Long Bonds Beating Stocks in 2019

Through August 31, the S&P 500 Index is up 18.34%, including dividends. Would it surprise you to learn that bonds did even better? The Morningstar US Long Government Bond Index was up 18.40% in the same period. Even with this remarkable stock market performance, you would have done slightly better by buying a 30-year Treasury Bond in January!

How do bonds yielding under 3% give an 18% gain in eight months? Bond prices move inversely to yields, so as yields fall, prices rise. The longer the duration of the bond, the greater impact a change of interest rates has on its price. This year’s unexpected decrease in rates has sent the prices of long bonds soaring. While bonds have made a nice contribution to portfolios this year because of their price increases, today’s yields are not very attractive. And longer dated bonds – those which enjoyed the biggest price increases in 2019 – could eventually suffer equivalent losses if interest rates were to swing the other direction. We find bonds going up 18% to be scary and not something to try to chase. 

Today’s low interest rates are a conundrum for investors. The yields on Treasury bonds, from the shortest T-Bills to 10-year bonds are all below 2%. CDs, Municipal bonds, and investment grade corporate bonds have all seen their yields plummet this year. In some countries, there are bonds with zero or even negative yields.

What can investors do? I am going to give you three considerations before you make any changes and then three ideas for investors who want to aim for higher returns.

1. Don’t bet on interest rates. Don’t try to guess which direction interest rates are going to go next. We prefer short (0-2 year) and intermediate (3-7 year) bonds to minimize the impact that interest rates will have on the price of bonds. With a flat or inverted yield curve today, you are not getting paid any additional yield to take on this interest rate risk. Instead, we take a laddered approach. If you own long bonds which have shot up this year, consider taking some of your profits off the table.

2. Bonds are for safety. The reason why we have a 60/40 portfolio is because a portfolio of 100% stocks would be too risky and volatile for many investors. Bonds provide a way to offset the risk of stocks and provide a smoother trajectory for the portfolio. If this is why you own bonds, then a decrease in yield from 3% to 2% isn’t important. The bonds are there to protect that portion of your money from the next time stocks go down 20 or 30 percent.

3. Real Yields. Many of my clients remember CDs yielding 10 percent or more. But if inflation is running 8%, your purchasing power is actually only growing at 2%. Similarly, if inflation is zero and you are getting a 2% yield, you have the same 2% real rate of return. While yields today are low on any measure, when we consider the impact of inflation, historical yields are a lot less volatile than they may appear. 

Still want to aim for higher returns? We can help. Here are three ideas, depending on how aggressive you want to go.

1. Fixed Annuities. We have 5-year fixed annuities with yields over 3.5%. These are guaranteed for principal and interest. We suggest building a 5-year ladder. These will give you a higher return than Treasuries or CDs, although with a trade-off of limited or no liquidity. If you don’t need 100% of your bonds to be liquid, these can make a lot of sense. Some investors think annuity is a dirty word, and it’s not a magic bullet. But more investors should be using this tool; it is a very effective way to invest in fixed income today. 
Read more: 5-year Annuity Ladder

2. High Yield is getting attractive. Back in 2017, we sold our position in high yield bonds as rising prices created very narrow spreads over investment grade bonds.  Those spreads have widened this year and yields are over 5%. That’s not high by historical standards, but is attractive for today. Don’t trade all your high quality bonds for junk, but adding a small percentage of a diversified high-yield fund to a portfolio can increase yields with a relatively small increase in portfolio volatility.

3. Dividend stocks on sale. While the overall stock market is only down a couple of percent from its all time high in July, I am seeing some US and international blue chip stocks which are down 20 percent or more from their 2018 highs. Some of these companies are selling for a genuinely low price, when we consider profitability, book value, and future earnings potential. And many yield 3-5%, which is double the 1.5% you get on the US 10-year Treasury bond, as of Friday. 

