How to keep your retirement plans on track despite the volatility

How to keep your retirement plans on track despite the volatility

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.

~ Joe

3 ways to protect your nest egg and prepare for the coming volatility

3 ways to protect your nest egg and prepare for the coming volatility

Last week we got a taste of something that we haven’t experienced in awhile: Volatility. A wave of anxiety swept through the markets, pushing the Dow into negative territory for the year and handing the S&P 500 its worst week in two years.

What is causing the selling? There are plenty of headlines to choose from. Argentina is close to (another) default. Israel and Hamas are fighting in Gaza. Tensions in Ukraine have continued to worsen. The economy in Europe is sluggish. Banking issues are percolating again in Portugal. And above all of these, it seems, is the fear that the Fed will soon reverse course and begin to raise interest rates.

I have no idea if this is the beginning of a broader selloff or just a temporary breather before markets quickly resume their march higher. One thing I do know, however, is that markets have had five years of uninterrupted gains. Anytime that happens, it’s easy to become complacent with your investment portfolio and that complacency can be a very dangerous thing when you’re close to (or in) retirement.

With that in mind, let’s pretend that the recent volatility is a canary in the coalmine, warning us of a major pullback. What can you do to protect your nest egg?

Reflect

As I said earlier, after 5 years of gains it’s easy to become complacent and just assume that the path of least resistance is higher. If history is any guide, however, we’re long overdue for a correction. How would your portfolio fare if the markets dropped 10%? How about 20%? Or what if we have a repeat of 2008 and they dropped nearly 40%. Would that affect your plans for retirement? If so, some changes may be in order.

Rebalance

Stock and bond markets rarely move in lockstep. Sometimes stocks outperform. Sometimes bonds. One consequence of this is that, left untouched, your portfolio will gradually get out of balance. The longer this imbalance is allowed to persist, the worse it gets. Take a look at the percentage of your portfolio that you have allocated to stocks and bonds. If the relative outperformance in stocks has resulted in that balance being skewed toward stocks, you should consider rebalancing back to your intended allocation.

Reallocate

Of course rebalancing will just get you back to your prior allocation. It’s probably worth asking if that prior allocation is still appropriate for your current circumstances. You’re five years closer to retirement than you were in 2008. A major downturn now might actually derail your plans rather than just causing a bit of anxiety. Rather than rebalancing to a prior allocation, it might be more appropriate to change your allocation altogether. If you’re really close to retirement, you might also consider setting aside a year or two of your expenses in cash so that you can minimize any potential sequence risk (the risk that you will experience negative returns early in retirement).

Those are just a few proactive ways to deal with the inevitable volatility that is part and parcel of our financial markets. For other ideas on how to keep your plans on track you can read this: Anxious? Focus on what you can control.

Next up: I’ve been getting a lot of questions about bonds lately. What if the Fed starts raising rates? How much of my portfolio should be allocated to bonds? What types of bonds are most impacted by rising rates? I’ll dig into those questions and more in my next post.

Have a great week.

Joe

Two things on a crash course for your retirement.

Two things on a crash course for your retirement.

As we go through life, there seems to be a natural progression.  When we’re young, we tend to be hungry and passionate.  We have a fire in our belly.  We’re willing to take risks and blaze new trails.

We accept things like moving, changing jobs and making new friends as a common part of life.  We’re ok living in a humble apartment filled with less than desirable roommates and hand me down furniture.  We’re ok driving a sketchy car.

In short, we’re comfortable with discomfort.  Partly because we don’t know any better, but mostly because we know that the discomfort is a necessary stepping-stone on the way to something better.

Then a funny thing happens as we get older.  We get a better job with a better income.  We upgrade our house.  Buy a better car.  We get the kids into private school and take on a whole mess of responsibilities.  As this happens we get less willing to rock the boat.  Less willing to take a risk.  We’re more willing to compromise and less willing to change because along with change comes stress, uncertainty and, most of all, discomfort.

