How to Pay Zero Taxes on Interest, Dividends, and Capital Gains

How would you like to pay zero taxes on your investment income, including interest, dividends, and capital gains? The only downside is that you have to live in a beautiful warm beach town, where the high is usually 82 degrees and the low in the winter is around 65.

If this sounds appealing to you, you should learn more about the unique tax laws of Puerto Rico. As a US territory, any US citizen can relocate to Puerto Rico, and if you make that your home, you will be subject to Puerto Rico taxes and may no longer have to pay US Federal Income Taxes. You can still collect your Social Security, use Medicare, and retain your US citizenship. (But not vote for President or be represented in Congress!) 

Citizens of Puerto Rico generally do not have to pay US Federal Income Taxes, unless they are a Federal Employee, or have earned income from the mainland US. This means that if you move to PR, your PR-sourced income would be subject to PR tax laws. In 2012, PR passed Act 22, to encourage Individual Investors to relocate to PR. Here are a few highlights:

  • Once you establish as a “bona fide resident”, you will pay zero percent tax on interest and dividends going forward.
  • You will pay zero percent on capital gains that accrue after you establish residency.
  • For capital gains that occurred before you move to PR, that portion of the gain would be taxed at 10%, (reduced to 5% after you have been in PR for 10 years). So if you had enormous long-term capital gains and were facing US taxes of 20% plus the 3.8% medicare surtax, you could move to PR and sell those items later this year and pay only 10% rather than 23.8%.
  • The application for Act 22 benefits costs $750 and if approved, the certificate has a filing fee of $5,000. The program sunsets after 2036. This program is to attract high net worth individuals to Puerto Rico, those who have hundreds of thousands or millions in investment income and gains. If your goal is to retire on $1,500 a month from Social Security, you aren’t going to need these tax breaks.

To establish yourself as a “bona fide resident”, you would need to spend a majority of each calendar year in Puerto Rico, meaning at least 183 days. The IRS is cracking down on fraudulent PR residency, so be prepared to document this and retain proof of travel. Additionally, PR now also requires you to purchase a home in PR and to open a local bank account to prove residency. (Don’t worry, PR banks are covered by FDIC insurance just like mainland banks). Details here on the Act 22 Requirements.

Note that Social Security and distributions from a Traditional IRA or Pension are considered ordinary income and subject to Puerto Rico personal income taxes, which reach a 33% maximum at an even lower level than US Federal Income tax rates. So, Act 22 is a huge incentive if you have a lot of investment income or unrealized capital gains, but otherwise, PR is not offering much tax incentives if your retirement income is ordinary income. 

If you are a business owner, however, and want to relocate your eligible business to Puerto Rico, there are also great tax breaks under Act 20. These include: a 4% corporate tax rate, 100% exemption for five years on property taxes, and then a 90% exemption after 5 years. If your business is a pass-through entity, like an LLC, you may be eligible to pay only 4% taxes on your earnings. If you are in the US, you could be paying as much as 37% income tax on your LLC earnings. Some requirements for Act 20 include being based in PR, opening a local bank account, and hiring local employees.

For self-employed people in a service industry, PR is creating (new for 2019) very low tax rates based on your gross income, of just 6% on the first $100,000, and a maximum of 20% on the income over $500,000. Click here for a chart of the PR personal tax rates and the new Service Tax.
A comparison of Act 20 and Act 22 Benefits are available at  Puerto Rico Business Link

When most people talk about tax havens, they would have to renounce their US citizenship (and pay 23.8% in capital gains to leave), or they’re thinking of an illegal scheme of trying hide assets offshore. If you have really large investment tax liabilities or have a business that you could locate anywhere, take a look at Puerto Rico. Besides the tax benefits, you’ve got great weather, year round golfing, US stores like Home Depot, Starbucks, and Walgreens, and direct daily flights to most US hubs, including DFW, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, New York, and other cities. 