While we don’t have a crystal ball on what the stock market will do next, if I had to choose between owning a 10-year bond to maturity or a basket of companies with a long record of paying dividends, I’d pick the stocks. For investors who want a higher yield and can accept the additional volatility, they may want to shift some money from bonds into quality, dividend stocks. For example, a 60/40 portfolio could be moved to a 70/30 target, using 10% of the bonds to buy value stocks today. 

When central banks cut rates, they want to make bonds unattractive so that investors will buy riskier assets and support those prices. When rates are really low, and being cut, don’t fight the Fed.

Long bonds have had a great performance in 2019 and I know the market is looking for an additional rate cut. But don’t buy long bonds looking for capital appreciation. Trying to bet on the direction of interest rates is an attempt at market timing and investors ability to profit from timing bonds is no better than stocks. If you are concerned how today’s low yields are going to negatively impact your portfolio going forward, then let’s talk through your options and see which might make the most sense for your goals.  

Source of data: Morningstar.com on September 2, 2019.

How to Create Your Own Pension

With 401(k)s replacing pension plans at most employers, the risk of outliving your money has been shifted from the pension plan to the individual. We’ve been fortunate to see many advances in heath care in our lifetime so it is becoming quite common for a couple who retire in their sixties to spend thirty years in retirement. Today, longevity risk is a real concern for retirees.

With an investment-oriented retirement plan, we typically recommend a 4% withdrawal rate. We can then run a Monte Carlo simulation to estimate the possibility that you will deplete your portfolio and run out of money. And while that possibility is generally small, even a 20% chance of failure seems like an unacceptable gamble. Certainly if one out of five of my clients run out of money, I would not consider that a successful outcome.

Social Security has become more important than ever because many Baby Boomers don’t have a Pension. While Social Security does provide income for life, it is usually not enough to fund the lifestyle most people would like in retirement.

What can you do if you are worried about outliving your money? Consider a Single Premium Immediate Annuity, or SPIA. A SPIA is an insurance contract that will provide you with a monthly payment for life, in exchange for an upfront payment (the “single premium”). These are different from “deferred” annuities which are used for accumulation. Deferred annuities come in many flavors, including, fixed, indexed, and variable.

Deferred annuities have gotten a bad rap, in part due to inappropriate and unethical sales practices by some insurance professionals. For SPIAs, however, there is an increasing body of academic work that finds significant benefits.

Here’s a quote on a SPIA from one insurer:
For a 65-year old male, in exchange for $100,000, you would receive $529 a month for life. That’s $6,348 a year, or a 6.348% annual payout. (You can invest any amount in a SPIA, at the same payout rate.)

You can probably already guess the biggest reason people haven’t embraced SPIAs: if you purchase a SPIA and die after two months, you would have only gotten back $1,000 from your $100,000 investment. The rest, in a “Life only” contract is gone.

But that’s how insurance works; it’s a pooling of risks, based on the Law of Large Numbers. The insurance company will issue 1,000 contracts to 65 year olds and some will pass away soon and some will live to be 100. They can guarantee you a payment for life, because the large number of contracts gives them an average life span over the whole group. You transfer your longevity risk to the insurance company, and when they pool that risk with 999 other people, it is smoothed out and more predictable.

There are some other payment options, other than “Life Only”. For married couples, a Joint Life policy may be more appropriate. For someone wanting to leave money to their children, you could select a guaranteed period such as 10 years. Then, if you passed away after 3 years, your heirs would continue to receive payouts for another 7 years.

Obviously, these additional features would decrease the monthly payout compared to a Life Only policy. For example, in a 100% Joint Policy, the payout would drop to $417 a month, but that amount would be guaranteed as long as either the husband or wife were alive.

There are some situations where a SPIA could make sense. If you have an expectation of a long life span, longevity risk might be a big concern. I have clients whose parents lived well into their nineties and who have other relatives who passed 100 years old. For those in excellent health, longevity is a valid concern.

There are a number of different life expectancy calculators online which will try to estimate your longevity based on a variety of factors, including weight, stress, medical history, and family history. The life expectancy calculator at Time estimates a 75% chance I live to age 91.

Who is a good candidate for a SPIA?

