Should you prepare for a deeper downturn?

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.

Global debt is staggering.  Why that could be bad news for your retirement.

Global debt is staggering. Why that could be bad news for your retirement.

The amount of debt in the world is staggering.

  • Auto loans recently passed $1 trillion for the first time and the average car loan is the highest it’s ever been, recently surpassing $30,000.
  • Student debt stands at about $1.4 trillion.
  • Mortgage debt is about $14 trillion.
  • More than 30% of households carry a balance on their credit cards. Those that do have an average balance of $16,000
  • The top 2,000 non-financial companies have $6.64 trillion in debt, $2.81 trillion of which they’ve added in the last five years.
  • The U.S. public debt has nearly doubled since the 2008 financial crisis, ballooning from $10 trillion to more than $19 trillion.
  • 20 years ago China had $500 billion in public and private and debt. Ten years ago that number stood at $3.5 trillion.  Today it is more than $35 trillion.

More than the amount of debt, however, is just how much of it has been added since the 2008 financial crisis.  After experiencing a debt induced financial Armageddon, you’d think individuals, companies and governments would be hesitant to go down that road again.  Not so.  Record low rates have fueled trillions (with a “T” like the Titanic) in new debt.  It’s like eating until you’re sick at a buffet and then deciding that the next logical step is to grab a new plate and see how many cheese enchiladas and Mini BBQ Brisket sandwiches you can fit on it.

And just like binging at the buffet is likely to end badly, binging on debt will usually end in a combination of regret and real world consequences.  How is all this debt affecting us and our ability to reach our retirement goals?

It’s causing stress.  A recent survey of adults with student loan debt showed that people would go to some pretty extreme lengths to get rid of that debt.  Nearly 57% would take a punch from Mike Tyson.  More than 40% would give up a year of life expectancy.  Almost 7% said they’d be willing to cut off their own pinky finger.  Think about that.  A not insignificant percentage of the borrowers polled would be willing to die sooner or hack off body parts if they could turn back time and get out from under their debt.  Living with excessive debt is stressful.

It’s making us financially fragile.  A recent Federal Reserve survey found that 47% of Americans could not cover an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing or selling something.  In other words, half the country is stretched so thin that they couldn’t afford a car repair or a new pair of glasses without some sort of payment plan.  There are likely many reasons for this state of affairs, but one is most assuredly debt.  In other words, we need to go into debt to fund new purchases because all of our income is already being used to pay for the debts from our old purchases.

It’s limiting our ability to save for retirement.  Each year the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) conducts a Retirement Confidence Survey to see how people are doing when it comes to saving for retirement.  In the most recent survey, nearly a third of respondents reported having less than $1,000 saved so far.  Two-thirds have less than $50,000 saved.  You don’t need to be a financial genius to know that $1,000 is not enough to fund a 20 or 30 year retirement.  Even $50,000 would only get you a year or two at best.  Why aren’t we saving more?  Again, one reason is debt.  If most of your current money is being used to pay for past purchases, you won’t have much left over for future savings.

It’s exposing retirees to market risk.  Even if you are near retirement and you have no debt, you may still be at risk from debt indirectly.  That’s because, with interest rates so low, many retirees have been forced to move further up the risk spectrum to get any sort of yield on their investments.  It used to be that you could put your money in a risk-free money market and earn 3%.  Now those same investments pay 0%.  Super safe bonds don’t yield much better, so many investors are shifting more of their portfolio to lower quality bonds or dividend paying stocks.  That works fine while markets are rising, but if we get another debt shock and borrowers can’t repay, then markets could tumble and many investors may find that they took on too much risk in their search for yield.

How much debt is ok?

To be sure, not all debt is bad.  Debt can be a useful tool when it’s used to purchase an asset or invest in a project that helps us to generate income and pay back the debt.  That said, in order to retire comfortably, the typical person needs to move from a place of low savings and high debt early in their career to a place of high savings and low debt later in their career.

What should that gradual reduction look like?  To help people track their progress, researcher Charles Farrell devised a Debt to Income Ratio and then established benchmarks for different age groups.  According to Farrell, your debt (e.g. mortgage, car loans, credit cards, etc.) divided by your income should be 1.25 at 40, .75 at 50, .20 at 60 and zero at retirement.

Retiring debt free used to be the rule rather than the exception.  Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.  In fact, a recent study by the Employee Benefits Research Institute showed that 65 percent of American families with a head of household age 65-74 had debt.  The age group with one of the biggest spikes in debt was 75 and older.

