The volatility in financial markets in the closing months of 2018 has rightly renewed the vigor with which clients and their advisors are reviewing and benchmarking retirement portfolios.
A market correction should not necessitate a panicked move to scrap the financial plan, move to cash, or to slow retirement savings. In fact, for those systematically saving toward a future goal, this volatility can ultimately be a great ally on the road to accumulation.
(Related: Maximizing the Retirement Paycheck)
Still, many individuals wonder how this accumulation can translate into a stream of predictable income throughout retirement, whatever the state of the markets. “Sustainable” withdrawal rates are a good start, and by using historical data and Monte Carlo testing we can help clients plan for the income that can be generated from a portfolio.
There are some potential issues with the concept of sustainable withdrawal rates, however. Most notably, we must make a planning assumption around the retirement time horizon, and although statistical life expectancies can inform this assumption, we cannot say with any certainty how long an individual client will live.
The dilemma: Assume we planned on a 25-year retirement for our client, Sue.
If Sue ultimately lives only 10 years, our (too conservative) plan forced her to live a less comfortable lifestyle to preserve assets for the later years, but those were not actually needed. Conversely, if Sue lives for 35 years, the probability that she runs out of money compounds because our sustainable withdrawal rate was based on a shorter timeline.
This dilemma highlights two of the challenges that we must address in retirement income planning: longevity and sequence of returns risk.
A white paper by Professor Wade Pfau of the American College examines the efficacy of addressing these risks with a traditional portfolio approach versus a portfolio consisting of investments, life insurance and income annuities. Investments provide necessary liquidity and growth, while the combination of permanent life insurance and income annuities introduces actuarial science to the planning and can lead the individual client portfolio to perform “more like a defined benefit plan,” according to Pfau.