Friday, December 3, 2010

Is it Management or Retirement Planning?

It seems you can't pick up a paper, read about it online or see on television these days without the conversation turning to the dire straights the economy is in. This gives us cause to worry because we know all too well what it's like to be close to retirement. But I have always been concerned with the phrase. Just saying it make the whole process seem like a carrot on a stick, always within sight; never quite reachable. Why does it have to be like that? is I there perhaps a better way to planning for retirement? Possibly the key is in the management.

From the minute you put your first dollar to work for you in 410(k) or an IRA, you were close to retirement. Age suggested you were closer but we soon learned that it wasn't so much a date on a calendar that determined the retirement scenario. It was the date plus the money you had invested.
Unfortunately, this is sort of backwards. The approach can be forgiven in part because we are constantly exposed to planning as the key to getting from that first dollar to that toes-in-the-sand-drink-in-your-hand place called retirement. Planning offers us some solace that we are doing something. What we find out too late is that "something" in more prone to failure than we had previously anticipated. So we back-off, give-up, resign ourselves, or worse, make the same mistakes again.

Why would we, knowing what failure tastes like continue to make the same mistakes? We are groomed to do what we have always thought was the right thing to do: plan. Fredrich Hayek, the Nobel prize winning economists suggested that you can't possibly know everything at once - there is simply too much data and it is happening too fast. Trying to collect in one place to make a decision is only asking for trouble. There is an African proverb that suggests only a fool test the water's depth with both feet. So why do we think we can jump into retirement using only one tool?

We are conditioned in our business dealings to think that we can control various aspects of the world around us, bending it to our will. But these are simply reactions to what has already passed. And that further conditions us to accept failing as long as, according to Francois Gadenne, CFA, who is the current co-founder, chairman and executive director of the Retirement Income Industry Association in Boston: "To succeed we must fail, early and often -- and cheaply."

Writing in a recent edition of AdvisorOne, Mr. Gadenne sought to reverse the planning of retirement by suggesting that it should be a management of funds. By building what he calls a funded floor, you are essentially unable to make big bets about an uncertain future. He blames the current state of retirement on the idea of central planning. Central planning becomes rationale on top of failed rationale and that is not based on what could happen but rather who is in charge when it did.

He writes: "Retirement income advisory processes should work like market prices rather than like central planning because, once we move beyond didactic examples, central planning cannot be smart enough or large enough or coercive enough to overcome the knowledge problem in the real world." In some ways, he seems to be deflecting the blame, something we are very comfortable doing when it comes to our money. Planners should merely advise and review that advice annually.

This seems to give advisors some distance between what you are doing and what you should be doing it. That chasm can become incredibly wide and because you are mostly conditioned to react to after-the-fact events, it is now you, not those who advise you, who are responsible for your failure to manage while trying to make a plan succeed.

Because retirement planning - or management - is often so far away and the people involved in the earliest stages of this process have probably drifted away, it is a wholly "you" process. You bring the mistakes that you have been conditioned to bring. When things get risky and when the risk costs too much, you take fewer of them because you know that they are less expensive. And because the retirement pundits also suggest that the earlier you start, the better opportunity you have to weather the downturns that await us, we accept them, regret them and learn to move on. And often repeat them.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of

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