Inflation Investments

Inflation Investments

With the cost of living on the rise in 2021, many investors are asking about inflation investments. What is a good way to position your portfolio to grow and maintain its purchasing power? Where should we be positioned for 2022 if higher inflation is going to stick around?

Inflation was 5.4% for the 12 months ending in July. I share these concerns and we are going to discuss several inflation investments below. Before we do, I have to begin with a caveat. We should be cautious about placing a lot of weight in forecasts. Whether we look at predictions of stock market returns, interest rates, or inflation, these are often quite inaccurate. Market timing decisions based on these forecasts seldom add any value in hindsight.

What we do know for sure is that cash will lose its purchasing power. With interest rates near zero on most money market funds and bank accounts, it is a frustrating time to be a conservative investor. We like to consider the Real Yield – the yield minus inflation. It would be good if bonds were giving us a positive Real Yield. Today, however, the Real Yield on a 10-year Treasury bond is negative 4%. This may be the most unattractive Real Yield we have ever seen in US fixed income.

Let’s look at inflation’s impact on stocks and bonds and then discuss three alternatives: TIPs, Commodities, and Real Estate.

Inflation and Stocks

You may hear that inflation is bad for stocks. That is partially true. Rising inflation hurts companies’ profitability and consumers’ wallets. In the short-term, unexpected spikes in inflation seem correlated to below average performance in stocks.

However, when we look longer, stocks have done the better job of staying ahead of inflation than other assets. Over five or ten years, stocks have generally outpaced inflation by a wide margin. That’s true even in periods of higher inflation. There are always some down periods for stocks, but as an asset class, stocks typically have the best chance of beating inflation over a 20-30 year horizon as an investor or as a retiree.

We can’t discuss stocks and inflation without considering two important points.

First, if there is high inflation in the US, we expect that the Dollar will decline in value as a currency. If the Dollar weakens, this would be positive for foreign stocks or emerging market stocks. Because foreign stocks trade in other currencies, a falling dollar would boost their values for US investors. Our international holdings provide a hedge against a falling dollar.

Second, the Federal Reserve may act soon to slow inflation by raising interest rates. This would help slow the economy. However, if the Fed presses too hard on the brake pedal, they could crash the economy, the stock market, and send bond prices falling, too. In this scenario, cash at 0% could still outperform stocks and bonds for a year or longer! That’s why Wall Street has long said “Don’t fight the Fed.” The Fed’s mandate is to manage inflation and they are now having to figure out how to keep the economy growing. But not growing too much to cause inflation! This will prove more difficult as government spending and debt grows to walk this tightrope.

Inflation and Bonds

With Real Yields negative today, it may seem an unappealing time to own bonds, especially high quality bonds. Earning one percent while inflation is 5% is frustrating. The challenge is to maintain an appropriate risk tolerance across the whole portfolio.

If you have a 60/40 portfolio with 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds, should you sell your bonds? The stock market is at an all-time high right now and US growth stocks could be overvalued. So it is not a great buying opportunity to replace all your bonds with stocks today. Instead, consider your reason for owning bonds. We own bonds to offset the risk of stocks. This gives us an opportunity to have some stability and survive the next bear market. Bonds give us a chance to rebalance. So, I doubt that anyone who is 60/40 or 70/30 will want to go to 100% stocks in this environment today.

Still, I think we can add some value to fixed income holdings. Here are a couple of ways we have been addressing fixed income holdings for our clients:

  • Ladder 5-year Fixed Annuities. Today’s rate is 2.75%, which is below inflation, but more than double what we can find in Treasury bonds, Municipal bonds, or CDs.
  • Emerging Market Bonds. As a long-term investment, we see attractive relative yields and improving fundamentals.
  • Preferred Stocks, offering an attractive yield.

TIPS

Treasury Inflation Protected Securities are US government bonds which adjust to the CPI. These should be the perfect inflation investment. TIPS were designed to offer a return of inflation plus some small amount. In the past, these may have offered CPI plus say one percent. Then if CPI is 5.4%, you would earn 6.4% for the year.