  • Concerned with longevity risk and has both family history and personal factors suggesting a long life span,
  • Need income and want a payment guaranteed for life,
  • Not focused on leaving these assets to their heirs,
  • Have sufficient liquid funds elsewhere to not need this principal.

What are the negatives of the SPIA? While we’ve already discussed the possibility of receiving only a few payments, there are other considerations:

  • Inflation. Unlike Social Security, or our 4% withdrawal strategy, there are no cost of living increases in a SPIA. If your payout is $1,000 a month, it stays at that amount forever. With 3% inflation, that $1,000 will only have $500 in purchasing power after 24 years.
  • Low Interest Rates. SPIAs are invested by the insurance company in conservative funds, frequently in Treasury Bonds. They match a 30-year liability with a 30-year bond. Today’s SPIA rates are very low. I can’t help but think that the rates will be higher in a year or two as the Fed raises interest rates. Buying a SPIA now is like locking in today’s 30-year Treasury yield.
  • Loss of control of those assets. You can’t change your mind once after you have purchased a SPIA. (There may be an initial 30-day free look period to return a SPIA.)

While there are definitely some negatives, I think there should be greater use of SPIAs by retirees. They bring back many of the positive qualities that previous generations enjoyed with their corporate pension plans. When you ask people if they wish they had a pension that was guaranteed for life, they say yes. But if you ask them if they want an annuity, they say no. We need to do a better job explaining what a SPIA is.

The key is to think of it as a tool for part of the portfolio rather than an all-encompassing solution to your retirement needs. Consider, for example, using a SPIA plus Social Security to cover your non-discretionary expenses. Then you can use your remaining investments for discretionary expenses where you have more flexibility with those withdrawals. At the same time, your basic expenses have been met by guaranteed sources which you cannot outlive.

Since SPIAs are bond-like, you could consider a SPIA as part of your bond allocation in a 60/40 or 50/50 portfolio. A SPIA returns both interest and principal in each payment, so you would be spending down your bonds. This approach, called the “rising equity glidepath“, has been gaining increased acceptance by the financial planning community, as it appears to increase the success rate versus annual rebalancing.

There’s a lot more we could write about SPIAs, including how taxes work and about state Guaranty Associations coverage of them. Our goal of finding the optimal solution for each client’s retirement needs begins with an objective analysis of all the possible tools available to us.

If you’re wondering if a SPIA would help you meet your retirement goals, let’s talk. I don’t look at a question like this assuming I already know the answer. Rather, I’m here to educate you on all your options, so we can evaluate the pros and cons together and help you make the right decision for your situation.

Can You Reduce Required Minimum Distributions?

After age 70 1/2, owners of a retirement account like an IRA or 401(k) are required to withdraw a minimum percentage of their account every year. These Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) are taxable as ordinary income, and we meet many investors who do not need to take these withdrawals and would prefer to leave their money in their account.

The questions many investors ask is Can I avoid having to take RMDs? And while the short answer is “no, they are required”, we do have several ways for reducing or delaying taxes from your retirement accounts.

1. Longevity Annuity. In 2014, the IRS created a new rule allowing investors to invest a portion of their IRA into a Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract (QLAC) and not have to pay any RMDs on that money. What the heck is a QLAC, you ask? A QLAC is a deferred annuity where you invest money today and later, you switch it over to a monthly income stream that is guaranteed for life. Previously, these types of deferred annuities didn’t work with IRAs, because you had to take RMDs. Luckily, the IRS saw that many retirees would benefit from this strategy and provided relief from RMDs.

Investors are now permitted to place up to 25% of their retirement portfolio, or $125,000 (whichever is less), into a QLAC and not have to pay any RMDs during the deferral period. Once you do start the income stream, the distributions will be taxable, of course.

