The American Retirement Dream Is Not Dead

American retirees are screwed. The 401(k) experiment has failed. Social Security’s going bust. Savers haven’t saved nearly enough and don’t have the means to improve the situation.

However hyperbolic, this is the message that has been sent and, for many, is indeed the way it feels. But how do the facts feel?

Pension Facts:

  • Many companies have abdicated the role they once played in helping support employees’ retirements through defined benefit pension plans by promoting and then under-supporting defined contribution plans, like the 401(k).
  • Most pensions that remain — even those run by states and municipalities — are “upside down,” lacking sufficient funds to pay what they’ve promised. The entity conceived to insure underfunded pension plans is also underfunded.

401(k) Facts:

  • Some large financial firms have filled many of the 401(k) plans they manage with overpriced, underperforming funds, and offered little in the form of substantive education for the masses now left to their own devices.
  • After a six-year effort to ensure that financial advisors who manage retirement assets would be required to act in the best interests of their clients, there’s a corporate and political movement afoot for firms to reclaim potential lost profits if they were forced to do right by their clients.
  • Even some of the individuals who initially conceived the 401(k) concept and lobbied for it have recanted their support, regretting it ever started.

Social Security Facts:

  • The program intended only to be a safety net has become the primary financial resource in retirement for too many.
  • The surplus funds received when the huge baby boomer generation paid in — which are now being used to help replace the inherent shortfall of smaller generations — are projected to run out in 2034, thereby reducing the system’s ability to pay benefits by 25 percent.

There — how does that feel, now?

American Pension Crisis: How We Got Here

Originally in ForbesMy adopted home of Charleston might have been ranked the “Best City in the World,” but the state of South Carolina is earning a less distinguished label as a harbinger of the country’s worst pension crises. And yes, that’s crises—plural—because U.S. state and local government pensions have “unfunded liabilities” estimated at more than $5 trillion and funding ratios of just 39%.

What does that mean, exactly?

When a company or government pledges to pay its long-term employees a portion of their salary in retirement—a pension—the entity estimates how much it (and its employees) will need to set aside in order to make those payments in the future. An underfunded pension is one that simply doesn’t have sufficient funds to make its promised future payments.

Corporate pensions in the United States are in trouble, with the top 25 underfunded plans in the S&P 500 alone accounting for more than $225 billion in underfunding at the end of 2015. But states and municipalities are in even worse shape. This week, the Charleston-based Post and Courier estimated that South Carolina’s shortfall alone was at $24.1 billion, more than triple the state’s annual budget!

How did we get here?

There are two glaring reasons: poor investment decisions and greedy assumptions.

Is Your Attitude Toward Work Killing Your Retirement Dreams?

Originally in ForbesDo you have a generally positive or negative impression of the word “retirement”?

I ask because it dovetails nicely with a series of questions (inspired by Rick Kahler) that I use to begin most speaking engagements. These questions are designed to incite self-awareness, offering us clues about how our life experiences have shaped the (often unarticulated but powerful) beliefs that unavoidably influence the decisions we make with and for money.

Work or retire as a concept of a difficult decision time for working or retirement as a cross roads and road sign with arrows showing a fork in the road representing the concept of direction when facing a challenging life choice.

Regardless of an audience’s homogeneity, their responses are consistently inconsistent. I have, however, seen some generational persistency on the topic of retirement. For example, on average, baby boomers have a generally positive view of retirement—no doubt shaped in part by the incessant financial services commercials that promise a utopian post-career existence with beaches, sailboats, golf and an unlimited supply of vintage Pinot Noir.

On the other hand, the finance and accounting students that I had the privilege of teaching at Towson University—almost all members of the Millennial generation—had a generally negative view of the notion of retirement. This is for two prominent reasons:

  1. They pictured hot, humid, early buffet dinners in rural Florida.
  2. They don’t think that the American dream of retirement is available to them.

Save Social Security For When You Need It Most–Later

Originally published CNBCI think we’ve been looking at Social Security retirement benefits all wrong. In the long-running debate about when to take Social Security — as early as age 62 or as late as age 70 — the focus has been on timing your claim to get the most money, in total, out of the social safety net.

Social Security Word Cloud

This is a circular argument that will never be fully decided until the Social Security recipient in question dies. So let’s shift the focus from the question “How do we get the most out of Social Security?” to “How do we get Social Security when we need it most?”