Puerto Rico is still looking to rebuild after the hurricane and it’s probably not the best place to be a middle class worker, but for a wealthy retiree, it might be worth a look. Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico in 1493 and the cities have Spanish architecture from the seventeenth century. I’ve never been to Puerto Rico, but would love to visit sometime in 2019 or 2020. If you’d care to join me for a research trip, let me know!

(Please consult your tax expert for details and to discuss your eligibility. This article should not be construed as individual tax advice.)

Roth Conversions Under the New Tax Law

Everybody loves free stuff, and investing, we love the tax-free growth offered by a Roth IRA. 2018 may be a good year to convert part of your Traditional IRA to Roth IRA, using a Roth Conversion. In a Roth Conversion, you move money from your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA by paying income taxes on this amount. After it’s in the Roth, it grows tax-free.

Why do this in 2018? The new tax cuts this year have a sunset and will expire after 2025. While I’d love for Washington to extend these tax cuts, with our annual deficits exploding and total debt growing at an unprecedented rate, it seems unavoidable that we will have to raise taxes in the future. I have no idea when this might happen, but as the law stands today, the new tax rates will go back up in 2026.

That gives us a window of 8 years to do Roth conversions at a lower tax rate. In 2018, you may have a number of funds which are down, such as Value, or International stocks, or Emerging Markets. Perhaps you want to keep those positions as part of your diversified portfolio in the hope that they will recover in the future.

Having a combination of both lower tax rates for 2018 and some positions being down, means that converting your shares of a mutual fund or ETF will cost less today than it might in the future. You do not have to convert your entire Traditional IRA, you can choose how much you want to move to your Roth.

Who is a good candidate for a Roth Conversion?

1. You have enough cash available to pay the taxes this year on the amount you want to convert. If you are in the 22% tax bracket and want to convert $15,000, that will cost you $3,300 in additional taxes. That’s painful, but it saves your from having to pay taxes later, when the account has perhaps grown to $30,000 or $45,000. Think of a conversion as the opportunity to pre-pay your taxes today rather than defer for later.

2. You will be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement. Consider what income level you will have in retirement. If you are planning to work after age 70 1/2 or have a lot of passive income that will continue, it is entirely possible you will stay in the same tax bracket. If you are going to be in a lower tax bracket, you would probably be better off not doing the conversion and waiting to take withdrawals after you are retired.

3. You don’t want or need to take Required Minimum Distributions and/or you plan to leave your IRA to your kids who are in the same or higher tax bracket as you. In other words, if you don’t even need your IRA for retirement income, doing a Roth Conversion will allow this account will grow tax-free. There are no RMDs for a Roth IRA. A Roth passes tax-free to your heirs.

One exception: if you plan to leave your IRA to a charity, do NOT do a Roth Conversion. A charity would not pay any taxes on receiving your Traditional IRA, so you are wasting your money if you do a conversion and then leave the Roth to a charity.

The smartest way to do a Roth Conversion is to make sure you stay within your current tax bracket. If you are in the 24% bracket and have another $13,000 that you could earn without going into the next bracket, then make sure your conversion stays under this amount. That’s why we want to talk about conversions in 2018, so you can use the 8 year window of lower taxes to make smaller conversions.

2018 Marginal Tax Brackets (this is based on your taxable income, in other words, after your standard or itemized deductions.)

Single Married filing Jointly
10% $0-$9,525 $0-$19,050
12% $9,526-$38,700 $19,501-$77,400
22% $38,701-$82,500 $77,401-$165,000
24% $82,501-$157,500 $165,001-$315,000
32% $157,501-$200,000 $315,001-$400,000
35% $200,001-$500,000 $400,001-$600,000
37% $500,001 or more $600,001 or more

On top of these taxes, remember that there is an additional 3.8% Medicare Surtax on investment income over $200,000 single, or $250,000 married. While the conversion is treated as ordinary income, not investment income, a conversion could cause other investment income to become subject to the 3.8% tax if the conversion pushes your total income above the $200,000 or $250,000 thresholds.