Then retirement comes.  The retirement that most of us imagine requires significant life change.  We’re leaving our job.  A move may be involved.  We’re doing new things.  Trying new experiences.  Saying goodbye to some people and meeting new ones.  Saying no instead of yes.  Saying yes instead of no.  Doing those things can be intimidating and scary.  They require a certain level of discomfort.

Unfortunately, we’re at that phase in life where we’re not very comfortable with being uncomfortable.  The obvious risk is that we will decide to downsize, delay or even discard our dreams for retirement.  Just as we’re ready to “sail, dream and discover” we decide to keep our ship at anchor instead.

I’ve seen this phenomenon many times as I help people transition into retirement.  I even see the seeds of it starting to germinate in my own life.  The risk is real.  So don’t get too comfortable.  Stay curious and open to new things.  Be ready to steer off the well-worn path of the familiar and onto the road less taken.  Remember that retirement doesn’t need to wait until some far off date.  Each of us can start today.

~ Joe

Photo by a200/a77Wells.  Used under Creative Commons License.
Contentment demands little

Contentment demands little

I recently had a friend who quit his job after working there for almost 20 years.  When I asked him why he said, “I had just gotten too comfortable.”

Too comfortable?!  Is there such a thing?  After all, isn’t that what we’re all striving for?  What’s wrong with being too comfortable?

As I thought about it, I think I caught his meaning.  For him, comfort had become risky because:

  • It was sapping his drive and motivation
  • It was keeping him from taking risks
  • It was making him lazy and fearful of change
  • It was causing him to give up on certain dreams

He had a stable income and a warm bed, but he was starting to feel stuck and stagnate.  He was comfortable, but he wasn’t feeling particularly fulfilled.  Not only that, but he was afraid to do anything about it for fear that things would get uncomfortable.

Have you ever felt that way?  I have.  Comfort is nice, but it can be dangerous if it leaves you feeling overly content.  That’s because contentment demands little.  It steers you into a rut that can be hard to get out of.

This comfort paradox can be especially worrisome as we get close to retirement.  Why?  Comfort is often a by-product of successful retirement planning (e.g. no job, financial independence, etc.).  In some ways that can be good.  After all, who wants to be worried about where your next meal is going to come from or how you’re going to pay the electric bill.

Unfortunately, it can be bad too.  First of all, retirement is a major transition and transitions can be uncomfortable.  You’re leaving a job and a routine you’ve know for decades.  You’re dealing with unfamiliar things like Medicare and Social Security.  You may be moving to a new house or a new city.  Being too focused on comfort can cause you to make decisions during that transition that favor short-term comfort over long-term good.

Second, retirement is the time to make your plans and dreams a reality.  That means you’ll be doing new things, visiting unfamiliar places and meeting new people.  To make that happen, you can’t be content to sit back and play defense.

In other words, both the transition into retirement and your lifestyle in retirement require you to get out of your comfort zone.  There needs to be a tension between your desire for comfort and your desire to strive for more.  If your primary goal is comfort, don’t expect great things.  If, however, your primary goals are growth, fulfillment and personal satisfaction, then you can expect a remarkable retirement, but you can also expect to be a bit uncomfortable in the process.

~ Joe

Photo by Becky McCray.  Used under Creative Commons License.
My brain made me do it: How to avoid bad investment decisions.

My brain made me do it: How to avoid bad investment decisions.

So far during 2011, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has had moves of 100 points or more on 97 trading days.  That’s 23 more than during all of 2010 and the year isn’t even over yet.  With so much volatility and uncertainty, it would be easy to panic and make decisions you’ll later regret.  Unfortunately, your mind isn’t always wired to help.  In fact, it can actively work against you.  Below are seven cognitive biases that could cause you to make bad investment or retirement planning decisions, as well as suggestions for overcoming them.

Attention bias

This is the tendency for emotionally dominant stimuli to monopolize our attention.  CNBC, I’m looking at you.  Spending too much time watching the ups and downs in the market is likely to fray your nerves and cause you to sell low and buy high.  Remember the words of Warren Buffett: “The market exists to serve you, not instruct you.”