Simply put, you’re more likely to run out of money at the end of retirement than at the beginning.

Congress Eliminates Two Popular (and Profitable) Social Security Claiming Strategies

The Bad News & The Good News

Originally published CNBCLast week, the world of retirement planning experienced the financial equivalent of a deafening record scratch, courtesy of a Congressional move to end two well-used Social Security claiming strategies. In a matter of months, “File-and-Suspend” and “Restricted Application,” which were on the verge of retirement planning rock-star status, will only be referred to in the past tense.

Social Security Claim Denied Stamp Shows Social Unemployment Benefit Refused

“File-and-Suspend” and “Restricted Application” — let’s just call them “FASRA,” because it’s not like there aren’t already enough government-related acronyms — were, Congress argues, unintended consequences of the Senior Citizens Freedom to Work Act.

The Top 10 Places Your Next Dollar Should Go

Originally in ForbesThere is no shortage of receptacles clamoring for your money each day. No matter how much money you have or make, it could never keep up with all the seemingly urgent invitations to part with it.

TOP 10 DOLLAR

Separating true financial priorities from flash impulses is an increasing challenge, even when you’re trying to do the right thing with your moola — like saving for the future, insuring against catastrophic risks and otherwise improving your financial standing. And while every individual and household is in some way unique, the following list of financial priorities for your next available dollar is a reliable guide for most.

Once you’ve spent the money necessary to cover your fixed and variable living expenses (and yes, I realize that’s no easy task for many) consider spending your additional dollars in this order: 

Pogo Stick Retirement Planning for Younger Generations

Originally in ForbesHistorically, retirement planning has been likened to a three-legged stool — consisting of a corporate pension, Social Security and personal savings. Baby boomers saw the pension fade from existence, leaving them to balance on retirement planning stilts. For younger generations, however, the retirement situation can seem even worse. Sometimes, it feels like it’s all on us. We’re left with only a retirement planning pogo stick.

three legged stool

Further complicating matters, doctors suggest that the length of life Generations X, Y and Millennials can expect may exceed that of our parents and grandparents. We’re likely to live a long time, but our quality of life — to the degree that it is improved by cash flow — is in question because of the heightened savings burden.

Last week, I shared two “silver bullets” — MOVE and WORK— for hopeful boomer retirees who may fear that a 14-year stretch of economic uncertainty has put their goal for a comfortable retirement out of reach. Here’s how these two concepts can be applied to younger generations:

Is A Million Bucks Enough To Retire?

Originally in Forbes“Wow, those guys must be millionaires!” I can recall uttering those words as a child, driving by the nicest house in our neighborhood—you know, the one with four garage bays filled with cars from Europe.

The innocent presumption, of course, was that our neighbors’ visible affluence was an expression of apparent financial independence, and that $1 million would certainly be enough to qualify as Enough.

Now, as an adult—and especially as a financial planner—I’m more aware of a few million-dollar realities:

Retirement Stress Test Graphic - v3-01

1)   Visible affluence doesn’t necessarily equate to actual wealth.  Thomas Stanley and William Danko, in their fascinating behavioral finance book, The Millionaire Next Door, surprised many of us with their research suggesting that visible affluence may actually be a sign of lesser net worth, with the average American millionaire exhibiting surprisingly few outward displays of wealth. Big hat, no cattle.

2)   A million dollars ain’t what it used to be. In 1984, a million bucks would have felt like about $2.4 million in today’s dollars. But while it’s quite possible that our neighbors were genuinely wealthy—financially independent, even—I doubt they had just barely crossed the seven-digit threshold, comfortably maintaining their apparent standard of living. To do so comfortably would likely take more than a million, even in the ’80s.

3)   Wealth is one of the most relative, misused terms in the world.  Relatively speaking, if you’re reading this article, you’re already among the world’s most wealthy, simply because you have a device capable of reading it. Most of the world’s inhabitants don’t have a car, much less two. But even among those blessed to have enough money to require help managing it, I have clients who are comfortably retired on half a million and millionaires who need to quadruple their nest egg in order to retire with their current standard of living.

The teacher couple, trained by reality to live frugally most of their lives, don’t even dip into their $400,000 retirement nest egg or their $250,000 home equity because they have two pensions and Social Security that more than covers their income needs.  Their retirement savings is just a bonus.