You used to be able to undo a Roth Conversion if you changed your mind, or if the fund went down. This was called a Recharacterization. This is no longer allowed as of 2018 under the new tax law. Now, when you make a Roth Conversion, it is permanent. So make sure you do your homework first!

Thinking about a Conversion? Want to reduce your future taxes and give yourself a pool of tax-free funds? Let’s look at your anticipated tax liability under the new tax brackets and see what makes sense your your situation. Email or call for a free consultation.

Financial Planning In Your Sixties

Investors in their sixties are in a decade of decisions. Up to this decade, you could do very well by putting your saving on autopilot, and doing little more for your portfolio than occasionally rebalancing it. Now, you’re faced with some important decisions, whether you are planning to retire soon or to wait many years down the road.

See: Six Steps at Age 60

1. Social Security. The decision of when to start receiving your Social Security benefits is independent from when you retire from your job. The Full Retirement Age (FRA) today is 66, but you can start early benefits from age 62 on. Or you can delay past FRA, all the way to age 70, and receive an 8% annual increase in benefits for waiting.

Where else can you get a guaranteed 8% increase in benefits? It’s a great deal to wait, even if it requires that you spend down some of your cash. Guaranteed benefits are the best way to offset longevity risk, so maximizing your Social Security can be a great idea if you are healthy and have a family history of long lives. For married couples, there is a survivor’s benefit, which means that the spouse with the higher benefit has essentially a joint benefit. There are a lot of things which people don’t consider about Social Security, and that’s why it’s best to talk to me first.

See: Social Security, It Pays to Wait
See: Guaranteed Income Increases Retirement Satisfaction
See: Social Security Planning: Marriage, Divorce, and Survivors

2. Health Care. Medicare starts at age 6r5. If you retire before 65, you will have to figure out how you will be covered until age 65. And when you do reach age 65, you will sign up for part A, and probably Part B (unless you have proof of employer coverage), and will then need to consider whether a Medicare Supplement or Advantage plan makes sense for you. Again, lots of decisions here, and if you don’t sign up at your “window” at age 65, you may have to pay permanent penalties on Part B when you do enroll.

See: Types of Medicare Health Plans

3. Retirement Age. The most dangerous thing I can hear is “It’s okay, I don’t plan to retire.” There are so many people in their sixties who planned to work for another decade or more and things didn’t work out as planned. Maybe they were laid off, or had a health situation, or their spouse had a health issue, or their employer asked them to relocate. Things change. We can’t assume that we have the ability to maintain the status quo indefinitely by choice. My goal for every sixty-something client is that you work because you want to and not because you have to. So even if your planned retirement age isn’t until sometime after 75, make sure you and your family will be all set financially if you decide to retire earlier.

See: How Much Income Do You Need In Retirement?

4. Withdrawal Strategies. If you are retiring and starting withdrawals from your accounts, you will need to make decisions about how much to withdraw and from which account or assets. If the market goes down, can you withdraw the same amount? What is the most tax efficient way to withdraw from your accounts?

See: Taxes and Retirement

5. Asset Allocation. We typically plan for a 20-30 year retirement period, so even if retirement is close, we are still investing for the long-term. Even so, we want to reduce market risk in the five years before retirement to mitigate the potential impact of a bear market right before you plan to begin withdrawals. After retirement has begun, there is evidence that it may be beneficial to sell your bonds first and not rebalance your portfolio. This would mean that your equity holdings would become a larger weighting in your allocation over time.

See: What Is The Best Way To Take Retirement Withdrawals?

Of course, there are many other decisions which we evaluate in a financial plan, such as whether to take a pension or a lump sum upon retirement. When you are facing these decisions, what you don’t know can hurt you. That’s where I can help you navigate these decisions whether you have already retired, are retiring soon, or have many years before you plan to retire.

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.

How Much Income Do You Need In Retirement?

Many people significantly underestimate how much income they will need to maintain their lifestyle in retirement. We’re going to point out how people underestimate their needs, explain why a common “rule of thumb” is a poor substitute, and then share our preferred process.