Unfortunately, in today’s low yield environment, TIPS sell at a negative yield. For example, the yield on the Vanguard short-term TIPS ETF (VTIP) is presently negative 2.24%. That means you will earn inflation minus 2.24%. Today, TIPS are guaranteed to not keep up with inflation! I suppose if you think inflation is staying higher than 5%, TIPS could still be attractive relative to owning regular short-term Treasury Bonds. But TIPS today will not actually keep up with inflation.

Instead of TIPS, individual investors should look at I-Bonds. I-Bonds are a cousin of the old-school EE US Savings Bonds. The I-series savings bonds, however, are inflation linked. I-bonds bought today will pay CPI plus 0%. Then your investment is guaranteed to keep up with inflation, unlike TIPS. A couple of things to know about I-bonds:

  • You can only buy I-bonds directly from the US Treasury. We cannot hold I-Bonds in a brokerage account. There is no secondary market for I-bonds, you can only redeem at a bank or electronically.
  • I-Bond purchases are limited to a maximum of $10,000 a year in electronic form and $5,000 a year as paper bonds, per person. You can buy I-bonds as a gift for minors, and the annual limits are based on the recipient, not the purchaser.
  • I-bonds pay interest for 30 years. You can redeem an I-bond after 12 months. If you sell between 1 and 5 years, you lose the last three months of interest.

Commodities

Because inflation means that the cost of materials is rising, owning commodities as part of a portfolio may offer a hedge on inflation. Long-term, commodities have not performed as well as stocks, but they do have periods when they do well. While bonds are relatively stable and consistent, commodities can have a lot of volatility and risk. So, I don’t like commodities as a permanent holding in a portfolio.

The Bloomberg Commodities Index was up 22% this year through August 31. Having already had a strong performance, I don’t think that anyone buying commodities today is early to the party. That is a risk – even if we are correct about above average inflation, that does not mean we are guaranteed success by buying commodities.

Consider Gold. Gold is often thought of as a great inflation hedge and a store of value. Unfortunately, Gold has not performed well in 2021. Gold is down 4.7% year to date, even as inflation has spiked. It has underperformed broad commodities by 27%! It’s difficult to try to pick individual commodities with consistent accuracy. They are highly speculative. That’s why if you are going to invest in commodities, I would suggest a broad index fund rather than betting on a single commodity.

Real Estate

With home prices up 20% in many markets, Real Estate is certainly a popular inflation investment. And with mortgage rates at all-time lows, borrowers tend to do well when inflation ticks up. Home values grow and could even outstrip the interest rate on your mortgage, potentially. I’ve written at length about real estate and want to share a couple of my best pieces:

While I like real estate as an inflation hedge, I’d like to remind investors that the home price changes reported by the Case-Schiller Home Price Index do not reflect the return to investors. Read: Inflation and Real Estate.

Thinking about buying a rental property? Read: Should You Invest In Real Estate?

With cash at zero percent, should you pay off your mortgage? Read: Your Home Is Like A Bond

Looking at commercial Real Estate Investment Trusts, US REITs have had a strong year. The iShares US REIT ETF (IYR) is up 27% year to date, beating even the S&P 500 Index. I am concerned about the present valuations and low yields in the space. Additionally, retail, office, apartments, and senior living all face extreme challenges from the Pandemic. Many are seeing vacancies, bankrupt tenants, and people relocating away from urban development. Many businesses are rethinking their office needs as work-from-home seems here to stay. Even if we do see higher inflation moving forward, I’m not sure I want to chase REITs at these elevated levels.

Inflation Portfolio

Even with the possibility of higher inflation, I would caution investors against making radical changes to their portfolio. Stocks will continue to be the inflation investment that should offer the best chance at crushing inflation over the long-term. Include foreign stocks to add a hedge because US inflation suggests the Dollar will fall over time. Bonds are primarily to offset the risk of stocks and provide portfolio defense. We will make a few tweaks to try to reduce the impact of inflation on fixed income, but I would remind investors to avoid chasing high yield.