But the lawyer couple, trained by reality to live a more visibly wealthy existence, aren’t even close to retiring with their million-dollar retirement savings. In order to be comfortable, they’ll need to have at least $4 million.

A million bucks, then, may be more than enough for some and woefully insufficient for others.

Study Reveals Investing Is Hazardous To Your Health

Investing Hazard-01I don’t need to inform you that investing is dangerous business.  You already know in your gut what Joseph Engelberg and Christopher Parsons at U.C. San Diego found in their new study, that there is a noticeable correlation between market gyrations and our mental and physical health.

But when do you think the financial industry will get the point?

Shortly after I became a financial advisor, I was given a book to commit to memory.  It told me what my role in life would be: To make a very good living helping approximately 250 families stay in the stock market.

The text insisted that regardless of my client’s age or risk temperament, it would be in their best interest to be—and stay—in stocks, exclusively and forevermore.  I was the doctor; they were the patients.  I was the ark-builder; they were the—you get the point.

The book might even be right.

But…

The Behavior Gap

My friend and New York Times contributor, Carl Richards, has been drawing a particular picture for years.  He’s struck by the research acknowledging the noticeable difference between investment rates of return and what investors actually make in the markets.  (Investors make materially less.)

Investors, it appears, allow emotions to drive their investing decisions.  A desire to make more money causes them to choose aggressive portfolios when times are good, but a gripping fear leads them to abandon the cause in down markets, missing the next upward cycle.

Investors buy high and sell low.

Well-meaning advisors, then, including the author of the book I referenced, have claimed their collective calling to be the buffer between their clients’ money and their emotions.  Unfortunately, it’s not working.

Maybe it’s because the intangible elements of life are so tightly woven into the tangible that we can’t optimally segregate them.

Maybe it’s because we’re not actually supposed to forcibly detach our emotions from our rational thought.

Maybe it’s because financial advisors and investing gurus should focus less on blowing the doors off the benchmark du jour and more on generating solid long-term gains from portfolios designed to be lived with.

Livable portfolios.

Portfolios designed to help clients stay in the game.

Portfolios designed to help clients (and advisors) avoid falling prey to the behavior gap.

Portfolios calibrated with a higher emphasis on capital preservation.

How much less money do you make, anyway, when you dial up a portfolio’s conservatism?

The Same Return With Less Risk

In his book, How to Think, Act, and Invest Like Warren Buffett, index-investing aficionado, Larry Swedroe, writes, “Instead of trying to increase returns without proportionally increasing risk, we can try to achieve the same return while lowering the risk of the portfolio.”

Using indexing data from 1975 to 2011, Swedroe begins with a standard 60/40 model—60% S&P 500 Index and 40% Five-Year Treasury Notes.  It has an annualized rate of return of 10.6% over that stretch and a standard deviation (a measurement of volatility—portfolio ups and downs.) of 10.8%.

Next, Swedroe begins stealing from the S&P 500 slice of the pie to diversify the portfolio with a bias toward small cap, value and international exposure (with a pinch of commodities).  The annualized return is boosted to 12.1% while the standard deviation rises proportionately less, to 11.2%.  (Remember, this is still a 60/40 portfolio with 40% in five-year treasuries.)

But here’s where Swedroe pulls the rabbit out of the hat:  He re-engineers the portfolio, flipping to a 40/60 portfolio, proportionately reducing all of his equity allocations and boosting his T-notes to 60% of the portfolio.  The net result is a portfolio with a 10.9% annualized rate of return—slightly higher than the original 60/40 portfolio—with a drastically lower standard deviation of 7.9%

Same return.  Less Risk.

This, of course, is all hypothetical.  This happened in the past, and for many reasons, it may not happen again.  These illustrations are not a recommended course of action for you or your advisor, but instead a demonstration that it is possible—and worth the effort—to work to this end.

Because we can’t keep hiding from the following logical thread:

1)   Volatile markets increase investor stress (even to the point of physical illness).

2)   Heightened investor stress leads to bad decisions—by both investors and advisors—that reduce investor returns.

3)   Market analysis suggests that portfolios can be engineered to maintain healthy long-term gains, while at the same time dramatically reducing the intensity of market gyrations.

How could we not, then, conclude that more investors would suffer less stress, thereby reducing (hopefully eliminating) their behavior gap, thereby allowing investors to hold on to more of their returns?

Isn’t that the point?