If we begin with the wrong budget, then our withdrawal rates, target nest egg, and portfolio sustainability are all going to be inaccurate, which is very difficult to correct after you’ve retired.

In general, when I ask someone to estimate their monthly financial needs, they use a process of addition. They think of their housing expenses, utilities, taxes, food costs, etc., and try to add those up. Unfortunately, the number many arrive at can be significantly too low, and here’s how I know.

They tell me that they spent $5,000 a month, or $60,000 last year. But I ask how much they made and they tell me $150,000. How much did they save last year? $30,000. To me, that suggests they spent $120,000, not $60,000. If they only spent $60,000, they would have saved more than $30,000. You either spend or save money; if it wasn’t saved it was spent, even if that spending wasn’t discretionary.

Here’s why most people fail with the “addition method” of trying to create a retirement income budget:

  • They don’t include taxes. Taxes don’t go away in retirement; pensions, Social Security (up to 85%), and IRA withdrawals are all taxable as ordinary income.
  • Unplanned expenses such as home repairs, emergencies, or car maintenance can be substantial and fairly regular, if not consistent or predictable.
  • Your health care costs may be much higher in retirement than you anticipate, especially in the later years of retirement.
  • You may finally have time to pursue activities which you did not have time for while working, such as travel, golf, or spoiling your grandchildren. With an additional 40 hours a week available, you will likely be spending money in new ways.

Some financial calculators use a rule of thumb that most retirees will need 75% (or 70-80 percent) of their pre-retirement income. This is called the “replacement rate”. And while there have been a number studies that confirm this 75% estimate as an average, its applicability on an individual basis is poor.

We know for example, that lower income people will need a higher replacement rate than higher income people. That’s because the lower income levels may have had a lower savings rate, a smaller proportion of discretionary spending, and little tax savings in retirement. Higher income workers may have been saving more and find significant tax savings in retirement, and therefore have a lower replacement rate.

Instead of trying to use an addition method or a one-size-fits-all rule of thumb, I’d suggest using subtraction:

  1. Begin with your current income.
  2. Subtract any immediate savings you will experience in retirement, including: the amount you were actually saving and investing each year, payroll taxes (7.65% if a W-2 employee), and work expenses, if significant.
  3. Examine your sources of retirement income and if you calculate any income tax reduction, subtract those savings.
  4. Consider any increases in retirement spending, starting with health care costs and discretionary spending (travel, hobbies, etc.). Add these back to your spending needs.

Unless you are planning to have paid off your mortgage, substantially downsize your house, get rid of a car, or stop eating out, I think most people will initially continue their spending habits in retirement very much the same as they did while they were working. Like everyone else, retirees spend a significant portion of their income on things which they did not want (property tax, income tax, insurance) and on things which were not planned (replacing a roof, medical expenses, etc.).

Underestimating your retirement income needs could lead to some very painful outcomes, such as depleting your nest egg, being forced to downsize, or impoverishing your spouse after you pass away. You have to still plan for occasional expenses, such as replacing a car, home repairs, and emergencies, in a retirement budget.

If you’ve calculated your retirement income needs and your planned budget is significantly less than your pre-retirement income, please be careful. When the number you reached through addition isn’t the same number I reach through subtraction, it’s possible you are not budgeting for some costs which you currently have and are likely to still have in retirement.

When Can I Retire?

There are a couple of approaches to determine retirement readiness, and while there is no one right answer to this question, that doesn’t mean we cannot make an intelligent examination of the issues facing retirement and create a thorough framework for examining the question.

1) The 4% approach. Figure out how much you need in annual pre-tax income. Subtract Social Security, Pensions, and Annuity payments from this amount to determine your required withdrawal. Multiply this annual amount by 25 (the reciprocal of 4%), and that’s your finish line.

For example, if you need $3,000 a month, or $36,000 a year, on top of Social Security, you would need a nest egg of $900,000. (A 4% withdrawal from $900,000 = $36,000 a year, to reverse it.) That’s a back of an envelope method to answer when you can retire.