As satellite positions to core stock and bond holdings, we’ve looked at TIPS, Commodities, and Real Estate. Each has Pros and Cons as inflation investments. At this point, the simple fear of inflation has caused some of these investments to already have significant moves. We will continue to evaluate the inflation situation and analyze how we position our investment holdings. Our focus remains fixed on helping clients achieve their goals through prudent investment strategies and smart financial planning.

Preferred Stock Dividends

Preferred Stock Dividends

As part of our Core and Satellite portfolio models, our investors have received Preferred Stock Dividends for several years. Preferred Stocks are different from Common Stock as they are a hybrid security which combines the features of a stock and a bond. Like a stock, preferreds trade on an exchange and pay a quarterly dividend. Like a bond, preferreds are issued at a Par Value ($25) and can be called or redeemed by the issuer in the future for $25.

If you’d like a primer on Preferred Stocks, check out my previous article, Preferred Stocks Belong In Your Portfolio. Or check out Forbes, What is Preferred Stock?

The Role of Preferreds

The preferreds we own have yields from 4-6% or more. Today, with the yield on 10-year Treasury Bonds around 1.25%, preferred stock dividends offer a nice rate of return compared to bonds but without all of the volatility of common stocks. And with the current high valuations on US Stocks, Preferred Stocks offer us an alternative that complements our stock and bond holdings. It’s a nice way to diversify our holdings, but preferreds remain a small, niche investment that most people have never owned.

Presently, our Premiere Wealth Portfolios have between 7-11.5% in Preferred Stocks. In our Defensive Managers Select portfolio, we have a 20% position in Preferred Stocks. Those are significant weights for a satellite position, but it remains a small piece of our overall allocation.

We buy a basket of individual Preferred Stocks. For each client, we will own a minimum of 5 and as many as 15 individual Preferred Stocks. As of today, our largest holdings include Capital One, Wells Fargo, Regions Financial, JP Morgan, and Brookfield Finance. Most preferreds are issues by financial companies, although there are some issued by real estate and utilities, too.

I prefer to own individual preferreds to have better control over the portfolio and keep costs down. Generally, I like to buy Exchange Traded Funds. And there is an ETF for preferreds: PFF from iShares. Two problems. First, the ETF owns many preferreds trading at a very large premium to Par. That means you would be buying a preferred at $27 that could be redeemed at $25 within 5 years. We have to look at the Yield to Call to understand this. Second, the ETF has an expense ratio of almost half a percent (0.46%), and that would reduce investors’ return. In a sector where the expected return is only 4-5%, that expense ratio would be a big drag on returns.

Managing Preferreds

Within our baskets of preferreds, we’ve had quite a few trades this summer. Generally, for most of my clients, we own preferreds in IRAs, since they create taxable income. In an IRA, we can trade without any capital gains impact. With yields falling this year, there has been a high demand for Preferred Stock Dividends. And this has pushed up the price of many Preferred Stocks. This is not a good time to just blindly buy any Preferred Stocks – many are very expensive.

So, we have been rotating from preferreds with higher prices to those with lower prices. In some cases, a Preferred with a high dividend payment actually has a low Yield to Call. If you are paying $27 for a preferred that is callable for $25, you are paying an 8% premium. And that premium will decline to the call date, creating a loss of capital that will eat into your total return. I am finding opportunities to improve our preferred stock dividends with some careful trades.

Trading and Upgrading

There are a couple of scenarios where we have placed trades to replace one preferred with another.

  1. Price comparison. Here are two preferreds with the same coupon of 4.45% and similar credit ratings and call dates. The Schwab (series J) is trading at $26.57, while Regions Financial (series E) is at $25.60. This is an opportunity to sell an expensive share and use the proceeds to buy more shares of the lower priced preferred.
  2. Same company, different series. Capital One’s series L has a coupon of 4.375% and the series N is at 4.25%. Both have the same call date of September 2026. There is a one-eighth of a percent difference in coupon. So, when the L’s were trading for 2.5% more than the N’s, that is too big of a difference. We sold the L’s and bought the N’s. Then this week, the prices swapped and we were able to sell the N’s and buy back the higher yield L’s for less. Many companies have multiple series of preferred stocks. Sometimes one is more expensive and the other is less expensive, for no logical reason. We’ve also swapped between the Goldman Sachs series C and D, which both have a 4% coupon.
  3. New issues. We can buy IPOs of Preferred Stocks. We’ve bought a new JP Morgan preferred at $25 this summer and it is now up to $25.56. Other times, we have been able to buy preferreds for below $25 for a few days after the IPO, when the issue was undersubscribed. We’ve bought shares of Regions Financial and Texas Capital Bancshares at a discount this way. Over a few weeks, new issues usually move to where similar preferreds are priced.