That’s troubling because debt adds risk and reduces cash flow, two things that can derail your retirement.  It is inherently limiting at a time when most hope for greater independence and opportunity.  It increases uncertainty at a time when most people want security.  So make a plan to gradually eliminate your debt and you will greatly increase your odds of having freedom, flexibility and peace of mind during retirement.

– Joe

Your biggest retirement expense (and how to get rid of it)

Your biggest retirement expense (and how to get rid of it)

Let’s take a poll.  What do you think will be your biggest retirement expense?  Travel?  Healthcare?  Plaid pants?  Mai Tais?

Actually, according to a recent report by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), you’ll likely spend the most (40-45% of your budget!) on housing.  That’s right.  The Casa. Good old home sweet home.  Nearly half of your income will likely go to cover things like your mortgage, taxes, utilities, and maintenance.

For some reason this doesn’t sit well with me.  Just like the argument for life insurance becomes less compelling as we age, it would seem to me that the argument for spending the lion’s share of your budget on housing becomes less compelling as well.

Yes, there was a life stage where it made sense to spend heavily on housing.  You hadn’t saved much and needed to borrow.  You needed space for a growing family.  You wanted to be near good schools.  A nice house was comfortable and conveyed a certain amount of status.  But are those reasons as compelling in retirement?

After the EBRI report came out, most articles I read on the subject focused on how retirees could cover such a large expense.  But what if you reframed the debate from “How?” to “Why?”  WHY spend such a large portion of your income on shelter?  Especially during retirement.  Every dollar you spend on shelter is a dollar that you’re not spending on travel, hobbies, and other pursuits that provide meaning, purpose, fulfillment, and enjoyment.

Quick Note: I am NOT saying that having a nice house in retirement is bad.  Some have their house paid for and it’s a low cost option.  Some can totally afford a nice house without it impacting their other plans.  For some, the house IS their plan (e.g. a place for kids and grandkids to gather, a neighborhood close to friends, a place to entertain, etc.).  The only time where an expensive house might become a problem is when the costs associated with it prevent you from being able to afford the things you really want to do in retirement.  If that’s the case, I think it’s worth considering alternatives.

With that said, I’d like to ask you three questions that will hopefully challenge your thinking on your house and just might lead you to pare back your spending on shelter so you can maximize spending in other areas that matter more to you.

Question #1: What would it take to pay off your house before retirement?

One way to reduce your housing expense would be to outline a plan to have your house paid off by the time you retire.  You’ll still have expenses like taxes, insurance, and maintenance, but you’ll no longer be paying principal and interest on a loan.  Here’s a post that will walk you through how and why to retire debt free.  And if you want to play around with different payoff scenarios and run some amortization schedules, the app “Debt Free” is helpful and simple to use.

Question #2: Would your retirement be better if you made a conscious effort to downsize and simplify?

A few months ago I interviewed Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist (you can listen to the full interview here).  We talked about ways that you can simplify life, minimize stress, and focus on what you really want out of life and retirement.  One of those ways was to declutter your house and possibly even downsize to something smaller.  This frees up time and money to focus on other priorities.  If simplifying sounds appealing, check out the Intentional Retirement Pinterest Page where we have boards for things like cooking for two, tiny houses, and the art of simplification.

If you want to go one step further, I personally think it’s worth at least asking if homeownership still makes sense for you during retirement.  Taking care of a house is more difficult as you age.  You don’t have the same space needs. It ties up a huge chunk of your nest egg.  If you compare owning vs. renting, you might find that owning is not the “no-brainer” that it was during your working years.

Question #3: What if you redefined status in retirement?

Let’s be honest.  Our culture confers a great deal of status based on things like homes and cars.  It’s easy to get sucked into that game.  Especially when banks are more than willing to put you in debt up to your eyeballs so you can make a good showing for the neighbors.

What would happen if we started to buck that trend?  What if, instead of the currency of status being “stuff”, we started to make it travel, purpose, time with family, happiness, and freedom.

A year or so ago I read about a couple living in California who spent about $7,000 per month on housing, cars, groceries, eating out, entertainment, and vacations.  They wanted a bit more adventure during retirement, so they sold the house and cars and hit the road with the goal of extended stays in interesting places for the same or less than what they were spending in California.  They stayed several months in London for $6,800 per month.  Florence and Paris were a bit less at $6,050 and $6,550 respectively.  Buenos Aires was a comparatively modest $4,400 per month and Mexico was practically a bargain at $3,450 per month.