2) Monte Carlo analysis. We can do better than the 4% approach above and give you an answer which more closely meets your individual situation. Using our planning software, we can create a future cash flow profile that will consider your financial needs each year.

Spouses retiring in different years? Wondering if starting Social Security early increases your odds of success? Have spending goals, such as travel, buying a second home, or a wedding to pay for? We can consider all of those questions, not to mention adjust for today’s (lower) expected returns.

The Monte Carlo analysis is a computer simulation which runs 1000 trials of randomly generated return paths. Markets may have an “average” return, but volatility means that some years or decades can have vastly different results. A Monte Carlo analysis can show us how a more aggressive approach might lead to a wider dispersion of outcomes, good and bad. Or how a too-conservative approach might actually increase the possibility that you run out of money.

It tells us your percentage chance of success as well as giving us an idea of the range of possible results. It’s a data set which provides a richer picture than just a binary, yes or no answer to whether or not you have enough money to retire.

Even with the elegance of the Monte Carlo results, the underlying assumptions that go into the equation are vital to the outcome. The answer to not outliving your money may depend more on unknowns like the future rate of return, your longevity, the rate of inflation, or government policy than on your age at retirement. Change one or two of these assumptions and what might seem like a minor adjustment can really swamp a plan when multiplied over a 30 year horizon.

Luckily, we don’t have to have a crystal ball to be able to answer the question of retirement age, nor is it an exercise in futility. That’s because managing your money doesn’t stop at retirement . There is still a crucial role to play in investing wisely, rebalancing, managing withdrawals, and revisiting your plan on an ongoing basis.

While all the attention seems to be paid to risks which might derail your retirement, there is a greater possibility that you will actually be able to withdraw more than 4%. After all, 4% was the lowest successful withdrawal rate for almost every 30 year period in history. It’s the worst case scenario of the past century. In most past retirement periods, you could have withdrawn more – sometimes significantly more – than 4% from a diversified portfolio.

If you are asking “When can I retire?”, we need to meet. And if you aren’t asking that question, even if you are 25, you should still be wondering “How much do I need to be financially independent?” Otherwise, you risk being on the treadmill of work forever, and there may just come a day in the distant future, or maybe not so distant future, when you wake up one morning and realize you’d like to do something else.

Income Planning by Retirement Age

What is often missing in most academic articles about retirement is a consideration of age at retirement. Most articles just assume that someone retires at 65 and has a 30 year time horizon. We know that is not always the case! If you retire early or later, how does that impact your retirement income strategy?

Let’s consider three age bands: early retirement, full retirement age, and longevity planning.

Early Retirement (age 50-64)

Fewer and fewer people are retiring early today. In fact, more than 70% of pre-retirees are planning to continue to work in retirement. Kind of makes you wonder what “retirement” even means today? However, I can see a lot of appeal to retiring early and there are plenty of people who could pull this off. Here are four considerations if you are thinking of retiring early:

  1. Healthcare. Most people who want to retire before 65 abandon their plans once they realize how much it will cost to fund health insurance without Medicare. Let’s say you have a monthly premium of $1250 and a $5000 deductible. That means you have $20,000 a year in potential medical expenses, before your insurance even pays a penny! If you want to retire at 55, you might need to set aside an additional $200,000 just to cover your expenses to get you to Medicare at 65. It’s a huge hurdle.
  2. If you have substantial assets, you will need to have both sufficient cash on hand for short-term needs (1-3 years), and equity investments for long-term growth. This is why time-segmentation strategies are popular with early retirees: setting aside buckets for short, medium, and long-term goals. While time segmentation does not actually protect you from market volatility or sequence of returns, there may be some benefit to a rising equity glide path, and it may be more realistic to recognize that spending in future decades will depend on equity performance, rather than assuming at 55 that your spending will be linear and tied to inflation.
  3. For those who do retire early, taking withdrawals often makes them very nervous, especially after you realize that you must invest aggressively (see #2) to meet your needs that are decades away. If you have $1 million and want to take a 4% withdrawal, that works out to $3333 a month. Taking that much out of your account each month is more nerve wracking than having $3333 in guaranteed income, which leads us to…
  4. A Pension. Most people I have met who retired in their fifties have a Pension. They worked for 20 or 30 years for a company, school district, municipality, branch of the military, etc. At 55 or so they realize they could collect 50% of their income for not working, which means that – in opportunity cost – if they continue to work it will only be for half the pay! It’s kind of a convoluted way of thinking, but the fact remains that a pension, combined with Social Security and Investments, is the strongest way to retire early.