For example, a 70 year old male could invest $125,000 into a QLAC and then at age 84, begin receiving $31,033 a year for life. If the owner passes away, any remaining principal will go to their heirs. (Source of quote: Barrons, June 26, 2017)

In retirement planning, we refer to possibility of outliving your money as “longevity risk”, and a QLAC is designed to address that risk by providing an additional income stream once you reach a target age. Payouts must begin by age 85. A QLAC is a great bet if you have high longevity factors: excellent health, family history of long lifespans, etc. If you are wondering if your money will still be around at age 92, then you’re a good candidate for a QLAC.

2. Put Bonds in your IRA. By placing your bond allocation into your IRA, you will save taxes several ways:

  • You won’t have to pay taxes annually on interest received from bonds.
  • Stocks, which can receive long-term capital gains rate of 15% in a taxable account, would be treated as ordinary income if in an IRA. Bonds pay the same tax rate in or out of an IRA, but stocks lose their lower tax rate inside an IRA. You have lower overall total taxes by allocating bonds to IRAs and long-term stocks to taxable accounts.
  • Your IRA will likely grow more slowly with bonds than stocks, meaning your principal and RMDs will be lower than if your IRA is invested for growth.

3. Roth Conversion. Converting your IRA to a Roth means paying the taxes in full today, which is the opposite of trying to defer taking RMDs. However, it may still make sense to do so in certain situations. Once in a Roth, your money will grow tax-free. There are no RMDs on a Roth account; the money grows tax-free for you or your heirs.

  • If you are already in the top tax bracket and will always be in the top tax bracket, doing a Roth Conversion allows you to “pre-pay” taxes today and then not pay any additional taxes on the future growth of those assets.
  • If not in the top bracket (39.6%), do a partial conversion that will keep you in your current tax bracket.
  • If there is another bear market like 2008-2009, and your IRA drops 30%, that would be a good time to convert your IRA and pay taxes on the smaller principal amount. Then any snap back in the market, or future growth, will be yours tax-free. And no more RMDs.
  • Trump had proposed simplifying the individual tax code to four tax brackets with a much lower top rate of 25%, plus eliminating the Medicare surtaxes. We are holding off on any Roth conversions to see what happens; if these low rates become a reality, that would be an opportune time to look at a Roth Conversion, especially if you believe that tax rates will go back up in the future.

4. Qualified Charitable Distribution. You may be able to use your RMD to fund a charitable donation, which generally eliminates the tax on the distribution. I wrote about this strategy in detail here.

5. Still Working. If you are over age 70 1/2 and still working, you may still be able to participate in your 401(k) at work and not have to take RMDs. The “still working exception” applies if you work the entire year, do not own 5% or more of the company, and the company plan allows you to delay RMDs. If you meet those criteria, you might want to roll old 401(k)s into your current, active 401(k) and not into an IRA. That’s because the “still working exception” only applies to your current employer and 401(k) plan; you still have to pay RMDs on any IRAs or old 401(k) accounts, even if you are still working.

We can help you manage your RMDs and optimize your tax situation. Remember that even if you do have to take an RMD, that doesn’t mean you are required to spend the money. You can always reinvest the proceeds back into an individual or joint account. If you’d like more information on the QLAC or other strategies mentioned here, please send me an email or give us a call.

What To Do With Your CD Money

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If you’ve had CDs mature over the past several years, you’ve faced the unfortunate reality of having to choose between reinvesting into a new CD that pays a miniscule rate, or moving your money into riskier assets and giving up your guaranteed rate of return and safety. Although you can earn a higher coupon with corporate bonds than CDs, those investments are volatile and definitely not guaranteed. I understand the desire for many investors to keep a portion of their money invested very conservatively in ultra-safe choices. So, I checked Bankrate.com this week for current CD rates on a 5-year Jumbo CD and here is what is offered by the largest banks in our area:

Bank of America 0.15%
JPMorgan Chase 0.25%
Wells Fargo 0.35%
Citibank 0.50%
BBVA Compass 0.50%

While there are higher rates available from some local and internet banks, it is surprising how many investors automatically renew and do not search for a better return. Others have parked their CD money in short-term products or cash, hoping that the Fed’s intention of raising rates in 2016 will soon bring the return of higher CD rates.