Long-Term Outlook

I’ve been looking at all types of income securities for the last 17 years. Not just Preferred Stocks, but Closed End Funds, MLPs, REITs, and individual corporate and municipal bonds. It’s a lot of time to manage individual securities correctly, and it takes skill and knowledge that takes years to develop.

I like the idea of Preferred Stock Dividends to add income to our portfolio models. And that’s the purpose behind our Alternatives sleeve to the portfolio: to seek investments with a better return than bonds, and lower correlation and volatility compared to stocks.

For now it’s working as I had hoped. What might change this? If we see the Federal Reserve start to raise interest rates and see the long-end of the yield curve move up, this would be negative for preferreds. That’s why this is a Satellite holding and not a Core. There may well come a day that we liquidate the preferreds for another asset class with better prospects. Even though we are buy and hold, long-term investors, by no means is the approach a purely passive portfolio. Rather than looking in the rear view mirror, we construct portfolios looking forward at the challenges we see facing markets today.

Have a question about Preferred Stock Dividends? Curious about your Retirement Income? Let’s talk about our portfolios and how they might work for you. Click Contact on the top of this page to get in touch!

What Percentage Should You Save

What Percentage Should You Save?

One of the key questions facing investors is “What percentage should you save of your income?” People like a quick rule of thumb, and so you will often hear “10%” as an answer. This is an easy round number, a mental shortcut, and feasible for most people. Unfortunately, it is also a sloppy, lazy, and inaccurate answer. 10% is better than nothing, but does 10% guarantee you will have a comfortable retirement?

I created a spreadsheet to show you two things. Firstly, how much you would accumulate over your working years. This is based on the years of saving, rate of return, and inflation (or how much your salary grows). Secondly, how much this portfolio could provide in retirement income and how much of your pre-retirement salary it would replace.

The fact is that there can be no one answer to the question of what percentage you should save. For example, are you starting at 25 or 45? In other words, are you saving for 40 years or 20 years? Are you earning 7% or 1%? When you change any of these inputs you will get a wildly different result.

10% from age 25

Let’s start with a base case of someone who gets a job at age 25. He or she contributes 10% of their salary to their 401(k) every year until retirement. They work for 40 years, until age 65, and then retire. Along the way, their income increases by 2.5% a year. Their 401(k) grows at 7%. All of these are assumptions, not guaranteed returns, but are possible, at least historically.

In Year 1, let’s say their salary is $50,000. At 10%, they save $5,000 into their 401(k) and have a $5,000 portfolio at the end of the year. In Year 2, we would then assume their salary has grown to $51,250. Their 401(k) grows and they contribute 10% of their new salary. Their 401(k) has $10,475 at the end of Year 2.

We continue this year by year through Year 40. At this point, their salary is $130,978, and they are still contributing 10%. At the end of the year, their 401(k) would be $1,365,488. That’s what you’d have if you save 10% of your 40 years of earnings and grow at 7% a year. Not bad! Certainly most people would feel great to have $1.3 million as their nest egg at age 65.

How much can you withdraw once you retire? 4% remains a safe answer, because you need to increase your withdrawals for inflation once you are in retirement. 4% of $1,365,488 is $54,619. How much of your salary will this replace? The answer is 41.7%. We can change the amount of your starting salary, but the answer will remain the same. With these factors (10% contributions, 2.5% wage growth, 7% rate of return, and 40 years), your portfolio would replace 41.7% of your final salary. That’s it! That could be a big cut in your lifestyle.

What percentage should you replace?