Full Retirement Age (65-84)

  1. The primary approach for retirees is to combine Social Security with a systematic withdrawal strategy from their retirement and investments accounts. We choose a target asset allocation and withdraw maybe 4% or so each year. We often set this up as monthly automatic distributions. We increase our cash target to 4% (from 1%) and reduce our investment grade bonds by the same amount. Dividends and Interest are not reinvested, and at the end of the year, we rebalance and replenish cash as needed. That’s the plan.
  2. Depending on when you start retirement, I think you can adjust the withdrawal rate. The 4% rule assumes that you increase your withdrawals every year for inflation. It also assumes that you will never decrease your withdrawals in response to a bear market. What if we get rid of those two assumptions? In that case, I believe a 65 year old could aim for 5% withdrawals and a 75 year old for 6% withdrawals. This can work if you do not increase withdrawals unless the portfolio has increased. Also, a 75 year old will have a shorter withdrawal period, say 20 years versus 30 years for a 65 year old retiree.
  3. Although retirement accounts are available after age 59 1/2, most clients don’t want to touch their IRAs – and create taxable distributions – until age 70 1/2 when they must begin Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). Investors who are limiting their withdrawals to RMDs are following an “actuarial method”, which ties your income level to a life expectancy. This is a good alternative to a systematic withdrawal plan.

Longevity Planning (85+)

  1. Many retirees today will live to age 90, 95, or longer. It is certainly prudent to start with this assumption, especially for couples.
  2. Social Security is the best friend of longevity planning. It’s a guaranteed source of lifetime income and unlike most Pensions or Annuities, Social Security adjusts for inflation through Cost of Living Adjustments. Without COLAs, what may have seemed like a generous pension at age 60 will lose half of its purchasing power by age 84 with just 3% inflation. If you want to help put yourself in the best possible position for longevity, do not take early Social Security at age 62. Do not take benefits at Full Retirement Age. Wait for as long as possible – to age 70. Delaying from 62 to 70 results in a 76% increase in monthly benefits.
  3. If you are concerned about living past 85 and would also like to reduce your Required Minimum Distributions at age 70 1/2, consider a Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract (QLAC). A QLAC will provide a guaranteed income stream that you cannot outlive. Details on a QLAC here.
  4. While equities are probably the best investment for a 60 year old to get to 85 years old, once you are 85, you may want to make things much more simple. There is, unfortunately, a significant amount of Elder abuse and fraud, and frankly, many people over age 85 will have a cognitive decline to where managing their money, paying bills, or trying to manage an investment portfolio will be overwhelming. Professionals can help.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to retirement income. We have spent a lot of time helping people like you evaluate your choices, weigh the pros and cons of each strategy, and implement the best solution for you.

Reducing Sequence of Returns Risk

The possibility of outliving your money can depend not only on the average return of the stock market, but on the order of those returns. It doesn’t matter if the long-term return is 8%, if your first three years of retirement have a 50% drop like we had going into March of 2009, your original income strategy probably isn’t going to work. Taking an annual withdrawal of $40,000 is feasible on a $1 million portfolio, but not if your principal quickly plummets to $500,000.

We evaluate these scenarios in our financial planning software and can estimate how long your money may last, using Monte Carlo analysis that calculates the probability of success. For most people retiring in their 60’s, we plan for a 30 year horizon, or maybe a little longer. And while this analysis can give us a rough idea of how sound a retirement plan is, no one knows how the market will actually perform in the next 30 years.