Is this for everyone?  No.  Should we do those things simply for the status associated with them?  Definitely not.  Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  But if we’re going to admire people for something, we could pick worse criteria than looking up to those who live a full life.

Bottom line – think through what’s important to you during retirement.  What do you really want to do?  Once you have that list, invest heavily in those things.  If your house is on the list, great.  If not, don’t allow it to consume most of your resources at the expense of everything else on your list.

Joe

Photo by Joe Hearn.
Two surefire ways to retire sooner

Two surefire ways to retire sooner

“When can I retire?”  I get that question a lot.  If you’re curious about the answer, look no further than your retirement budget.  The more money you want to spend during retirement, the more you’ll need to save before you get there and the longer you’ll likely need to work.  It stands to reason then, that you can probably retire sooner if you can figure out a way to spend less during your golden years.  What are some ways to downsize your expenses without downsizing your dreams for retirement?

Think Big

It has almost become dogma over the last decade that financial security comes by giving up things like your daily latte.  That advice can certainly help you sock away a few extra dollars over the years, but if you’re getting close to retirement and find yourself tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollar short of your goal, drinking Folgers instead of Starbucks isn’t going to solve your problem.  It’s just not a big enough line item in your budget.  If you want to make a big impact, you need to focus on big expenses.

According to a recently released report by the Social Security Administration, the two biggest expenses for most retirees are housing (35 percent) and transportation (14 percent).  Said another way, almost half of your retirement budget will go to pay for the roof over your head and the vehicles in your garage.  Let’s look at an imaginary couple to see how cuts in those areas can make a big difference.

John and Linda would like to retire next year.  They decide to hire an adviser to look over their plan and, much to their dismay, the adviser tells them that they need to save another $300,000 to adequately fund their retirement.  At the rate they are saving that would mean delaying retirement for another 10 years.  Instead, they look at their retirement budget for ways to cut back.

With the kids gone, they have more space than they need, so they sell the house for $250,000, move into a $150,000 condo and pocket the extra $100,000.  With carpooling and soccer games a thing of the past, they trade in their SUVs on two smaller cars (net gain $20,000) and even kick around the idea of sharing a car once neither of them is working.  The smaller house and more fuel-efficient cars also means that they’ll be spending about $500 less each month ($6,000 per year) on taxes, utilities, gas and maintenance.  Assuming a 4 percent withdrawal rate, that $6,000 annual savings means that they can get by with $150,000 less in their nest egg.

The total benefit, then, from cutting back in just those two areas was $270,000 (or 67,500 lattes).  Not bad.  They still have $30,000 to go, but at the rate they’re saving they should be able to set that aside and still retire next year as planned.

[Note: To consider ways to trim your own budget, you can download a free retirement budget worksheet at www.intentionalretirement.com/budget.]

Retire Debt

Another way to increase retirement security and perhaps even retire sooner than expected is to eliminate debt.  It used to be common for people to enter retirement with little or no debt.  Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.  According to a recent study by the Employee Benefits Research Institute, 65 percent of American families with a head of household age 65-74 had debt.  The age group with one of the biggest spikes in debt was 75 and older.

Not surprisingly, debt makes it harder to fund your retirement.  It cuts into your cash flow and increases the risk that you will run out of money.  Again, let’s assume that you can draw 4 percent per year from your assets during retirement.  That means that for every $1,000 in annual income that you want during retirement, you’ll need $25,000 in savings.

Look at your current budget.  How much do you spend each year on debt payments (e.g. mortgage, car, credit cards)?  Multiply that number by 25.  How much is it?  $250,000?  $500,000?  More?  That’s how much you’ll need to save in order to service that same amount of debt in retirement.  As you can see, retiring will be much easier if you retire your debt first.

So as you plan, don’t think of retirement as a particular age or work status.  Think of it as the time in your life when you can afford to pay your bills through means other than your job (e.g. personal savings, pension, Social Security).

When you look at it that way, it becomes clear that you can reach your retirement goals from two different directions.  “Save more for retirement” is certainly one way, but “spend less in retirement” can be just as effective.