41.7% sounds like a really low number, but you don’t necessarily have to replace 100% of your pre-retirement income. To get a more accurate number of what you need, we would subtract the following savings:

  • You weren’t spending the 10% you saved each year to your 401(k)
  • 7.65% saved on FICA taxes versus wage income
  • Some percentage saved on income taxes, depending on your pre- and post-retirement income.
  • Your Social Security Benefit and/or Pension Income
  • Have you paid off your mortgage, or have other expenses that will be eliminated in retirement?

Many people will only need 75% to 80% of their final salary in retirement income to maintain the same standard of living. If their Social Security benefit covers another 20%, then they would only need a replacement rate of 55% to 60% from their 401(k).

Time Value of Money

The biggest factor in compounding is time. In our original example of 40 years of accumulation, the final portfolio amount was $1,365,488. However, what if you only save for 30 years? Maybe you didn’t start investing until 35. Perhaps you want to retire at age 55 and not 65? Either way, at the 30 year mark, the portfolio would have grown to $666,122. By saving for another 10 years, your accumulation will more than double to $1.365 million.

Here’s a chart that is perhaps a more useful answer to the question of what percentage you should save. It depends on how many years you will save and what percentage of your income you want to replace.

Income Replacement50%60%70%
in 40 Years12.0%14.4%16.8%
in 35 Years15.7%18.8%22.0%
in 30 Years20.9%25.1%29.2%
in 25 Years28.5%34.2%39.9%
in 20 Years40.3%48.4%56.4%

How do you read this? If you want to replace 50% of your income in 40 years from now, starting at zero dollars, you need to save 12% of your income. Actually, this is pretty close to the 10% rule of thumb. But no one says “If you are starting at age 25 and are planning to save for the next 40 years, 10% is a good rule of thumb”. What if you are starting later? Or, what if you want to have your portfolio replace more than 50% of your income.

As you reduce the accumulation period, you need a higher contribution rate. For example, at the 50% replacement level, your required contribution increases from 12% to 15.7% to 20.9% as you go from 40 to 35 to 30 Years. And if you are planning to retire in 20 years and have not started, you would need to save 40.3%.

Similarly, if you want your portfolio to replace more than 50% of your income, the percent to contribute increases as you stretch to 60% or 70%. These figures are quite daunting, and admittedly unrealistic. But one thing that may help slightly will be a company match. If you contribute 10% and your company matches 4% of your salary, you are actually at 14%. Don’t forget to include that amount!

What can you do?

We’ve made some conservative assumptions and perhaps things will go even better than we calculated. For example, if you achieve an 8% return instead of 7%, these contribution requirements would be lower. Or if the inflation rate is lower than 2.5%. Or if you can withdraw more than 4% in retirement. All of those “levers” would move the contribution rate lower. Of course, this cuts both ways. The required contribution rate could be higher (even worse), if your return is less than 7%, inflation higher than 2.5%, or safe withdrawal rate less than 4%.

If you want to consider these factors in more detail, please read the following articles:

If you’d like to play around with the spreadsheet, drop me an email (scott@goodlifewealth.com) and I’ll send it to you, no charge. Then you can enter your own income and other inputs and see how it might work for you. While our example is based on someone who is starting from zero, hopefully, you are not! You can also change the portfolio starting value to today’s figures on the spreadsheet.

The key is this: Begin with the End in Mind. The question of What percentage should you save depends on how long you will accumulate and what percent of income you want to replace in retirement. Saving 10% is not a goal – it’s an input rather than an outcome. Having $1.3 million in 40 years or $2.4 million in 35 years is a tangible goal. Then we can calculate how much to save and what rate of return is necessary to achieve that goal. That’s the start of a real plan.

You don’t have to try to figure this out on your own. I can help. Here’s my calendar. You are invited to schedule a free 30 minute call to discuss your situation in more detail. After that, you can determine if you’d like to work with me as your financial advisor. Sometimes, it isn’t the right fit or the right time, and that’s fine too. I am still happy to chat, answer your questions, and share whatever value or information I can. But don’t use a Rule of Thumb, get an answer that is right for your personal situation.

retirement buckets

Retirement Buckets

Our fifth and final installment of our series on retirement income will cover the strategy of five-year retirement buckets. It is a very simple approach: you maintain two buckets within your portfolio. Bucket 1 consists of cash and bonds sufficient for five years of income needs. Bucket 2 is a long-term growth portfolio (stocks).