Bandwagon effect

This one is pretty self explanatory and was the primary driver in such spectacular failures as the internet, telecommunication and housing bubbles.  When trades get completely one-sided (gold?), it’s time to ask yourself if you’re just buying or selling because that’s what everyone else is doing.

Action bias

In times of stress or danger, it sometimes makes us feel better to act, even if it would be better for us to sit on our hands.  A great example I heard of this recently relates to soccer.  During a penalty kick the ball is kicked to the center of the net 30 percent of the time, but the goalie only stays put 6 percent of the time because he doesn’t want to look like he’s not trying.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing.

Recency bias

This is our tendency to give more weight to recent events than past events.  The 2008 global financial meltdown is still pretty fresh in everyone’s mind.  Eager to avoid a repeat, many are ready to move to the sidelines at a moments notice.  Keep in mind, though, that during the lifetime of the baby-boomers, the S&P 500 has gone from about 17 to 1,250.  That’s 73 times higher now than when the first baby-boomer was born.  Don’t let the emotion of recent headlines completely overshadow the historical record.

Hyperbolic discounting

This is our tendency for immediate gratification at the expense of the future.  In a nutshell, Current You doesn’t care much for Future You Current You wants to stop making 401(k) contributions and put the money under the mattress so he can sleep better at night.  Future You needs that money saved and invested so he can afford to retire.  If you want Future You to be happy, you need to convince Current You to make some decisions that are uncomfortable.

Negativity bias

This is our tendency to give greater weight to negative information over positive.  Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with the world, but there is a lot that is right.  Pick any vintage from the wine cellar of history and you’re likely to find some sort of man-made or natural disaster.  And yet, the economic and technological progress we’ve made over the last many decades is amazing.  Admittedly, it sometimes feels like a yo-yo, but if you step back you can see that the general progression has been up and to the right.

Illusion of control

Finally, we arrive at our tendency to assume that we have more control over events than we actually do.  None of us can control the debt crisis in Europe, but we can control our personal debt.  We have little influence over Washington’s spending, but we can make sure our own budgets are in order.  Few of us have the ear of the Social Security commissioner, but all of us can make sure that our own retirement investments are allocated properly and that we have a logical distribution strategy.  In short, focus on those things you can control.

Will Rogers once said “It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you.  It’s what you know that isn’t so.”  The way our brains are wired, as well as the ups and downs in the markets during the last few years, have caused many to make regrettable decisions based on “what they know that isn’t so.”  Hopefully understanding your brain’s natural tendencies can help you make better long-term decisions that result in a secure, meaningful retirement.

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoyed this article, scan the “Related Posts” section below for others like it.

Joe

Anxious?  Keep your focus on what you can control.

Anxious? Keep your focus on what you can control.

It’s understandable if you’re feeling a bit anxious. Not only was the U.S. credit rating just downgraded for the first time in history, but over the last few years we’ve had a housing bubble, a credit bubble, runaway government spending, soaring gas prices, a global recession, high unemployment, the risk of a U.S. debt default, and a fiscal crisis in Europe.

Add to that things like the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan or the Arab revolts in the Middle East and you can almost see our national blood pressure rising. This is especially true if you, like 78 million other baby-boomers, are getting close to retiring.

In the face of so much uncertainty, how can you minimize anxiety and head into retirement feeling confident and assured?

Answer: Focus on things you can control.

Legendary basketball coach 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.”

Here’s an exercise that can help keep the focus on things you can actually do something about:

Take out a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. At the top of the left column, write “Things I can control about retirement.” At the top of the right column, write “Things I can’t control about retirement.” Now start filling in each.

You’ll probably notice that the right column is full of the things we mentioned earlier, like the markets, political uncertainty and unemployment.

