Monday, February 13, 2012

Leverage and Retirement

Over the years I have written about the topic of retirement planning, I have witnessed some incredibly crazy thinking. Many of those thoughts have come home to roost often too late for the investor to do anything to fix the situation. We plan, we tell ourselves, to retire at a certain age with a certain amount of money based on a certain withdrawal rate.  But those plans are often dashed by unforeseen events that, in hindsight we should have anticipated.
Recent reports have pointed towards an increase in employee contributions to their 401(k) plans. These upticks, however slight lead many to conclude that we are starting to get the message. But which message are we holding on to? Is it the need to simply save more because we know the chances are we will need more or is it the result of some other encouraging news? I'm inclined to go with the second choice.
Retirement planning is a whole package endeavor. In other words, simply putting money away for retirement is not enough. Numerous other pieces of the puzzle come into play and this is what is often ignored. The effort is noteworthy only if you have developed a budget that is actually less generous, forcing you to face the reality of an income in retirement that is not the same as the one the you had while working.
This income reduced budgeting is practiced by too few close-to-retirement planners. At no time in the history of retirement planning - and I'm going way back to the generous days of the defined benefit plan or pension - was the payout at retirement designed to replace 100% of what you live on now. The number was actually closer to 70% replacement and that was only if you had worked within the confines of that pension for thirty years or more (and it was not impacted by changes from the company). The remainder was to be supplemented by Social Security.
But with advent of the defined contribution plan (401(k), 403(b)), with the responsibility for funding your retirement placed squarely on your shoulders, we were forced to face the possibility that 70% of our current income would not be replaced. In order to get those kinds of post-work rewards, we would have had to invest 12-15% of our pre-tax income, every year without fail, in good markets and bad. For too many people with this plan, that sort of budget-busting restriction was simply too much to embrace.
We are to be forgiven for our human-ness however. We make mistakes and follow the herd - when they sell, we sell and when they pile in, we follow. In both instances we turn our backs on the whole concept of retirement planning: steady and ever-increasing contributions without consideration for what the overall market is doing.
Our employers didn't help much either. They gave us matching contributions, took them away or reduced them, and when they re-introduced them, they were far smaller. And we misinterpreted this as a sign that they knew something we didn't and mimicked their actions: we reduced our contributions when the matches were lowered and increased them when they were raised. As I said, we can be forgiven this tendency but we won't be absolved of this sin of remission when we begin thinking about retirement.
One of the other keys to the seemingly good news about an increase in contributions in 2011 is backlit with some additional news. Auto-enrollment helped to raise the account balances of the overall plan (and as employment improves, so will the news that we are using the plans in a more robust way). But those auto-enrolled new hires were placed squarely in the plan's target date fund of choice.
Long-time readers know about my reservations with these funds. New readers should note: target date funds are often less transparent than stand-alone funds, the underlying portfolio can be suspect, the target date may not be far enough in the future to be realistic and to date, the rebalancing implied in the fund is not determined by any specific guidelines. In other words, those who are put in a target date fund via auto-enrollment would be wise to get into an index fund (or four raging across a variety of markets) as soon as possible.
Those folks, the youngest among us who are the most likely candidates for these auto-enrollment options can make changes that will get them much closer to the goal. Older workers, however don't. And they know it. But they have some advantages, at least in their mind that the younger worker doesn't: equity.
And that equity in their homes, combined with the historically low interest rate environment has given many Baby Boomers a second option: to borrow against their homes and take the refinanced money and put into their retirement accounts. Is it a good idea or one that is bound to backfire?
Three things make it risky. One the equity in your home may not recover. Older homeowners who tap their home's equity are doing so at the risk of increasing their mortgages at a time when additional debt, no matter how inexpensive is not prudent. Two: They are eliminating a safety valve that could be used if retirement got too rough: the reverse mortgage. And third, if they are forced to or simply want to sell, the equity in their property is not there to give them a downpayment for new housing.
Leveraging your home to finance your retirement account does come with some tax advantages though. Just because one account increases as one is leveraged doesn't necessarily give you a balanced approach. In other words, there are "veiled risks".
You will still need to allocate your portfolio to perform better than the cost of the new loan and the interest rate you pay. This means that year-over-year, you will need to do much better than you may have calculated. A four percent mortgage added into the cost of the refinance (another one percent) added to the rate of inflation (another three percent if it holds steady) means your portfolio will need to return north of eight percent year over year - without fail.
The only way to give your retirement income any sort of sure footing is to increase your contributions by a much wider margin than what has become known as the average - 8% - and pay down your mortgage.
Fifteen percent is still the optimum contribution rate and even that number will give you only 75% of your current income in retirement - provided you saved for twenty years or more. Paying down the mortgage reduces your overall cost of debt service while increasing your equity.


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