Jr., Ph.D., CFA; and John H. Robinson). Let’s take a look at each:
Initial withdrawal rate
The less money you take from your portfolio each year, the longer it will last. No surprise there. What is somewhat unexpected, however, is that the withdrawal rate that is considered “safe” is shrinking. Thanks to lower assumed bond rates, the long held 4% rule should probably be renamed the 3% rule for those who need their portfolio to last 30 years. That’s one conclusion reached by the JFP article and it is backed up by other studies from respected researchers like Michael Kitces and Wade Pfau. So if you anticipate a long retirement, and you think bond rates will stay near their historic lows, it’s probably a good idea to dial back your initial withdrawal rate. If, however, you saved more than needed, retire later or have health issues that shorten your retirement (e.g. 20 years instead of 30) the 4% rule will likely hold.
The Fed’s decade long experiment with low interest rates has been great for borrowers, but terrible for retirees. Generating income is harder than ever. When the initial research was done for the 4% rule, mean bond rates were around 5-6%. Now they are much lower. Lower returns mean your portfolio won’t last as long. It looks like rates will stay low for the foreseeable future. Plan accordingly.
Retirees typically invest in both stocks and bonds so they can balance out the need for growth with the need for stability. What’s the right mix? Several recent studies seem to suggest that dialing up stock exposure a bit (say from 60/40 to 70/30) might help improve portfolio longevity. Before taking that advice, however, I think there are three important considerations. First, what is the likely future return of stocks? The studies assume a lower return for bonds, but assume future stock returns will be similar to past stock returns. When stocks are as richly valued as they are now, however, future returns are generally lackluster. Second, how will you respond in the face of increased volatility? The studies assume that retirees will calmly ride out any increased volatility from the higher stock allocation. That flies in the face of what we know from both behavioral finance studies as well as the long running Dalbar study on investor behavior. Volatility often causes people to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Third, how much return do you need? If you haven’t saved enough, it can be tempting to swing for the fences and heavily overweight stocks. If you nest egg is adequate, however, it might make more sense to swing for singles and doubles rather than risk striking out. The takeaway from all this? Don’t take the added risk unless necessary. And if you decide to increase your stock allocation, wait for a good opportunity, such as after a market correction. Stocks will be cheaper and bonds will likely have rallied.
Inflation mutes your investment returns and diminishes your purchasing power. For retirees, low inflation is better and will help portfolios last longer. You can’t control the inflation rate, but it’s helpful to know what it is. We’re currently in a prolonged period of low inflation around 1-2%. That can help improve portfolio longevity and offset the lower expected returns discussed earlier.
Investment expenses act as a headwind against returns, so it’s important to a) keep them as low as possible and b) make sure the people you hire are adding value. In a large study on the value of advisors, Vanguard concluded: “Left alone, investors often make choices that impair their returns and jeopardize their ability to fund their long-term objectives.” This type of behavior often leads to “wealth destruction rather than creation.” Vanguard suggests that advisors can help add value if they “act as wealth managers and behavioral coaches, providing discipline and experience to investors who need it.” Specifically, they say to look for an advisor who can help with things like asset allocation, security selection, behavioral coaching and distribution strategies. According to Vanguard, those things are worth about 3% per year in net returns. In other words, a good adviser creates value, but has reasonable fees. The JFP article found that portfolio longevity is greatly improved when expenses are limited to around 1%, but diminish significantly when expenses rise beyond 2 or 3%.
Distribution strategies come in lots of different flavors, but the goal is usually the same: turn your assets into an income. The JFP article tested 4 different withdrawal strategies: a) spend stocks first, b) constant allocation, c) simple guardrail and d) spend bonds first. Most of those are self-explanatory except the guardrail strategy. With that strategy, withdrawals are taken proportionally from stocks and bonds with one exception. No withdrawals are made from stocks following a down year. Most retirees use the constant allocation strategy (draw from asset classes proportionally and rebalance each year), but the study found that the two strategies with the highest success rate were spend bonds first and the guardrail. Both strategies reduce the likelihood that you’ll have to sell assets for a loss during the early years of retirement which, not surprisingly, will help your money last longer.
On Monday morning my friend texted me: “Holy cow! Don’t jump!” He was referring, of course, to the 1000+ point drop in the Dow. Thankfully, after more than 20 years in this business, I’ve gotten used to wild swings, so I wasn’t on the ledge (although in 2008 I was glad I work in a one story building). That said, volatility in the market can produce much fear and anxiety, especially if you’re at or near retirement. There is a 100% chance that market volatility will continue, so here are 5 things I’ve learned after two decades of bulls and bears that can help you keep your retirement plans on track.