The left column will be made up of things like saving, reducing debt, creating a retirement budget, evaluating housing options, creating a distribution plan, deciding when to take Social Security, planning meaningful pursuits and completing your estate plan.

As you look at those two columns, ask yourself this question: “During my typical day, do I spend my time and attention focusing more on the left column or the right column?” If you answered the right column, chances are that your stress level is high and your productivity is low. Focusing on things you can’t control is a recipe for frustration.

If you shift your focus to those things in the left hand column, you’ll notice that your productivity will go up and your anxiety will begin to go down. This is especially true in the area of your finances, because that is what is causing most people to lose sleep.

According to a recent poll by Gallup, the No. 1 retirement fear (held by 53 percent of Americans) is not having enough money. Only about a third of people felt that way when Gallup did the same poll in 2002. Thankfully, this is an area that you can actually do something about. Here are eight things you can do to boost your income security.

Save more

One obvious way to pad your nest egg is to save more. 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 2011 is $16,500 plus an additional $5,500 if you’re over 50. IRA contribution limits are $5,000 plus an additional $1,000 if you’re over 50.

That means that a working, married couple could delay retirement by five years and sock away an additional $280,000 simply by maximizing their 401(k) and IRA contributions. The delay also could give markets time to move higher which, when coupled with the new additions to your portfolio, could significantly improve your financial position in retirement.

Pay off debt

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. Assuming a 4 percent withdrawal rate, it takes $25,000 in savings to generate $1,000 in income each year (25 to 1).

That means if you’re mortgage is $1,300 per month and you’re able to pay it off before you retire, you could slash $390,000 from the amount you need to save for retirement.

Work longer

Working longer may not sound fun, but neither is running out of money. If you haven’t saved enough, 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 recover and 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.

If the amount you need to make up is smaller, you also could consider working part-time. This could mean doing a phased retirement with your current employer or choosing something else entirely. Either way, it could give you increased freedom to begin following your retirement dreams while still providing some income.

Cut retirement expenses

If the idea of working longer doesn’t appeal to you, consider retiring on schedule and make up for any shortfall by reducing your 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.

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 percent credit for each year they wait. The increase caps out at age 70, so a person waiting until then could see an increase of 24 percent to their benefits.

Review your asset allocation

The market upheaval of the last several years and investors’ response to that upheaval has wreaked havoc on many people’s asset allocations. Rather than having a balanced, diversified portfolio, many have sought safety by moving everything to cash or bonds. That could cause serious problems in the future if inflation picks up or the bond market stumbles. To protect your assets and maximize your returns over time you should meet with a trusted adviser and make sure the investments you hold are appropriate based on your risk tolerance, goals and time frame.

Protect against sequence risk

Stock and bond returns can be volatile.  Sequence risk is simply the risk that you will retire and begin withdrawing money during a period of low (or negative) investment returns.  Those early negative returns greatly increase your odds of running out of money.

One way to minimize sequence risk is to have a year or two of withdrawals sitting in cash.  If you retire just prior to a bull market, you can pull income from your growing investments.  If you retire on the cusp of a bear market, you can take withdrawals from your cash.  That way you won’t be forced to sell investments in a down market in order to fund retirement and you will be less likely to run out of money.

Draw a greater percentage from your nest egg

Deciding how much to take from your portfolio each year during retirement is one of the most important decisions you will make. You don’t want to run out of money, but you don’t want to live like Scrooge either. Most experts peg the “safe” withdrawal rate at around 4 percent per year. If 4 percent of your nest egg isn’t enough to meet your needs, you can always take more. Keep in mind, however, that the more you take, the greater the chance that you will outlive your assets.

As you can see, by focusing on those things that you can control, you can minimize anxiety and maximize security as you approach retirement. Statistically speaking, the world doesn’t come to an end very often. Rather than worrying about all the things that make headlines, focus instead on giving your very best to those areas that you can do something about.

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoyed this article, use the share buttons on our site to share it with your friends.  Touch base if I can ever help.

Joe

I originally published this article at www.fpanet.org.