As a crew rearranges Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economist Bill Sharpe’s living room to film a recent interview, Sharpe motions me over to his iMac to show what he’s been working on. He’s trying to solve the retirement income problem at his home in Carmel, California.
In the 1960s, Sharpe rocked the world of finance by bringing order and logic to a business that continues to be driven by emotion and stories. After being invited to sit on a local charitable foundation board, Sharpe listened to a pitch by an investment manager describing the various complex investment strategies the (unfortunate) manager employed in creating the portfolio.
Sharpe asked him if his sophisticated portfolio had outperformed a risk-adjusted market index. The charity switched to index funds.
At 84, Sharpe still comes up with simple truths that can rock even a veteran’s understanding of retirement planning. Consider the popular period-certain option with an income annuity.
According to Sharpe, choosing a 20-year period-certain option is just like having a bond ladder with a deferred annuity tacked on the end. If building a bond ladder for 20 years is cheaper net of fees, just create a bond ladder and buy a deferred annuity. Why didn’t I think of that?
As we sit in front of Sharpe’s computer, he shows me a new program he’s been working on to simulate variable-annuity income streams. Using a random return generator and programming based on the annuity contract features, he simulates what happens to income when market returns rise and fall during retirement. The computer program spits out a series of squiggly lines that represent possible income paths.
The lines are all over the place. Some spike early in retirement and result in a high income that decreases gradually over time with inflation. Some fall flat early in retirement, presumably leaving the simulated retirees with a disappointing lifestyle with fewer vacations and fancy dinners. Each line is a hand that the retiree is dealt when they accept investment risk within the rules of a financial product.
The squiggly lines are Sharpe’s way of visualizing the trade-offs that all retirees face when turning their nest egg into a lifestyle in retirement. All of us want a high and stable income in retirement. But we can’t have both.
We can either have an income that’s low and stable, or an income that’s risky, unstable and possibly higher. Sharpe wants us to understand how to choose the right income path, and which mix of investments and products provides the most optimal results for the amount of risk taken.
Balancing Income and Risk
To Sharpe, the role of a financial advisor is to understand the range of options all clients face in order to build an income that efficiently balances risk and return. The advisor needs to understand these tradeoffs, and he or she needs to be able to explain them to a client. He’s even written a book that’s available on his Stanford website to help advisors “focus more on communicating possible outcomes and helping the clients understand the options.” (To read “Retirement Income Analysis with Scenario Matrices,” go to http://web.stanford.edu/~wfsharpe.)
Many advisors view retirement income through what Sharpe calls the “constant spending” lens of stable spending, using a portfolio of stocks and bonds. How should an advisor judge the efficiency of the conventional “4% rule” approach? The same way we judge all income strategies. How high and how squiggly is the income line?
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Sharpe’s critique of the 4% rule is that the methodology is supposed to safely provide a straight line of after-inflation income using a portfolio of random returns over an unknown lifetime. But when you don’t know what asset returns will look like and how long you’ll live, a retiree has two lifestyle choices: (1) live well and risk running out of money, or (2) be conservative and risk giving too much to your heirs.
If the retiree doesn’t have a strong bequest motive then most of the nest egg should be used to fund spending. A strategy isn’t very efficient if a big chunk of the money ends up unspent.
Running hundreds of simulated retirements with random longevity and asset returns allows Sharpe to calculate the present value of where the money goes. Using a 3% withdrawal rule means that more than 30% of the initial portfolio doesn’t get spent. A 30% portfolio efficiency loss means that a retiree will need to save significantly more money to create a lifestyle. Even a 4% strategy leaves one-sixth of the nest egg unspent.
Why not increase spending to 5%? Raising the income line from 4% to 5% of initial wealth means that a significantly larger percentage of simulations will lead to the client running out of money before they die. Unlike the variable-annuity simulation in which the worst-case scenario is a low lifetime income and real purchasing power that decreases with inflation, an unlucky retiree using a fixed withdrawal rate will see their income line starting high, remaining flat in real terms and ending in complete ruin.
The tradeoff that an advisor needs to help a client understand when deciding on a fixed withdrawal strategy is between running out of money too early and leaving too much on that table. The sudden loss of lifestyle if markets don’t cooperate will lead many to choose a lower withdrawal rate, but the consequence is a loss of efficiency.
Fees and Flexibility
Sharpe doesn’t shy away from the controversial topic of investment management fees. A DIY investor who pays only 10 basis points on index funds will pay the present value equivalent of just 1.3% of their nest egg in fees. At a still modest 100 basis points of total investment expenses, the present value share of a retiree’s nest egg consumed by fees is a whopping 11.3%.
Asset fees of 1% may not sound like much, but it ultimately eats up one-tenth of a retiree’s expected lifestyle. This is an important point to make when comparing the expenses of a fixed withdrawal rate to product strategies.
The good news for the investments-only retirement income approach is that being more flexible about adjusting lifestyle over time in response to market risk can significantly improve efficiency. This makes far more sense than creating a strategy at the beginning of retirement with a 90% probability of success, and then failing to adjust lifestyle downward when the probability of success falls after a bear market.
A flexible strategy assumes that the retiree keeps an eye on performance and expected longevity and adjusts accordingly. Nonetheless, in the absence of sharing mortality risk with other retirees, at least one-fifth of the portfolio will remain unspent.
Like most economists, Sharpe is surprisingly sanguine about the efficiency of income annuities. If you want to minimize the “waste” of unspent retirement funds while protecting against the risk of running out of income, annuities are the best option.
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What may be surprising to some is Sharpe’s interest in the complex mechanics of variable annuities with guaranteed lifetime withdrawal benefits (GLWB). He devotes an entire chapter of his latest book to analyses of these complex and oft-maligned retirement products.
Why should a retiree annuitize? Sharpe provides a simple example using Sue, a healthy 65-year-old retiree. Sue wants to set aside about $10,000 in bonds today to fund $20,000 of spending in 20 years. There’s a 70% chance that Sue will be alive in 20 years.
Why not get together with a large group of other 65-year-old female retirees and pool savings to fund the spending of the 70% who will still be alive in 20 years? Instead of saving $10,000, Sue can save $7,000.
The math gets even more compelling when Sue wants to fund spending in 30 years. Instead of setting aside $7,000 today, she can pool $2,400 with other retirees who collectively have a 34% chance of being alive. It’s a lot cheaper to fund the same income by pooling savings with other retirees and doling it out to whoever is still around in old age.
Despite their theoretical efficiency, Sharpe doesn’t let income annuities off the hook as an ideal source of safe retirement income. While they protect against longevity risk, annuities that provide a fixed nominal income are particularly susceptible to erosion in purchasing power late in retirement. The risk of annuities that are not inflation-protected is the drop in real spending from living too long and/or experiencing an inflationary period such as the late 1970s.