What we do know from this process is that the vast majority of the “failures” occur when there are large drops in the market in the early years of retirement. When these losses occur later on, the portfolio has typically grown significantly and the losses are more manageable. This problem of early losses is called Sequence of Returns Risk, and often identifies a critical decade around the retirement date, where losses may have the biggest impact on your ability to fund your retirement.

There are ways to mitigate or even eliminate Sequence of Returns Risk, although, ultimately I think most people will want to embrace some of this risk when they consider the following alternatives. Sequence of Returns risk is unique to investing in Stocks; if you are funding your retirement through a Pension, Social Security, Annuity, or even Bonds, you have none of this risk.

1) Annuitize your principal. By purchasing an Immediate Annuity, you are receiving an income stream that is guaranteed for life. However, you are generally giving up access to your principal, forgoing any remainder for your heirs, and most annuities do not increase payouts for inflation. While there is some possibility that the 4% rule could fail, it is important to remember that the rule applies inflation adjustments to withdrawals, which double your annual withdrawals over the 30 year period. And even with these annual increases, in 90% of past 30-year periods, a retiree would have finished with more money than they started. The potential for further growth and even increased income is what you give up with an annuity.

2) Flexible withdrawals. The practical way to address Sequence of Returns Risk is to recognize upfront that you may need to adjust your withdrawals if the market drops in the first decade. You aren’t going to just increase your spending every year until the portfolio goes to zero, but that’s the assumption of Monte Carlo Analysis. We can do this many ways:

  • Not automatically increase spending for inflation each year.
  • Use a fixed percentage withdrawal (say 4%) so that spending adjusts on market returns (instead of a fixed dollar withdrawal).
  • Reduce withdrawals when the withdrawal rate exceeds a pre-determined ceiling.

It is easier to have flexibility if withdrawals are used for discretionary expenses like travel or entertainment and your primary living expenses are covered by guaranteed sources of income like Social Security.

3) Asset Allocation. If we enter retirement with a conservative allocation, with a higher percentage in bonds, we could spend down bonds first until we reach our target long-term allocation. Although this might hamper growth in the early years, it could significantly reduce the possibility of failure if the first years have poor performance. This is called a Rising Equity Glidepath.

Other allocation methods include not withdrawing from stocks following a down year or keeping 1-3 years of cash available and then replenishing cash during “up” years.

4) Don’t touch your principal. This is old way of conservative investing. You invest in a Balanced Portfolio, maybe 50% stocks and 50% bonds, and only withdraw your interest and dividends, never selling shares of stocks or bonds. In the old days, we could get 5% tax-free munis, and 3% in stock dividends and end up with 4% income, plus rising equity prices. Since you never sell your stocks, there is no sequence of returns risk. This strategy is a little tougher to implement today with such low bond yields.

Investing for income can create added risks, especially if you are reaching for yield into lower quality stocks and bonds. That’s why most professionals and academics favor a total return process over a high income approach.

5) Laddered TIPS. Buy TIPS that mature each year for the next 30 years. Each year, you will get interest from the bonds (fairly small) and your principal from the bonds that mature that year. Since TIPS adjust for inflation, your income and principal will rise with CPI. It is an elegant and secure solution, with a 3 1/3% withdrawal rate that adjusts for inflation.

The only problem is that if you live past 30 years, you will no money left for year 31 and beyond! So I would never recommend that someone put all their money into this strategy. But if you could live by putting 80% of your money into TIPS and put the other 20% into stocks that you wouldn’t touch for 30 years, that may be feasible.

Except you’d still likely have more income and more terminal wealth by investing in a Balanced Allocation and applying the 4% rule. However, that is a perhaps 90% likelihood of success, whereas TIPS being guaranteed by the US Government, TIPS have a 100% chance of success. (Note that 30 year TIPS have not been issued in all years, so there are gaps in years that available TIPS mature.)

If the market fell 30% next year, would your retirement be okay? How would you respond? What can you do today about that possibility? If you worry about these types of questions, we can help address your concerns about risk, market volatility, and Sequence of Returns.