~ Joe

Note: I first published this article in the Omaha World Herald.
Financial Checkup Checklist

Financial Checkup Checklist

Just like it’s a good idea to get a health checkup every year, it’s a good idea to get a financial checkup as well.  Doing so can help you detect problems early (while they’re still treatable) and will also help you gauge your progress and make sure you’re on track for a healthy retirement.

To help, I put together this Financial Checkup Checklist with areas that you should be reviewing.  Go through it and then touch base with me if you have any questions or there’s anything I can help you with.  Have a great week!

~ Joe

 

7 retirement resolutions for 2013

7 retirement resolutions for 2013

Well, another year is in the history books.  Where does the time go?  It seems like just yesterday that I was singing along to Prince’s “Party Like It’s 1999” and worrying that my coffee machine was going to be a victim of Y2K and here we are a “Baker’s Decade” into the new millennium.

As the years go by, I, along with millions of others, find the idea of retirement morphing from a vague concept to an impending reality.  The signs are subtle at first.  An AARP magazine in the mailbox.  A “take this job and shove it” daydream at work.  A lingering glance at the orange and red sections of the USA Today weather map.   If retirement looms large on your horizon, then there’s no time to waste.  Below are 7 resolutions for the New Year to make sure that your planning is on track.

Recalibrate after the “Fiscal Cliff.”  As the dust settles in Washington, there are several variables in your retirement plan that you may want to review.  In particular, any changes in your tax bill can affect everything from your planned retirement date to your distribution strategy.  Entitlement reform was delayed (color me surprised!), but any eventual changes to Medicare and Social Security will also affect your retirement.  Schedule a meeting with your adviser to factor in these new variables and make sure that your plans are still realistic.

Increase your contributions.  Are you getting a raise in 2013?  Sure you could use that to upgrade your iPad or buy tickets to the soon to be announced Rolling Stones tour, but a third option would be to route that extra cash into your retirement accounts.  Contribution limits for 2013 are increasing to $5,500 (plus an additional $1,000 for those over 50) for IRAs and $17,500 (plus an additional $5,500 for those over 50) for 401(k)s.

Create a debt payoff plan.  If you subscribe to the 4 percent withdrawal rule, then for every $1,000 in income you need to generate during retirement, you’ll need $25,000 in assets.  Doing some simple arithmetic, it’s easy to see that retiring with a mortgage, car payment or other debts can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to your “Number.”  Reduce that burden by committing to a plan to retire debt free.

Get on the same page with your spouse.  Try this experiment.  At the dinner table tonight say “I can’t wait to retire in 2016 so we can move to San Carlos, Uruguay and I can realize my dream of becoming a real life gaucho.”  The response that you get will show you how important it is to be on the same page with your spouse when it comes to your retirement planning.  Now that the conversation is going, spend some time talking through your hopes, dreams and plans so that you can iron out any differences and compromise on a plan.

Take a mini-retirement.  You wouldn’t want to get all the way to Uruguay only to second guess the whole gaucho thing.  As you get closer to retirement, you should start using whatever vacation and sick time you have to test drive your plans.  A mini-retirement is a great way to learn more about a place or to experiment with your retirement budget.  Use what you learn to refine and improve your plans.

Set aside your first year of expenses.  In case you hadn’t noticed, the financial markets have been a bit—what’s the word?—schizophrenic the past decade or so.  If retirement is just around the corner, you run the risk of having to withdraw money from your nest egg at a time when your investments are performing poorly.  Experts refer to this as sequence risk.  To avoid that problem, set aside one year of your retirement expenses in cash.  If the markets are doing well, you can draw income from your investments.  If markets are doing poorly, you can draw from your cash and give your investments a chance to recover.

Update your estate plan.  Estate and gift taxes were scheduled to change drastically in 2013, but got a last minute reprieve with the deal in Congress.  The estate tax rate increased to 40 percent from 35 percent, but other than that, most existing estate tax rules were made permanent.  Work closely with your attorney and financial adviser to make sure that your plan is up to date and designed to minimize taxes.  Also be sure to have a strategy in place to cover any potential liability (e.g. life insurance) and make sure that your beneficiary designations and powers of attorney are up-to-date and reflect your wishes.

That list of resolutions makes me long for the days of simpler goals like “join a gym” or “quit smoking.”  But hey, no one said retirement was going to be easy.  If it was, the world would have more gauchos.

I originally published this article at www.marketwatch.com.  Photo by Sacha Fernandez.  Used under Creative Commons License.