Unfortunately, it’s not a given that the economic conditions will be strong enough for the Fed to continue to raise rates in 2016 as planned. This week, the 10-year Treasury yield dropped below 2%, which is not strong endorsement of the likelihood of CD rates having a major rebound in 2016.

This is the new normal of low interest rates and slow growth. While rates could be nominally higher in 12 months, it seems very unlikely that we will see 4% or 5% yields on CDs anytime in the immediate future. Waiting out in cash is a sure-fire way to not keep up with inflation and lose purchasing power.

What do I suggest? You can keep your money safe – and earn a guaranteed rate of return – with a Fixed Annuity. I only recommend Fixed Annuities with a multi-year guaranteed rate. Like a CD, these have a fixed interest rate and set term. At the end of the term, you can take your investment and walk away.

Today, we can purchase a 5-year annuity with a rate of 2.9% to 3.1%, depending on your needs. I know that’s not a huge return, but it’s better than CDs, savings accounts, Treasury bonds, or any other guaranteed investment that I have found. Since an annuity is illiquid, I suggest investors set up a five year ladder, where each year 20% (one-fifth) of their money matures. When each annuity matures, you can keep out whatever money you need, and then reinvest the remainder into a new 5-year annuity.

The beauty of a laddered approach is that it gives you access to some of your money each year and it will allow your portfolio to reset to new interest rates gradually as annuities mature and are reinvested at hopefully higher rates. In the mean time, we can earn a better return to keep up with inflation and keep your principal guaranteed.

Issued by insurance companies, Annuities have a number of differences from CDs. Here are the main points to know:

  • Annuities typically have steep penalties if you withdraw your money early. It’s important to always have other sources of cash reserves for emergencies. Consider an annuity as illiquid, and only invest long-term holdings.
  • If you take money out of an annuity before age 59 1/2, there is a 10% premature distribution penalty, just like a retirement account. A 5-year annuity may be best for someone 55 or older.
  • Money in annuity grows tax-deferred until withdrawn. If you rollover one annuity to another, the money remains tax-deferred. Most annuities will allow you to withdraw earnings without penalty and take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from IRAs. Always confirm these features on an annuity before purchase.
  • While CDs are insured by the FDIC, annuities are guaranteed at the state level. In Texas, every annuity company pays into the Texas Guaranty Association, which protects investors up to $250,000. If you have more than this amount to invest, I would spread it to multiple issuers, to stay under the limit with each company.

If you have CDs maturing and would like to learn more about Fixed Annuities, please contact me for more information.

The Year Ahead in Fixed Income

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At the end of each year, we review the landscape for fixed income and equities, looking for opportunities and themes to use in our model investment portfolios. With this information, we adjust the weight of asset categories based on their relative risk/reward, and also decide which satellite categories offer the most interesting ways to enhance and complement our core holdings. This week, we start with a look at fixed income.

With today’s low interest rates, it should come as no surprise that the Aggregate Bond Index is only up 1.17% through December 11 this year. This small number belies the potential risks to the bond market in 2016, including the possibility for rising rates to crush long-term bond prices, falling credit quality and increased defaults in the energy sector, and the many unknowns about the rising US dollar and future inflation. And perhaps the only thing worse than seeing inflation tick up in 2016 would be seeing no inflation, a sign that the global economy could be moving back into recession.

The Federal Reserve is meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, and many on Wall Street are watching to see if the committee is finally ready to raise the Fed Funds rate. This will likely be a major focus of the business news of the week, but in spite of all the attention paid to deciphering the Fed’s actions and comments, this is not a reason to be making knee-jerk reactions to Fixed Income holdings.

We see four major themes which will shape how we allocate to Fixed Income in 2016:

1) An emphasis on shorter duration. Whether or not the Fed raises rates this week, we are at a point in time at which the rates on 20-30 year bonds are artificially low. If we consider the yield to maturity as the potential reward for buying these bonds, then the risk we face in terms of a significant decline in price, as well as the opportunity cost to have purchased binds at a higher yield, is too great.

