Several years ago, for a client meeting, I prepared a couple of Monte Carlo simulations to show a soon to be retired executive possible outcomes of taking his pension as a guaranteed monthly payment, versus taking a lump sum, investing the proceeds, and taking withdrawals. When I showed that the taking the pension increased the probability of success by a couple of percent, my boss promptly cut me off, and warned the client that if they didn’t take the lump sum they would have no control of those assets and would not be able to leave any of those funds to their heirs. That’s true, but my responsibility was to present the facts as clearly as possible for the client to make an informed choice, without injecting my own biases.
The fact is that retirees who are able to fund a larger portion of their expenses from guaranteed sources of income are less dependent on portfolio returns for a successful outcome. New research is finding that retirees with higher levels of guaranteed income are also reporting greater retirement satisfaction and less anxiety about their finances. Sources of guaranteed income include employer pensions, Social Security, and annuities. This is contrasted with withdrawals from 401(k) accounts, IRAs, and investment portfolios.
For the last two decades, the financial planning profession has been advocating 4% withdrawals from investment portfolios as the best solution for retirement income. Unfortunately, with lower interest rates on bonds and higher equity valuations, even a conservative 4% withdrawal today, increased annually for inflation, might not last for a 30+ year retirement. (See my white paper, 5 Reasons Why Your Retirement Withdrawals are Too High, for details.)
Professor Michael Finke from Texas Tech, writing about a Successful Retirement, found that, “The amount of satisfaction retirees get from each dollar of Social Security and pension income is exactly the same — and is higher than the amount of satisfaction gained from a dollar earned from other sources of income. Retirees who rely solely on a defined contribution plan to fund retirement are significantly less satisfied with retirement.”
Emotionally, there are a couple of reasons why guaranteed income is preferred. It mimics having a paycheck, so retirees are comfortable spending the money knowing that the same amount will be deposited next month. On the other hand, investors who have saved for 30 or 40 years find it very difficult to turn off that saving habit and start taking withdrawals from the accounts they have never touched. Although taxes on a $40,000 withdrawal from an IRA are the same as from $40,000 income received from a pension, as soon as you give an individual control over making the withdrawals, they want to do everything possible to avoid the tax bill.
The biggest fear that accompanies portfolio withdrawals is that a retiree will outlive their money. No one knows how the market will perform or how long they will live. So it’s not surprising that retirees who depend on withdrawals from investments feel more anxiety than those who have more guaranteed sources of income. The 2014 Towers Watson Retiree Survey looked at retirees’ sources of monthly income and found that 37% of retirees who had no pension or annuity income “often worry” about their finances, compared to only 24% of retirees who received 50% or more of their monthly income from a pension or annuity.
While I’ve pointed out the negative outcomes that can occur with portfolio withdrawals, in fairness, I should point out that in a Monte Carlo analysis, investing a pension lump sum for future withdrawals increases the dispersion of outcomes, both negative and positive. If the market performs poorly, a 4% withdrawal plan might deplete the portfolio, especially when you increase withdrawals for inflation each year. However, if the market performs on average, it will likely work, and if the initial years perform better than average, the portfolio may even grow significantly during retirement. So it’s not that taking the lump sum guarantees failure, only that it makes for a greater range of possible outcomes compared to choosing the pension’s monthly payout.
What do you need to think about before retirement? Here are several steps we take in preparing your retirement income plan:
1) Carefully examine the pension versus lump sum decision, using actual analysis, not your gut feeling, heuristic short-cuts, or back of the envelope calculations. If you aren’t going to invest at least 50% of the proceeds into equities, don’t take the lump sum. Give today’s low interest rates, the possibility of retirement success is very low if you plan to invest 100% in cash, CDs, or other “safe” investments.
2) Consider your own longevity. If you are healthy and have family members who lived for a long time, having guaranteed sources of income can help reduce some of the longevity risk that you face.
3) Social Security increases payments for inflation, whereas most pension and annuities do not, so we want to start with the highest possible amount. We will look at your Social Security options and consider whether delaying benefits may improve retirement outcomes.
4) If your guaranteed income consists only of Social Security, and is less than 25% of your monthly needs, you are highly dependent on portfolio returns. Consider using some portion of your portfolio to purchase an annuity. If you are several years out from retirement, we may consider a deferred annuity to provide a future benefit and remove that income stream from future market risks. If you are in retirement, we can consider an immediate annuity. For example, a 65-year old male could receive $543 a month for life, by purchasing an immediate annuity today with a $100,000 premium.
Annuities have gotten a bad rap in recent years, due in large part to unscrupulous sales agents who have sold unsuitable products to ill-informed consumers. However, like other tools, an annuity can be an appropriate solution in certain circumstances. While many financial planning professionals still refuse to look at annuities, there has been a significant amount of academic research from Wade Pfau, Michael Finke, and Moshe Milevsky finding that having guaranteed income may improve outcomes and satisfaction for retirees. This growing body of work has become too substantial to ignore. I believe my clients will be best served when we consider all their options and solutions with an open mind.