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Retire Like These Guys…Not These Guys

Executive Summary2While most of the commentary these days regarding retirement is about the math and “science” of cash flow and portfolio management, there is also an art to retiring well.  Making a graceful transition from the vocation that marks your life into whatever follows helps form your legacy—for better and worse.

Led Zeppelin was the best rock band of all time—at least in their time, and for many of us, still. Jimmy Page was the musical mastermind behind this super-group of savants, but it’s hard to imagine that they could’ve reached legendary status without Robert Plant.  Every generation since has attempted to replicate Plant’s voice and stage presence.  Although the band’s retirement was unplanned after drummer John Bonham’s death in 1980, Plant and Page’s work since is a fascinating case study in retirement.

Retire like Robert Plant…not like Jimmy Page

pageplantRobert Plant has explored, experimented and remade himself several times since retiring from Led Zeppelin.  As I write, I’m listening to one of my favorite albums, Raising Sand, a Grammy-award winning collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, a legend herself in the realm of bluegrass.

Maybe since it was his baby, Jimmy Page has struggled to ever let go of Zeppelin, a fact that was evident in his 2012 Rolling Stone interview.  He’s struggled to retire well.  He seems to have lived between a handful of attempted (and certifiably mediocre) Led Zeppelin reunion gigs, and implies Robert Plant is at fault for resisting a full-out remarriage.

It’s not easy to retire from the best gig you’ve ever had, but unwillingness to acknowledge that it’s over can be even more painful.  Loosening your grip on the past, however, can free you up for a fulfilling and rewarding second act.

Retire like Michael Strahan…not like Brett Favre

07-1t107-kelly-300x450I had to recuse myself from using my beloved Ravens’ Ray Lewis as the favorable example in this gridiron comparison to preserve objectivity, but objectively speaking, Michael Strahan’s exit from the winning New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII may indeed be a better example of one of the very few NFL players who managed to truly go out on top.  Strahan capitalized on the Giant’s surprise win over the New England Patriots to position himself for a second and third career that now pits him against the less-than-menacing Kelly Ripa.

Brett Favre, on the other hand, who was the most exciting quarterback of a generation, couldn’t let go.  He leads the NFL in retirement threats, retirements and comebacks, finally ending his career in a concussive fog as a Minnesota Viking.  Favre wisely turned down a request from the St. Louis Rams just this week to replace injured Sam Bradford, citing his many concussions and subsequent memory loss.  He can only hope to forget the sexting scandal that marred his good-old-boy reputation at the end of his career.

When you excel at your craft and you’re competitive, it’s hard to let go, but holding on too long can destroy your reputation, damage your legacy and hamstring the team you leave behind.

Retire like Sallie Krawcheck…not like John Thain

Sallie Krawcheck’s retirement was involuntary—she was fired from her position at Bank of America—but she still managed to do it gracefully.  Krawcheck is the former lots-of-things Wall Street, having been at the helm of major divisions at Citi and more recently Bank of America, as the head of Global Wealth and Investment Management (including Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust).  But she doesn’t talk or act like most Wall Street execs, and not just because she’s a woman.  She’s taken surprisingly principled stances on conflicts of interest, like the “cross-selling” mandate pushing Merrill brokers to sell banking products, and the touchy topic of regulatory reform within the industry.   While maintaining her principles may have led (in part) to her forced departure from Wall Street, in retirement her striking combination of competency and transparency have earned her respect that few of her scandal-ridden colleagues enjoy.

John Thain has handled himself, well, differently.  He’s the former Merrill Lynch head who infamously gave his office a $1.22 million dollar upgrade and paid out billions in bonuses to country club cronies as the American financial system came crashing down.  Even the financial industry couldn’t stomach him and he was “tossed out on his ear” by then CEO of Bank of America, Ken Lewis.  Thain is Wall Street excess personified and an easy target for the 99%, but don’t feel too bad for him; while he may have traded a $35,000 in-office toilet for “plastic and Formica,” he’s back on the scene with the $2 billion bailout beneficiary, CIT.

It’s much better to make a graceful early departure than to be thrown out in disgrace.

Three Keys To A Successful Retirement

What retirement lessons do Robert Plant, Michael Strahan and Sallie Krawchek teach us?  Three keys to a successful retirement are to know when to leave, leave well and retire to something meaningful.  You don’t have to be a rock star, a professional athlete or Wall Street royalty to model and benefit from these practices.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you’d like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.