We could start with up to a 5% withdrawal rate. Let’s consider an example. On a $1 million portfolio, we would place $250,000 in Bucket 1. That is enough to cover $50,000 in withdrawals for five years. Bucket 1 would be kept in cash and bonds, for safety and income. Each year, you would take withdrawals from Bucket 1.

Bucket 2, with $750,000, is your stock portfolio. The goal is to let this money grow so that it can refill Bucket 1 over time. In years when Bucket 2 is up, we can refill Bucket 1 and bring it back up to five years worth of money. At $750,000, a 6 2/3% annual return would provide the $50,000 a year needed to refill Bucket 1.

Addressing Market Volatility

When the market is flat or down, we do not take a withdrawal from Bucket 2. This addresses the big risk of retirement income, having to sell your stocks when they are down. Instead, by having five years of cash in Bucket 1, we can wait until the market recovers before having to sell stocks. That way, you are not selling stocks during a time like March of 2020, or March of 2009! Instead, we hold on and wait for better times to sell.

Historically, most Bear Markets are just for a year or two, and then the market begins to recover. Sometimes, like this year, the recovery is quite fast. The goal with our Retirement Buckets is to never have to sell during a down year. And while it is always possible that the stock market could be down five years in a row, that has never happened historically.

Retirement Buckets is different from our other withdrawal strategies, such as the 4% rule or the Guardrails strategy. Those strategies tend to have a fixed asset allocation and rebalance annually. The Retirement Buckets Strategy starts with a 75/25 allocation, but that allocation will change over time. Our goal is not to maintain exactly 25% in the cash/bonds bucket, but rather to target the fixed amount of $250,000. If the market is down for two years, we may spend Bucket 1 down to $150,000.

Stocks for Growth

For most people, having five years of cash and bonds in reserve should be sufficiently comfortable. However, if you wanted to increase this to 7 years, a 65/35 initial allocation, that would also work. But, I would suggest starting with at least a 60% allocation to stocks. That’s because when Bucket 2 is smaller, you need an even higher return to refill the $50,000 a year. If you started with 60/40 ($600,000 in Bucket 2), for example, you’d need a return of 8 1/3%.

Retirement Buckets can work because you are creating flexibility around when you are going to sell stocks. When you maintain any fixed allocation, you run into the problem of selling stocks when they are down. Rebalancing is good when you are in accumulation – it means you are buying stocks when they are low. But for retirement income strategies, selling stocks when they are down is likely going to be a bad idea.

Selling Bonds First

Somewhat related to a Buckets Strategy is another income strategy, the Rising Equity Glidepath. In this approach, you sell your bonds first. So, if you started with a 60/40 allocation at retirement and withdraw 4% a year, your bonds would last you 10 years (actually a little longer, with interest). If you avoid touching your stocks for 10 years, they are likely to have doubled in value, historically, with just a 7% annual return. I see the Rising Equity Glidepath as being related to the buckets strategy because both approaches focus on not selling stocks. This reduces the Sequence of Returns risk that market losses impact your initial retirement years.

However, most investors become more conservative as they age, so they aren’t going to like the Rising Equity Glidepath. If they retire at 65, that puts them on track to be at 100% equities at age 75. That’s not what most want. So, even though the strategy looks good in theory, it’s not going to make sense in practice.

What’s Your Plan?

The Retirement Buckets approach can provide a strategy that is logical and easily understood by investors. We maintain five years of cash and bonds, and can replenish the cash bucket when the market is up. This gives you a flexible process for how you are going to fund your retirement and respond to market volatility.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our series on retirement income approaches. It is so important to understand how to create sustainable withdrawals from your portfolio. Whether you are already retired or have many years to go, we are here to help you find the right strategy for you.

guardrails withdrawal strategy