Within all our portfolios, we will look to reduce risk in our Fixed Income holdings, emphasizing shorter duration while maintaining or improving credit quality. We’re not interested in speculating on bonds, which is precisely what many investors are doing today with long-term bonds.

2) Sticking with high yield. We already have positioned our high yield holdings into a short duration fund, the SPDR Short-Term High Yield ETF (SJNK). SJNK has taken a beating this year, down 6.49% as of 12/11. While it’s easy to see the challenges facing high yield, the lower prices present a more attractive value than we’ve had in several years in the category. Today, the fund has an average maturity of only 3.12 years, an average bond price of $95.03, and a yield to maturity of 9.42%. In small portions, this short-term high yield position may help enhance our returns.

3) Municipal Bonds. Municipal Bonds have been held back by concerns about over-leveraged entities such as Detroit and Puerto Rico. At the start of 2015, munis were trading at a discount to other bonds, and that discount gave way to a strong performance in 2015. Even though they have come up in price somewhat, for investors in a higher tax bracket, municipal bonds remain very attractive compared to corporate or treasury bonds. For clients with large taxable holdings, we will likely add to municipal bonds in 2016.

4) Fixed Annuities. I’ve always admired the simplicity of a laddered portfolio of high quality bonds or CDs. In recent years, investors have gotten away from this approach, as they searched for higher yields elsewhere. Unfortunately, there is no free lunch – higher yields come with higher risks – and investors who always seek the highest yielding investments sometimes end up with losses rather than the high returns they had hoped for.

For investors who are 55 or older, who do not need liquidity from their holdings, consider creating a ladder of 5-year fixed annuities, buying one-fifth a year over 5 years. Today, we can buy a 5-year annuity at 3.10%, which is not bad for an investment with a guaranteed return. To get the same yield to maturity on a 5-year bond, we’d have to go a BBB-rated issuer or lower. The annuity may also be a good replacement for a CD, if you are disappointed with today’s rates when your CDs mature.

A laddered 5-year annuity portfolio could make sense for conservative investors because it offer a guaranteed rate of return, preservation of capital, and income, none of which are guaranteed with most other types of bonds. The main trade-off would be liquidity, but if you have a 5-year ladder, you’d have access to 20% of your principal each year. I’ve looked at other annuity durations, but feel that the 5-year is the sweet spot today. Shorter terms have a much lower interest rate, while longer terms do not see much of an increase over the 5-year product.

We will use these four themes to help customize each of our client’s fixed income holdings, even though changes to the model portfolios are likely to be relatively small. We have low expectations from fixed income for 2016 and the next several years. Our focus is not “how can we make as much as possible from bonds”. Rather, we view fixed income as a counter-weight to the risk we take in equities; its main purpose is to reduce the volatility of the overall portfolio. That’s why we want to be very careful about taking risks in fixed income at a time which might be the end of the falling interest rates which have boosted bond prices over the past 35 years.

Today, equities are near a high, even as the global economy struggles to sustain a recovery. Prices in fixed income are also at a high. This is a dangerous time for investors who have become greedy with yield in the recent period of rock-bottom rates. Once rates do begin to rise, fixed income will face a tough road, and that could become a very ugly situation if the stock market is also impacted by rising interest rates, decreased liquidity for corporations, and increased defaults.

Real Estate prices, fueled by cheap mortgages today, will also struggle to rise if homeowners cannot afford higher payments, and commercial Real Estate prices won’t be attractive to investors if cap rates are lower than bonds. I point this out not because I expect a crisis, but only because investors need to understand the potential impacts of higher interest rates in 2016 and ahead.

Next week: the outlook for Equities in 2016.

Source of data: Morningstar as of 12/14/2015

Guaranteed Income Increases Retirement Satisfaction

Coffee Crossword

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.

Fixed Annuities in Place of Bonds?

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Today’s low interest rate environment is challenging for investors. Cash is paying virtually nothing, and even the 10-year Treasury has a yield of only 2.3% to 2.4%. If you do invest in longer-dated bonds, you have the risk of falling prices if interest rates begin to rise.