Markets have recovered from every single downturn in history. Every. Single. One. The Panics of 1893, 1896, 1901 and 1907 (Seriously, calm down already!). The Crash of 1929. The recession of 1937-1938. The Flash Crash of 1962. Black Monday in 1987. The crash after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The 1997 crash caused by the Asian currency crisis. The Dot-com bubble in 2000. The crash after the September 11 attacks. The selloff in 2002. The financial crisis of 2007-2009. The Flash Crash in 2010. The markets are higher now than after every panic, bubble, crash and crisis in history, but be careful because…
You are not the market. Your personal experience with market volatility will largely be impacted by the actions you take before and during a crisis. Were you poorly diversified? Was your asset allocation totally inappropriate? Were you taking too much risk? Did you sell in a panic? Did you wait to get back in until the markets had already recovered? Did you stop making 401(k) contributions when things went south? Investment returns are not investor returns. Each year Dalbar does a study to see how well the average investor does compared to the markets. In short, the average investor only captures a fraction of the market return, largely because of poor behavior, so…
Sometimes it’s good to have help (especially if you’re near retirement). There are some people with the time, temperament, knowledge and discipline to handle their investments on their own. Others could benefit from a little help. This is especially true the closer you get to retirement because the issues you’ll be confronted with are different. Before retirement the major issue is saving. Most of us are at least familiar with the concept of saving (regardless of whether or not we’re doing it). We’re less familiar with the many moving parts that make up the typical retirement plan: calculating how much is enough, settling on an appropriate asset allocation, risk management, cash flow management, pension payouts, periodic rebalancing, retirement plan distributions, estate planning, Medicare, Social Security and the tax consequences of certain distribution strategies. You don’t want to mess those things up because…
Your runway is shorter now than it was during the last crisis. On average, stocks experience a 10% selloff about once every year and 20% pullback every 3.5 years. The average time of recovery for the former is about 4 months. For the latter it takes about 22 months. So while my earlier point is absolutely true—markets have always recovered—you may not have enough time to wait it out. The closer you are to retirement, the closer you are to withdrawing money from your accounts. And if you’re taking distributions while the markets are down, your money won’t last as long. So use the current crisis as a not-so-friendly reminder to…
Focus on what you can control. John Wooden once said: “The more concerned we become over the things we can’t control, the less we will do with the things we can control.” It’s easy to focus on headlines, markets and political uncertainty, but we can’t really do anything about them so it’s an exercise in frustration. We can control things like saving, debt reduction, asset allocation, and risk management, however. Focusing on those actually produces results. Unfortunately, the bull market of the last six years has lulled many into a false sense of security. Use the current volatility to make sure that your portfolio is appropriate and your plans are on track.
The number one fear of retirees is running out of money. How can you create a predictable paycheck in retirement?
Step 1: Create your retirement budget.
Decide how much money you will need each month in retirement by creating a detailed retirement budget. You can download a free Retirement Budget Worksheet from our Retirement Toolkit.
Step 2: Evaluate your potential income sources.
There are 5 primary sources of retirement income: Social Security, pension, personal investments, passive income like rental property and work (usually part-time). Evaluate which of those income sources will be available to you during retirement and estimate how much income you can derive from each.
Step 3: Compare your budget with your income.
Is your anticipated income enough to cover your anticipated expenses? If not, you may need to delay retirement or find ways to trim your retirement budget.
Step 4: Decide on a claiming strategy for each income source.
With Social Security, you can claim early, on time or late. You might be entitled to spousal benefits or it might make sense for you to file and suspend so your spouse can claim benefits based on your record while your benefits continue to grow. Likewise, there are a number of strategies available when pulling money from your investments, such as dividends only, guaranteed income, systematic withdrawal, bucket strategy and a time segmentation strategy to name a few. All that just to say that for each source of income, there is usually a way to maximize that income based on your unique situation. Working with a competent adviser is usually a good idea when you get to this point. There are a lot of moving parts and the difference between a good strategy and a bad one is usually the difference between…well…a good retirement and a bad one.
Step 5: Retire. Review. Recalibrate.
Having a predictable paycheck doesn’t stop once you retire and turn on your various sources of income. Take time each year to review your withdrawal strategy and make changes as necessary. Some questions to ask yourself:
- Is my withdrawal rate sustainable?
- Is my income still sufficient and keeping pace with inflation?
- Is my asset allocation still appropriate?
- Is the amount of risk I’m taking still suitable?
- Has the value of my assets changed significantly?
- Has my life expectancy changed?
Your answers to those questions will help determine if you need to make changes to your investment and/or distribution strategy.
Bonus: How can I make my money last longer?
Earlier I said that one way to help extend the life of your nest egg is to maximize income from sources like Social Security. What are some additional ways to make your money last?
Dynamic Spending: Take a look at your retirement budget. How many of your expenses are non-negotiable vs. discretionary? If most are non-negotiable, then you will likely be forced to draw money from your investments during inopportune times. If, however, you’re able to set up a budget that has a certain level of discretionary spending, then you can adjust your spending based on market conditions. In down years you can put the discretionary spending on hold and extend the life of your nest egg in the process. Housing and transportation are two of the biggest non-discretionary retirement expenses. Downsizing your house and cars or entering retirement with those things paid for can give you a great deal of flexibility with your spending.
Diversification and asset allocation: Having an appropriate asset allocation helps you mange three key risks: 1) It keeps you from being too aggressive and subject to large declines. 2) It keeps you from being too conservative and subject to inflationary erosion. 3) It will hopefully help your portfolio grow consistently over time so it will last as long as you do.
Stay (or get) healthy: Longevity is a risk because the longer you live, the longer your portfolio will need to last. Even so, most of us want to live as long as possible. Staying active and healthy can save on health care co-pays, prescription costs and (biggest of all) long-term care expenses.
I kept things pretty simple in this post. When you start considering things like inflation, longevity and market fluctuations, the complexity of the predictable paycheck multiplies quickly. If you want to take a deeper dive into some of those issues, feel free to check out The Ideal Retirement Design Guide.