What we want to do for each investor is to thoroughly consider your situation and look at your risk tolerance, risk capacity, other sources of retirement income, and find the right balance of growth and safety. Although the ideal risk would be zero, you may need substantially more assets to fund a safety-first approach compared to having some assets invested. And that means that for how much money you do have, the highest standard of living may come from accepting some of the Sequence of Returns Risk that accompanies stock investing.

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 Are Today’s Projected Returns?

One of the reasons I selected the financial planning software we use, MoneyGuidePro, is because it offers the ability to make projections based on historical OR projected returns. Most programs only use historical returns in their calculations, which I think is a grave error today. Historical returns were outstanding, but I fear that portfolio returns going forward will be lower for several reasons, including:

  • Above-average equity valuations today. Lower dividend yields than in the past.
  • Slower growth of GDP, labor supply, inflation, and other measures of economic development.
  • Higher levels of government debt in developed economies will crowd out spending.
  • Very low interest rates on bonds and cash mean lower returns from those segments.

By using projected returns, we are considering these factors in our financial plans. While no one has a crystal ball to predict the future, we can at least use all available information to try to make a smarter estimate. The projected returns used by MoneyGuidePro were calculated by Harold Evensky, a highly respected financial planner and faculty member at Texas Tech University.

We are going to compare historical and projected returns by asset class and then look at what those differences mean for portfolio returns. Keep in mind that projected returns are still long-term estimates, and not a belief of what will happen in 2017 or any given year. Rather, projected returns are a calculation of average returns that we think might occur over a period of very many years.

Asset Class Historical Returns Projected Returns
Cash 4.84% 2.50%
Intermediate Bonds 7.25% 3.50%
Large Cap Value 10.12% 7.20%
Small Cap 12.58% 7.70%
International 9.27% 8.00%
Emerging Markets 8.85% 9.30%

You will notice that most of the expected returns are much lower than historical, with the sole exception of Emerging Markets. For cash and bonds, the projected returns are about half of what was achieved since 1970, and even that reduced cash return of 2.50% is not possible as of 2017.

In order to estimate portfolio returns, we want two other pieces of data: the standard deviation of each asset class (its volatility) and the correlation between each asset class. In those areas, we are seeing that the trend of recent decades has been worse for portfolio construction: volatility is projected to be higher and assets are more correlated. It used to be that International Stocks behaved differently that US Stocks, but in today’s global economy, that difference is shrinking.

This means that our projected portfolios not only have lower returns, but also higher volatility, and that diversification is less beneficial as a defense than it used to be. Let’s consider the historical returns and risks of two portfolios, a Balanced Allocation (54% equities, 46% fixed income), and a Total Return Allocation (72% equities, 28% fixed income)

Portfolio Historical Return Standard Deviation Projected Return Standard Deviation
Balanced 8.53% 9.34% 5.46% 10.59%
Total Return 9.18% 12.20% 6.27% 14.23%

That’s pretty sobering. If you are planning for a 30-year retirement under the assumption that you will achieve historical returns, but only obtain these projected returns, it is certainly going to have a big impact on your ability to meet your retirement withdrawal needs. This calculation is something we don’t want to get wrong and figure out 10 years into retirement that we have been spending too much and are now projected to run out of money.

As an investor, what can you do in light of lower projected returns? Here are five thoughts:

  1. Use projected returns rather than historical if you want to be conservative in your retirement planning.
  2. Emerging Markets are cheap today and are projected to have the highest total returns going forward. We feel strongly that they belong in a diversified portfolio.
  3. We can invest in bonds for stability, but bonds will not provide the level of return going forward that they achieved in recent decades. It is very unrealistic to assume historical returns for bond holdings today!
  4. Investors focused on long-term growth may want more equities than they needed in the past.
  5. Although projected returns are lower than historical, there may be one bright spot. Inflation is also quite low today. So, achieving a 6% return while inflation is 2% is roughly comparable in preserving your purchasing power as getting an 8% return under 4% inflation. Inflation adjusted returns are called Real Returns, and may not be as dire as the projected returns suggest.