Low interest rates have pushed many investors to seek out higher yielding securities. But, there is no free lunch, as higher bond yields come with lower credit quality, heightened risk of default, and increased volatility.

Treasury bonds are a good tool for portfolio construction, because they have a very low correlation to equities. However, if investors replace those very safe (but low yielding) Treasuries with high yield bonds, they are increasing the probability that both their equity and fixed income positions will be down at the same time.

In 2008, for example, as equities tumbled, the iShares High Yield ETF (HYG) was down more than 17% for the year. Although high yield bonds have a place, investors need to understand that junk bonds may not provide much defense when the stock market takes a dive.

Cautious investors have been hiding out in short-term bonds, which might be yielding 1% or less. And while that will limit losses if rates rise, no one knows how long we will be stuck with today’s low rates. If low rates persist for years, short-term bonds aren’t providing much return to help you achieve your investment goals.

As an alternative to taking the risks of chasing yield, or the opportunity cost of hiding in short-term bonds or cash, some investors might want to consider a Fixed Annuity. These come in a variety of formats, but I am only suggesting annuities with a fixed, multi-year guaranteed rate. These are sometimes compared to CDs, but it is very important that investors understand how annuities differ.

Here’s the attraction: we can offer up to 3.25%, principal and interest guaranteed, on a 5-year Fixed Annuity today. And that’s the net figure to investors, which is fairly compelling for a safe yield. It’s more than 1% higher than the SEC yield on a US Aggregate Bond Index fund, like AGG.

Here are five key points to help you understand how annuities work and determine if an annuity is a good choice for you.

  1. Tax-deferral. Annuities are a tax-sheltered account. While you don’t get an upfront tax deduction, an Annuity will grow tax-deferred until you withdraw your money. When withdrawn, gains are taxed as ordinary income, and do not receive capital gains treatment.
  2. Like an IRA, withdrawals from an Annuity prior to age 59 1/2 are considered a pre-mature distribution and subject to a 10% penalty. This is an important consideration: only invest in an Annuity money that you won’t need until after age 59 1/2. This is obviously easier for someone who is in their 50’s or 60’s compared to younger investors.
  3. Limited liquidity. Annuity companies want investors who can commit to the full-term and not need to access their principal. They may impose very high surrender charges on investors who withdraw money before the term is completed.
  4. At the end of the term, investors have several options. You can take your money and walk away. You can leave the money in the annuity at the current interest rate (often a floor of 1%). You can roll the annuity into a new annuity and keep it tax deferred. If the annuity is an IRA already, you can roll it back into your regular IRA brokerage account. Or lastly, you can annuitize the contract, which means you can exchange your principal for a series of monthly payments, guaranteed for a fixed period, or for life. I don’t think very many investors annuitize – most will walk away or reinvest into another annuity.
  5. Annuities are guaranteed by the issuing insurance company, and that guarantee is only as good as the financial strength of the company. Similar to how CDs are insured the by the FDIC, investors in Annuities are protected by your state Guaranty Association (Texas Guaranty Association). Since coverage for annuities in Texas is only up to $250,000, I would never invest more than this amount with any one company.

What I like about the annuity is that it can provide a guaranteed rate of return and price stability, unlike a bond fund. An annuity also can reduce a number of types of portfolio risks, such as interest rate risk, default risk, and will have no correlation to equity returns.

Is an annuity right for you? You should be able to invest the funds for at least 3-7 years and have ample money elsewhere you can access in case of an emergency. You can invest money from an IRA or a regular account, but either way, should not plan on withdrawing money from an annuity until after age 59 1/2. And we’re only using money that would have otherwise been allocated to bonds, CDs, or cash in your investment portfolio. If this describes you, please give me a call at 214-478-3398 and we can discuss Fixed Annuities and their role in your portfolio in greater detail.

 

Please note that as an insurance product, an annuity will pay the issuing agent a commission. Clients are not charged an AUM fee on monies invested in Annuities. We aim to disclose all conflicts of interest and provide transparency on how we are paid.