Am I on track for retirement?
It’s a simple question. But to answer it accurately and make sure you don’t outlive your money, you need powerful data and high-level math. And, even then, a leap of faith.
Online retirement calculators usually make just enough assumptions to be dangerous. What if you live 10 years longer than you planned for? What if the market tanks? What if you need astronomically expensive round-the-clock health care?
The answer you typically get from financial advisers is to save as much as possible, or way more than you could ever spend, and hope for the best. The result is workers scared to retire and retirees terrified to spend a dime on anything fun or frivolous.
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Now comes United Income, a new money manager backed by some of the biggest names in retirement, pitching big data as a solution. It’s deploying huge sets of stats on investment performance, retiree spending, longevity, and other crucial factors to simulate innumerable outcomes. The software estimates the chances that each client’s personalized retirement strategy will actually succeed, then refines the plan if it won’t, based on as many as 18 million simulations per client, UI said. The aim is to make retirees’ money go a lot further than other planning software, which Matt Fellowes, the founder and chief executive officer, scorns as hopelessly out of date.
“We’ve invented a new approach to money management,” Fellowes said in an interview.
That may sound familiar, but Fellowes, 42, has some street cred. A member of the family that owns Fellowes Brands, a 100-year-old conglomerate, he’s a former Brookings Institution scholar. In 2009, he started HelloWallet, which companies hire to give financial help to employees. Morningstar Inc. acquired it in 2014 for $52.5 million, and Fellowes became the investment research giant’s chief innovation officer. Now, Morningstar is helping to back United Income, with more than a third of the $5.8 million raised so far. The new firm officially opens to investors today.
“It’s a bet on Matt, and that he can build an exceptional team to tackle a really difficult investor problem,” said Joe Mansueto, Morningstar’s founder and chairman. “It’s a business opportunity, but it’s also a way to improve the retirement of millions of Americans.”
Basic retirement calculators just do math, estimating how money might grow over time. The more sophisticated calculators use historical market data to game out the best-and worst-case scenarios for investment performance.
United Income does that, too, but Fellowes stresses the many “future life outcomes” it models. By focusing on investing, he argues, other firms ignore the two most important questions in retirement: When are you going to die, and how much are you going to spend before you do?
Man heading into the future (Image: Thinkstock)
To get the answers, United Income, whose 18 full-time employees are based in Washington, D.C., got advice from prominent people in policy and investing circles. J. Mark Iwry, a key architect of retirement policy in the Obama administration, is listed as an adviser, along with Stephen Utkus, director of Vanguard Group’s Center for Investor Research; John Wider, a former president and CEO of AARP Services, a wing of the retiree organization; and several other former government officials.
Health, exercise, and, increasingly, education and socioeconomic status can help predict how long we live. Even as the average American’s longevity has stalled, there are affluent, well-educated fitness freaks who should probably plan on hitting 100. United Income asks clients about these factors and then uses detailed actuarial tables to estimate longevity. It does the same for spending, tapping government data to plot out how people might actually consume over the course of their retirements.
“Everybody’s spending curve is different,” Fellowes said. Spending on essentials tends to stay the same throughout retirement and may even decline—for example, if retirees pay off their mortgages. But discretionary spending, such as tourism, tends to spike at the beginning of retirement. Health care spending, though essential, is usually concentrated at the end. Your spending pattern is further affected by your marital status, financial situation, health, and other factors.
United Income crunches all these data and makes recommendations. It gives advice on the best times to take Social Security payouts and make taxable retirement account withdrawals, and builds and manages custom investment portfolios using low-cost exchange-traded funds. The key to making nest eggs go further, Fellowes said, is an automated, sophisticated investing strategy based on each client’s estimated requirements.
For example, your essentials, such as utilities, groceries, and mortgage payments, must be covered with ultra-safe sources of income such as Social Security, pension payments, annuities, or conservative, bond-heavy investments. That lets you take more risk, and in theory get higher returns, with money you’ve set aside for other goals, which clients can customize. Money for an around-the-world trip might go in an aggressively risky, equity-heavy portfolio. The strategy for a granddaughter’s college fund will depend on how soon the girl graduates from high school. Money for major health care expenses, which often occur later in retirement, can start out in risky investments and move to safer ones over time.