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Wells Fargo’s Wimbish: Navigating the 30-Year Retirement

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“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” is how Benjamin Franklin memorably put one of life’s key challenges.

That idea takes on enormous significance over two centuries after the quote attributed to our founding father at a time when some 10,000 Americans each day are entering a life phase — the 30-year retirement — that didn’t exist in Colonial America, or even the America of just a generation ago.

And that’s where Karen Wimbish comes in.

As director of retail retirement for one of the largest financial institutions in the country, Wimbish’s evident passion for planning — which came through in an interview with ThinkAdvisor in her executive suite at the Wells Fargo Center in Charlotte, North Carolina — has some impact on Americans’ finances.

After all, Wells Fargo serves one in three American households, through its banking, consumer credit, advisory and other financial services.

And the message Wimbish wants to convey to her firm’s more than 15,000 financial advisors who manage over $1.4 trillion in assets is that “having a plan makes you feel better; knowing is power.”

For advisors, that means “you can develop some kind of plan for their future; not just to retirement, but through retirement.”

To that end, Wimbish has sought to build on her firm’s service-marked Envision planning process, which advisors use with accumulation-phase clients to prioritize their goals, identifying their Plan A preferences and Plan B acceptable outcomes if their investment targets or other assumptions don’t pan out.

The result, after a beta testing over the past year, was the unveiling this month of Wells’ Income Center, whose goal is to answer retiring clients’ question, as Wimbish puts it:

“Where is my paycheck going to come from — how much from Social Security, how much from traditional portfolio interest and dividends, and how much will have to come every year from sales of my portfolio?”

That last part of the question generated gasps in the firm’s past year’s trial run. Turns out that clients theoretically understand as they’re nearing retirement that there will be a process of portfolio drawdowns, Wimbish says.

But when advisors show them that each year they will be selling X amount, quite a number of clients exhibit profound discomfort with the idea and spontaneously suggest reducing their spending goals so as to limit the apparent depletion of their accumulated wealth.

“It’s [clients’ reaction] behavioral finance, and nervousness” that she suggests is still deeply felt after the experience of the 2007-2009 market crash.

“People are still very, very wounded from that period, and if you think about people in their 50s who may have lost their home, their job, and a segment of their savings, they’re in the market but they’re not confident in the market. They are very cautious and I would say uncomfortable about the fact that that’s where they have to be.”

That gloomy sentiment is not merely impressionistic, but rather the result of data from an investor and retirement optimism survey Wells Fargo puts out quarterly with Gallup.

While the third-quarter results showed the optimism index at its highest point in just under seven years, having surged 17 points from an index value of 29 to 46, the current optimism is well below the pre-2008 12-year average of just under 100.

Sentiment among retired investors was markedly worse (index value of 30) than non-retired investors (50) among the more than 1,000 investors surveyed.

“They’re saying that the nest egg they were counting on is not going to come back in the time I need it to,” says Wimbish, who adds that while Americans perceive that the economy as a whole is doing better, respondents took a dim view of their own finances.

A majority (56%) of non-retired investors with less than $100,000 invested, for example, feel that their incomes have peaked. They think they’ll be in “the same or worse” condition at retirement.

The sentiment is worse for wealthier Americans with more than $100,000 invested, 61% of whom feel they have “hit the wall on income growth” and will never achieve greater earnings.

Perhaps most alarming to Wimbish is that nearly half (46%) of those surveyed are worried about outliving their savings. The implication, she says, is that a retiree would then become entirely dependent on Social Security.

“If you run out of savings, you’d be at the poverty level,” she intones gravely.

And that brings us back to the subject of planning.

There are two big factors affecting one’s retirement income, she says. One is the sequence of market returns in the five years following one’s retirement. Investors have no control over that (though she points out the extreme utility of having an emergency source of cash to ride out a bad market rather than deplete a shrinking portfolio).

The other is how much a retiree spends.

And the nature of that challenge is completely new, “TBD,” as she puts it, since the boomer Wells exec says “our [generation’s] parents retired at 65 and died at 75,” whereas retirees today are asking “What the heck do I do for 30 years?”

Some people come to find they can’t handle all the golf, dining and travel they long dreamed off, citing one acquaintance who, after three years of that lifestyle, returned to professional life and today is working harder than ever.

“Having been there, I don’t crave this thing called retirement; it’s not terribly fulfilling,” she quotes him as saying.

Wimbish foresees that many Americans will similarly “treat early retirement as a sabbatical, come back renewed and do something different.”

For her part, Wimbish, who now has a granddaughter, is not ready to give up her professional life’s work, helping others prepare for retirement.

“I’ll know I’m getting there when I start thinking about it, ‘What is my day going be like [in retirement]? Is it volunteering? Is it teaching? We could do so much for our education system if we retired and went into teaching.”

In the meantime, Wimbish is actively engaged in teaching her granddaughter something she feels is generally absent from the American scene: financial literacy. Under Wimbish’s tutelage, her granddaughter maintains three envelopes — one for saving, one for giving and one for spending.

That turns a trip to the mall into a teaching moment where, rather than feel pressured to buy her something, Wimbish can instead ask: Do you have the money for that? Do you need that?

The Wells exec cites a formative early-life experience when her husband lost his job and she was raising the kids and not working professionally.

The then-young couple managed through the difficulty, but laments that today’s boomer “helicopter parents would all rush in to help our kids. And we’ve raised our children to expect it. We have done a disservice to our children around issues of financial independence and being good managers around money and thinking of ermergency reserves,” she says.

Wimbish expects that millennials, like their Great Depression-era grandparents and great-grandparents, having seen parents lose homes and savings, will likely behave cautiously with their wealth.

As for today’s retiring boomers, facing an unprecedented 30 years of life beyond their primary careers, she says:

“I hope they give of their time, knowledge and service to [their] community.”

— Check out Investors More Confident but See Stagnation Ahead on ThinkAdvisor.