Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Retirement Planning: On Being Too Old

Baby Boomers face all sorts of challenges when it comes to retirement. Are we ignoring the most obvious of those challenges when we refuse to think that we will one day be old - not just older, but old old.

It is a relatively well known phenomenon amongst the soon-to-be retired. You are jettisoned from your 401(k) with a large chunk of money, a lifetimes' worth of hard earned cash. You are forced to make a decision about what to do with it. Kept in its present form would require you pay taxes on it as it is. Rolled into an IRA allows you to hold off on distributions, possibly until you are 70 or begin to take money out. But some folks fall into the annuity trap.
This choice, the annuity, in whatever flavor you are sold by the insurance company is often picked when the newly retired person does so in the midst of what would be a bear market. 

For those not versed in that term, this a period of lower stock prices; the reverse of which would be a bull market. Most folks fall back on the same logic, perhaps not fully tested or vetted, that retiring in a down market is hardest on your retirement account because you have far less than you might have has had you retired when the market was on the upswing.

On paper it might look bad. But the bear market might be your friend, especially if you are the counterintuitive type not prone to believe the conventional wisdom. What is the conventional wisdom? To be upfront, something I disagree with in most cases in large part, because I don't think pat formulas work. We evolve and so does our thinking. Why, if that is true of us and we are the markets, do we insist on being harnessed by stringent parameters?

Because they provide comfort, a point of reference, a goal. No matter what name you assign them, they are prevalent and with so many personal finance and retirement "gurus" saying the same thing, you tend to fall lockstep into the same thinking. Withdraw 4% you chant and you will never run out of money.

I've disputed this notion in the past as not very wise or thoughtful. Two things helped me arrive at this conclusion. Long before Susan Jacoby wrote her new book about old age (Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, Pantheon Books), which provides a no-hold-barred look at the distinct, perhaps inevitable slide the human body takes on its path to death, I was suggesting that we might live longer but what will living longer mean. Oh, we may live to 85, but our arrival signals the end of cognitive independence for more than half of us.

She blames the baby boomer, the reinventor of what life is as the culprit in this thinking. We may have changed the way our youth unfolded and we may have upset the norm throughout our working careers. But when it comes to old age, it doesn't matter whether you have some sort of can-do attitude, you won't be able to change what is going to happen to you. You may envision a life of vigor and vitality, volunteerism and travel. We all need something to keep us moving forward. But Jacoby says we are ignoring the hard facts of life. We'll still get old. And with age comes the maladies of that time. Still there and still the same unsolvable mysteries.

So we will reach a point somewhere in the future - and the odds are in favor of this thinking - when you will no longer be the person you are right now. The years that you believed would be full and vital are now gone and you are collecting in the form of equal - possibly inflation adjusted - income that you can't spend. You scrimped in the early years of your retirement, downsized, even counted every penny. And then later in life, it doesn't matter. My suggestion was to start out big and taper back. Perhaps gradually easing back from a 6-7% withdrawal rate in the first ten years of retirement to a paltry 2-3% by the time you are 80 years old.

The result would be more or less the same with you using the money in the early years to do what you thought you could do and scaling back as your new sedentary lifestyle takes hold, an inevitability we can't avoid. "Young old" is easy to imagine. "Old old", not so much.

But the choices we make right at the moment of retirement may have a greater impact on how well that retirement is financed than we may have previously thought. Those bear market retirees, the ones who graviate towards annuities more so than their cohorts who retire in the midst of a bull market, may end up doing better over a longer period than their more optimistic cohorts.

I am of course referring to the studies done by Wade Pfau, an associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo who has suggested that retiring during a bear market is actually the best case scenario. His thinking is that a bear market provides more upside potential than a bull market would. On this point, he may be right. Our penchant to follow the herd during a bull market gives the impression that markets will always go up.

And there is some proof that for a time, they will. There is also proof that if you retire during a robust bull market, you will be more inclined to believe that you possess some sort of powerful ability to manage your money better. But bull markets fall and this causes confusion among those who may have deluded themselves into thinking they were more skilled than they were.

Professor Pfau thinks that a 60/40 stock split is optimal and if you invest over the course of 30 years at a rate that is close to 17% of your pre-tax income, you will be able to have 50% of your pre-retirement income, inflation adjusted, throughout your retirement. Staring earlier will mean less needed to get to the same mark. And of course this excludes any other money you might receive in retirement.

You are probably saying to yourself, 'that's a lot of income to sock away' and you'd be right. But this is one thing that hasn't changed: if you think you haven't been putting enough away, you are probably right. If you think old age is something that will resemble the first day of retirement for the next 30 years, you would be wrong.

Baby Boomers should be thinking about spending more when they are healthiest. Because 'old old' doesn't give you the chance to revise your planned 'young old' retirement.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of Target2025.com/BlueCollarDollar.com

No comments: